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Cover Story: Super-Long Series

The series finale of Supernatural airs on The CW on Nov. 19, wrapping up 15 seasons of the fantasy drama, which sees the Winchester brothers face off with a variety of demons and monsters. The CW will air special Supernatural: The Long Way Home leading into the finale. 

Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles

Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles (Image credit: The CW)

It’s an extraordinary run for a series in an era when more and more shows on the streaming platforms have struggled to get past season three. “I can count on two hands — one hand — the series that reach 300 episodes and 15 years,” said Peter Roth, chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group, which produces Supernatural. “Supernatural has the basic fundamentals of success — great writing, great performances, great execution, and two stars whose skills and charisma and presence keep growing and growing and growing.”

Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles play the Winchester brothers, racing around the country in a 1967 Chevy Impala. As rare as 15 seasons may be, Supernatural is hardly the only series extending well past the industry norm these days. NCIS begins season 18 on CBS Nov. 17. Season 22 of Law & Order: SVU started on NBC Nov. 12, the same day season 17 of Grey’s Anatomy premiered on ABC. On Fox, season 32 of The Simpsons is plugging along. Also on Fox, season 19 of Hell’s Kitchen starts in January. 

Series lasting 15 or more seasons may well be going the way of Major League Baseball pitchers winning 300 games. “I don’t think it will ever happen again,” said Steven D. Binder, executive producer on NCIS. “People have been trained to binge-watch a whole season, which is leaning them away from watching each week. Getting people to come back and watch week after week for 12 years is really hard.”

Created by Eric Kripke, Supernatural is so old that it premiered on The WB, back in 2005. When The CW launched a year later, it slotted Supernatural into its primetime. Mark Pedowitz, chairman and CEO of The CW, said the edgy kinship between the Winchester brothers — older brother Dean is something of a guardian for Sam, who often wishes to quit demon hunting and live a normal life — is what has sustained the series over the many years. “The two brothers’ relationship is so identifiable to so many people,” he said. ‘Super’ Star The CW has frequently used Supernatural, which CW insiders say features a broad demographic audience, to promote new programs over the years, including Arrow, The Flash, The Vampire Diaries and Riverdale. “It’s stunning how many shows have been paired with Supernatural,” said Pedowitz. 

He added that the low-maintenance nature of Padalecki and Ackles has been a model for talent on other CW shows. “They set a tone that permeates the whole network,” Pedowitz said. 

The key to any show lasting for 15 seasons is a pleasant and productive atmosphere on the set. Executive producers on every show speak of the family atmosphere on their series, but only the shows that exist for 300 or so episodes can truly boast of it. “Bob [Singer, executive producer] and Eric [Kripke] did a good job creating an atmosphere that is functional and friendly,” said Andrew Dabb, executive producer and showrunner of Supernatural. “It’s a place that people want to be part of.” 

A long-running show ideally experiences an evolution over its lifetime. In the early years of Supernatural, a season would be composed mostly of standalone episodes, with a half-dozen tied to ongoing mythology. Over time, those numbers flipped, and Supernatural became more serialized. 

NCIS

(Image credit: CBS)

NCIS, about a team investigating wrongdoing within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, rarely delved into its characters’ at-home happenings in the early days. “Season six took off when we started getting more into their personal lives,” executive producer Frank Cardea said. 

That became part of the NCIS game plan as each season went on. “For a character-based show, the evolution of the characters is the evolution of the show,” Binder said. 

So vital to the CBS primetime lineup is NCIS that spinoffs NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans just began seasons 12 and seven, respectively. 

For Grey’s Anatomy, staying relevant to viewers is a matter of having the show reflect, to a degree, what’s happening in the world today. “We’ve worked really hard to make our storytelling a balance between the core conceit of the series — the personal and professional lives of surgeons at Grey Sloan Memorial — and the changing world around us,” said Grey’s executive producer Meg Marinis. “We adapt and manage to keep the show feeling true to itself.” 

Season 19 of unscripted Hell’s Kitchen starts on Fox in January. Executive producer Arthur Smith said the key to its longevity, besides a unique talent in Gordon Ramsay, is spicing it up just the right amount each season. “It’s a fine line between keeping it fresh and changing it so much that the show becomes something else,” he said. 

The new season of Hell’s happens in Las Vegas, not Los Angeles, for the first time. “Vegas provides us with a great new way to energize the show,” said Smith. Then again, an early episode of The Simpsons doesn’t feel all that different from one in season 32. The rules may be different for what works in animated comedies. “Animation is evergreen,” said Al Jean, executive producer and showrunner, noting that viewers seeing Bart Simpson in shorts and spiky hair at age 40 would look ridiculous. “Animation just extends your life exponentially.” 

Indeed, Fox has signed up Family Guy for seasons 19 and 20 and Bob’s Burgers for seasons 12 and 13. Voice talent on an animated show has a bit more freedom than cast on live-action shows, making it easier to retain talent. “You can do The Simpsons and not have to give up other ambitions,” Jean said. “You can be the character and then not be the character.” 

'The Simpson's'

(Image credit: Fox)

Swimming in the Stream 

All the long-running shows have seen a streaming partner introduce the series to a new, younger audience. Having The Simpsons on Disney Plus has been “a huge, huge help,” said Jean. “Kids who haven’t seen the show are drawn in when they see the short [“Playdate with Destiny”]. They watch it and think, Oh my god, there’s an immersive library of 31 seasons!” 

Pedowitz mentioned “a true rebound” for Supernatural after it turned up on Netflix in 2011. “A whole new audience is finding it,” he said. “They may not find it on The CW, but they’re finding it.” 

Added Dabb: “It keeps renewing itself over and over again on Netflix. It’s been key to our longevity.” It’s been well-documented how many teen girls binge Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix, with many thinking of the medical drama as a Netflix original. That’s been essential to making new seasons on ABC. “Each month, we know many people start at season one, episode one,” said Marinis, “and then quickly binge 16 seasons to catch up to current times.” 

Besides crediting Netflix, the producers on NCIS single out USA Network, which airs the drama in syndication. They credit USA for helping NCIS move up to No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings in season six. 

Net Losses 

Original shows on those digital platforms rarely have extended runs. Netflix, for one, has been quicker to axe a show after a lackluster first season, with three seasons emerging as something of a norm on the platform for a successful series. Unlike broadcast, Netflix does not go through the pilot process, so tough decisions are made after season one. 

“Broadcast networks live and die by the ratings and streamers don’t — they live and die by monthly subscriptions,” said Dominic Caristi, professor of telecommunications at Ball State University. “They operate different business models.” 

The streaming model isn’t built for growing a series over time, believe some producers. “Everybody wants a hit, but Netflix wants something loud and bombastic,” Dabb said. “When they go to season two, they’re trying to sell people something they already have.” 

Streaming is, of course, becoming more the viewing norm every day, and broadcasters are investing heavily in their own streaming products, be it Peacock or CBS All Access or Hulu. “As more network content moves to streaming, it will be more like the Netflix model,” said Caristi. “It’s not ratings, it’s subscriptions.” 

With a greater number of actors getting used to the 10- or 20-episode model on streaming, getting cast on board for 300 episodes is harder to pull off than it has ever been. “In terms of talent, everyone is commitment-phobic now,” said Binder.

‘Supernatural’ Heads Home 

The Supernatural crew is geared up for the show’s big send-off. Pedowitz said it will be very strange to start a new season in January and not have Supernatural as part of it. Peter Roth admitted getting “quite weepy” while watching the finale’s earlier cuts. “It’s as perfect an ending to a fantasy as exists,” he said. “It’s a perfect conclusion to these brothers’ journey.” 

The producers are pleased with the Supernatural farewell, too. 

“Andrew and I are happy with the way we decided to conclude the show,” executive producer and showrunner Robert Singer said. “We don’t feel like we left anything on the table.”