Netflix is busy cancelling series again after just three seasons which means fans are upset and Netflix defenders are explaining how, given that their goal is to sign up as many new subscribers as possible, producing more than three seasons of a series winds up being a financial drain, and so the net subscriber gain of a fourth season of “Glow” is not worth the money that would need to be spent on production and promotion.
That is no doubt true, but the shorter seasons are likely to create other troubles down the road.
For those of you unfamiliar with the inner workings of the television industry, a typical broadcast network series has anywhere from 22 to 26 episodes per season. Which means that if it is a hit and ran for eight years, it would have around 200 episodes all told.
That’s a huge number and it’s what fuels the sort of “Comfort Food TV” that’s available on streaming services, both Flixes (subscription) and FASTs (free.)
Meaning that if you decide to randomly binge a show like “Family Guy” or “The Office” while you eat dinner, you can be assured it will be months before you see the same episode twice.
That’s a big part of why these series are so popular in reruns—the ability to revisit the same familiar characters in hundreds of different situations, night after night.
Those sort of shows–PeerLogix’s Will Gorfein calls them “churn reducers” because their presence on a FAST or a Flix reassures viewers that they’ll always have something to watch–help to make services sticky and they are a strong part of TV culture–every generation grows up watching reruns of long-running network TV shows they missed in the first go round. (For me it was everything from “I Dream of Jeannie” to “The Brady Bunch”.)
And therein lies the problem: three seasons of twelve episodes make a show that’s easy to binge watch. Once. Or, like great BBC comedies like “Fawlty Towers” (12 episodes total), every few years. But it’s certainly not something you’d watch day in and day out.
So who will take the first step away from the 12 episode streaming season? The Flixes whose parent companies have roots in traditional TV— Peacock, Paramount+, Disney+, Hulu, even HBO Max—are likely to be the first to create shows with longer seasons, releasing episodes weekly to create a sense of continuity over the year. Plus, given that they will all have an ad-supported option, it’s a lot easier to sell ads across 25 episodes of a popular series than it is to sell them across 12.
The Human Factor
There’s a secondary reason too that the Flixes may want to consider longer seasons too: it creates a much more stable working environment for Hollywood’s actors, writers, directors, showrunners and crews.
This is something that does not get enough play from the trade press, but for Hollywood’s creative community, there’s a great deal of security that goes out the window when you move from a 25 episodes season to an 8 episode one.
Now granted even a really successful show might only last six seasons, but, for those six years, your employment is secured. You might use the summers you have off to work on other projects, but the reality is, with a 25 week season, you are employed full time, verus a streaming series, where you’re only covered for a couple of months.
That means even if the show becomes a hit, you need to find something else to do for the rest of the year–the money you get from those episodes is rarely enough to tide you over until the next season starts.
That puts a lot of stress on the entire cast and crew, as they are working on one project while scrambling to find another one.
Worse still, streaming series don’t have any sort of regular schedule that, for instance, someone with a family can plan their lives around.
There might be a nine-month gap between seasons one and two, or there may be a 15-month gap. Which makes it harder for the producers to get everyone back together, especially if the actors have gone on to work on something else.
It’s the scrambling that’s hardest, or at least that is what I hear from friends on the creative end of the industry: not knowing what their next gig will be creates hardship, especially for people with families who need to factor things like their children’s school schedules into the equation.
Now granted, writing and acting jobs on a Netflix or Amazon series aren’t exactly minimum wage gigs. But the real payday for anyone working on the creative end is when a long-running series gets sold into syndication and the money that flows from those deals, aka why the cast of “Modern Family” will never really have to work again.
If the industry wants to continue to attract the best and the brightest, it will need to recreate the sort of stability (or quasi-stability) that make it easy for people to see it as a lifetime career with the potential for a sizable pot of gold if everything goes right.
Given that the solution to that will also give us the sort of 200 episode series that will then become comfort food TV for the next generation, the decision would seem like a no-brainer.
Which is unfortunately never a sure bet in Hollywood.