Streaming Services Need To Focus On Longer Seasons (Wolk)

The Brady Bunch
With 117 episodes across five seasons, 'The Brady Bunch' has just enough episodes to fill the aftermarket maw. (Image credit: Getty Images)

One of the reasons FAST services are so popular these days is that their linear and on-demand libraries are full of beloved network TV series. Viewers enjoy watching these shows because they're so familiar, bring back good memories of earlier times, and feature well-known characters and plot lines.

What often gets left out of this analysis is that a big part of these series' appeal is their ubiquity. Network TV series had about 25 episodes each season, so if a show ran for seven years, it ended up with 175 episodes. Besides benefiting the producers and talent in the offnet syndication market, that also meant that a viewer could easily dip in and out on a daily basis without ever getting bored, regardless of whether they are watching on a linear channel or on demand.

This was the premise behind syndication -- that local broadcasters could show a different episode of say, The Brady Bunch, every weekday at 4 p.m. and audiences would not get bored.

That is not the case in today’s streaming universe, where series have somewhere from eight to 10 episodes a season and are lucky to last three campaigns. 

The result is more tightly woven scripts, stories that don’t ever jump the shark, don’t struggle to hang on when key actors have left or when the writers have simply run out of ideas.

This is all well and good, but it means that the next generation of syndicated programs are nowhere to be seen.

Yes, Ted Lasso is beloved, but with only 34 episodes in total across three seasons, watching it years from now will be more of a once-a-year thing than a five-days-a-week thing.

Certainly not enough to sustain a Ted Lasso channel or even a part of a channel. (Compare that to the U.S. version of The Office, which notched 201 episodes during its eight-year run.)

Which is why if the current crop of SVOD services (or maybe even some of the FASTs) want to get ahead, they need to give some serious thought to longer, old-school style seasons.

That schedule is a double edged sword for the creative community. On the one hand, there are all the pitfalls listed above that are likely to diminish the creative output over time. 

On the other hand, a job on a network series, whose season runs from September to June, is the closest anyone in Hollywood ever gets to full time employment. Which makes life considerably easier for anyone with a spouse, children and the desire to lead something close to a normal life.

The alternative, as has been described to me by a number of people in that part of the industry, is a patchwork schedule where individual gigs pay handsomely, but nothing is ever certain, schedules in particular, which creates an incredibly stressful situation for most of them.

So there’s that, which we’ll call the ethical or moral reason, and then there’s the business reason.

At a time when the biggest concern most streaming services have is churn, longer running series give them a way to keep subscribers around for longer.

A series that runs for eight months is truly a gift, especially if it has a fan base.

But what if the streaming services, or at least one or two of them, recreated something akin to a prime time line-up. 

Maybe not three hours of programming each night, but say two hours, five nights a week. 

There’s definitely an audience for it -- all those people still tuning into prime time now. Who, admittedly, generally skew pretty old, but with some tweaks to the programming, it’s possible that a younger generation could be persuaded to come on board.

For ad-supported services, it would be a gold mine -- all those originals and all those viewers, week after week. That’s something that would be a hit at the upfronts, where advertisers are looking for consistency as much as they’re looking for a slot on a buzzed about 10-episode original that only draws in two million viewers.

There would, of course, be much eye-rolling about the return to old school ways and old school programming. 

But if there’s an audience for it -- and I am pretty sure there is -- then why not? If even one service goes this route, it gives them a real point of differentiation, something that is sorely needed right now as viewers tend to see the streaming services (and the programming on them) as relatively monolithic.

What’s more, if even one of those series takes off and runs for the better part of a decade, it would prove very profitable as it would be one of the only (if not the only) recent scripted series available for syndication.

That alone could make it worthwhile.

It's worth a try.

Alan Wolk

Alan Wolk is the co-founder and lead analyst for media consultancy TV[R]EV