What’s Happened to the Television Season?

What’s happened to the television season? Back in 1961, there were 30 episodes of the first season of the Dick Van Dyke Show. At an average of 25 minutes per episode, that made for 750 minutes of television in the season.

The recent phenomenon, The Mandalorian, has 8 episodes in a season, each coming in, on average, at about 40 minutes. That’s 320 minutes of television per season, or less than half of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Why are streaming seasons so short?

I first noticed this years ago with shows on HBO, when seasons were anywhere form 12-18 episodes, but generally hovered around the 13-episodes-per-season mark. The trend seems to have taken hold, but I don’t understand why. You’d think people would want more of a show, not less. After all, we went from 30 episodes in the 1960s, to 24-25 episodes in the 1970s, to 20-22 in the 1980s. There’s be a declined, but it seems that things really took a drop with streaming services.

Is this because of costs? Since the streaming shows don’t generally have commercials, they have to rely on subscriptions for revenues. Maybe subscriptions don’t support more than 8-12 episodes per season?

Or is it that the production quality is better now? I’ve read that television today is more like film than classic television and that adds to the costs, I imagine. A better product costs more money.

I’m not a big television-watcher, but I think there could be a better balance between quality and quantity when it comes to television. I don’t need my shows to be film quality. A well-written show can mask a lot of low-quality set costs and effects. Maybe the problem is a dearth of well-written shows? 8 shows per season hardly seems worth investing in. 30 may be excessive. I think somewhere between 18-22 is the right number to aim for in a season.

And why do we still call them “seasons”? These shows are not seasonal anymore. They come out when they come out. They often drop all episodes at once. Gone are “sweeps” weeks (remember those?) Remember how the new “season” started in the fall, and after Dallas and its “Who Shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger, we all had to wait 4 months or so on the edge of our seats to find out what happened?

The British call a “season” a “series” but I’m not sure that is right either. (The British used to call a trillion a billion. I think they changed that finally.) Series implied the entire run, not just a single year. Given that there is usually one “season” per year, maybe a better term would be “year.” As in Seinfeld, Year 1, Night Court, Year 3, and The West Wing, Year 81

Series that are serials (where you have to watch an earlier season to understand a later one) versus those that are anthologies, where you can dip in almost anywhere should have a different naming convention. Maybe instead of “episode” a single part of a serial would be a “chapter.” I don’t know what you’d call a single part of an anthology. Episode?

I guess the up-side of a shorter season is that I don’t spend as much time watching TV as I used to. Indeed, with a Mandalorian season taking the time that the Dick Van Dyke Show took to air, I can watch TV twice as fast as I used to.

  1. Yes, I know the West Wing ran only 7 seasons, but I can dream, can’t it?


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