It was no surprise that NBC gave This Is Us a full-season pickup on Tuesday—after all, the series had the highest-rated 18-49 debut of any new series last week: a 2.8 rating, which soared to a 4.2 in live-plus-3 numbers. But what was a bit unexpected, however, was the length of that full-season order: 18 episodes, instead of the standard 22-episode season for broadcast shows.
This Is Us’ 18-episode order was music to the ears of its creator Dan Fogelman, who told Adweek that the 22-episode format isn’t deal for either that show or his other new fall drama, Fox’s Pitch. “At the end of the day, it’s NBC’s and Fox’s call, and you do as many as they want,” said Fogelman. “But it’s hard, and it’s not just about the difficulty of executing it and executing it well, it’s also the schedule and the timing. In these particular shows, you want the show to feel big, and have big moments and big reveals. But it’s hard to create that many of them, and you don’t want the show to feel disappointing.”
Fogelman is far from the only creator who feels that way. While sitcoms and procedurals are still routinely receiving 22-episode seasons (in some cases, even more episodes than that), increasingly, producers of serialized broadcast dramas are pushing for smaller-cable sized season orders, and their networks are happily complying.
“I cannot tell you how much the world has changed in the last decade as far as that goes,” said Gary Newman, Fox Television Studios co-CEO and co-chairman. “I think the root of it is, more and more for studios, the back-end is SVOD [services like Netflix and Amazon], not syndication. So you no longer need a certain number of episodes [to hit the threshold for syndication]. You want as many as possible, but you don’t need them the way you used to.”
In a world where as many as 450 scripted series will air this year, “We’re no longer competing with just the other broadcast networks. We’re competing with OTT services and cable networks, and I think you have to be respectful of the consumers’ time and interest,” said Newman.
That means realizing that “sometimes with these more intense, serialized shows, trying to maintain that intensity over 22 episodes—or as we discovered years ago with 24, 24 episodes—is very difficult,” said Newman. “I think if we were to be honest about 24, as great as it was, you would see a lot of dipping, particularly in the middle of the season.”
24’s 12-episode limited series revival, 2014’s 24: Live Another Day, “was a far more successful version. We were able to keep up the intensity throughout the 12 episodes,” Newman added. That’s one of the reasons why Fox’s upcoming 24 reboot, 24: Legacy, which will launch Feb. 5 after the Super Bowl, will have a 12-episode first season, not 24 episodes. But in future seasons, “if our showrunners came back and said, ‘we think we’ve got a story that sustains for more than 12 episodes,’ we would do that.”
Ad buyers also agree that these days, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to broadcast season lengths. “Given the world we live in, it’s just, find the best way to get people to engage, if that’s six episodes, 10 or 20,” said Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer at Initiative. “I’d rather have 12 episodes of a really good show than 22 low-rated ones.”
No more “running in place”
Even some broadcast comedies are starting to advocate for shorter seasons. NBC’s new comedy The Good Place had a strong debut last week, but no matter how successful the rest of the season is, its order will remain capped at 13 episodes. That’s due to the show’s serialized structure, in which nearly every episode ends with a twist or cliffhanger. “The idea is so high concept that I felt, at a gut level, that’s what it should be. Because it’s so serialized, it’s not a show that can have a lot of filler,” said creator Mike Schur.
“NBC understood exactly why we were asking for it,” Schur continued. “I wanted it to feel like crazy things are happening, and it’s hard to keep up that pace. I think even the people behind shows like Lost, for example, would say in every season, there are episodes where you’re just running in place because there aren’t 22 amazing cliffhangers for every season. There just aren’t. You’ll burn out too fast.”
Other shows, like Empire, physically can’t produce 22 episodes each year and maintain that same level of quality, given the additional time required to write and produce several original songs for each episode. After some back and forth last year, Fox and the producers settled on an 18-episode order for each Empire season. “We all agree that 18 is the right number, that we wouldn’t be able to do more than 18 really well, but that we owe it to them to work hard enough and deliver 18 episodes,” said Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken.
As more movie actors have migrated to TV, several of them have negotiated 15-episode seasons so they have the flexibility to continue to make multiple films during their hiatus, as Viola Davis does on How to Get Away With Murder. But that show’s creator, Pete Nowalk, said he now wouldn’t want it any other way.
“So much of writing TV, especially network TV, is you just react to what you’re given. So for me, it’s now in the DNA of the show that we do nine [shows in the fall], and then we do six [after the holiday break]. If we had to do nine, and then 13, I don’t know what I would do,” said Nowalk. “I would probably slow everything down. I probably wouldn’t like the show as much if there were too many episodes. It’s just more sane to not have to do that.”
Now, said Nowalk, “I see the people doing 10 episodes a season [on cable and streaming], and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do next!’ Spoiled brat, here.”
Of course, many broadcast shows are still happy to produce as many episodes as possible each season. “The more episodes that we can make, the more valuable the enterprise is,” said Designated Survivor executive producer Mark Gordon. “It’s about the value of the show: It’s about syndication. It’s about international. But I would never make more shows than we can make well. 22 is tough, but it’s if you can do it, it’s obviously good for everyone.”
His star Kiefer Sutherland agrees, telling Adweek earlier this month that he doesn’t want to make anything less than a 22-episode season. “You can’t expect the company to really get behind you unless you’re going to produce enough material to make it worth their fucking while,” said Sutherland.
That may not be as true as it was when Sutherland was starring in 24 episodes of 24 each year. “There are shows that we’re doing that still can play a full 22-episode season, shows that tend to be a little bit more procedural,” said Fox’s Newman, pointing to his new drama Lethal Weapon (which is likely to receive a full-season order). “But we’re no longer in a one-size-fits-all business.”