02/09/2012 09:29 am ET | Updated Apr 09, 2012

The River Trend: Are Shorter Seasons The Way To Go?

We're all familiar with the age-old adage, "Less is more;" but find me a TV fan who wouldn't eagerly take an extra 12 (or 24, or 48, or non-stop until Jim Parsons passes out from exhaustion) episodes of their favorite series, instead of a long and laborious summer hiatus.

With infinite options for instant televisual gratification -- whether it's Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime or less ... legal methods -- modern audiences are growing more impatient for entertainment every day.

Strange, then, that even as viewers grow hungrier for access to their favorite shows and stars -- devouring webisodes, attending conventions like Comic-Con and investing in myriad promotional tie-ins -- the broadcast networks seem to be moving away from the standard 22-episode format for their seasons, instead embracing the more moderate approach demonstrated by cable.

Many new series for the 2011-12 season have been commissioned with episode orders ranging from 6 to 15 -- a great majority of them on ABC, which has yet to debut "Missing" and "GCB" (10 episodes), "Scandal" (7), and comedy "Don't Trust the B---- Apartment 23" (13). Likewise, NBC still has the high-concept drama "Awake" (13), and comedies "Bent" and "Best Friends Forever" (6) waiting in the wings, while Fox's "Touch" will also air 13 when it makes its proper debut in March.

It appears that executives are counting on the idea that an uninterrupted run can build narrative momentum the way that 22 episodes, spread out over 35 weeks from September to May, cannot. At least until the Screen Actors Guild relaxes its labor laws, anyway.

Two of the most buzzworthy dramas adopting this strategy premiered this week, with NBC's "Smash" scheduled to run 15 episodes in its first season, and last night's ABC spookfest, "The River," producing eight installments. Though the casual viewer might assume that networks want to bury their lesser products at mid-season (to be used only if the fall fails to provide a hit), there's actually a much more canny strategy at work -- one that has certainly served ABC well thus far.

"You're in an incredibly competitive environment in the fall," said Paul Lee, ABC's Entertainment President, at the Television Critics Association press tour in January, via a transcript sent from the TCA. "You've got millions of dollars of investment launching maybe within a week. You'd better make sure that those shows stand out from the crowd, and if you've got a perfectly formed show that you really want to have its place in the sun, then you have a better chance either staggering it from the fall -- we did that for "Once Upon a Time" -- or giving yourself a chance during the year ... My job isn't to launch a week's television. I think my job is to bring great television and spend the year launching it."

Lee took the latter approach with "The River," a unique, found footage-style series from "Paranormal Activity" creator Oren Peli and Steven Spielberg (who also serves as an executive producer on "Smash"). According to Lee, it was Spielberg who pushed for such a modest episode order. He recalled at the TCAs: "When we were about to pick it up, I had a brief conversation with Spielberg who said, 'We would love to have eight because that's just about the amount that we can really figure out the rhythms of this show,' and a part of me thinks, because we just did eight ... if you look at it, it's so different from anything else you've seen. They really had the time to figure through." At the time, the executive seemed confident that if the audience embraced the show, "There's a lot of life in this beyond that [eight]."

In the case of "Awake" -- a gut-wrenching psychological drama that sees Jason Isaacs' character struggling to determine whether he's living in a dream or in reality -- the shorter order afforded the writers a welcome opportunity to pause and take stock of where they wanted to take the show narratively, without feeling beholden to the network to rush production without a clear plan in place. "We were very lucky that we didn't have an airdate in a sense, because good things take time," executive producer Howard Gordon pointed out at the TCAs. "And this is a challenging show for us to figure out. And, frankly, we had the opportunity. We could've kept going. We only took a three-week hiatus, and it was just to get our heads together and to sort of learn from the distance we traveled and move ahead in a way that we felt good about."

There are many other reasons to explain the sudden scheduling shift, beyond the opportunity to keep the hits coming for the networks year-round.

It certainly doesn't hurt that three of the Big Four network heads graduated from positions in cable: Lee was promoted from his post as President of Entertainment at ABC Family; NBC's Bob Greenblatt held the same spot at Showtime; and Kevin Reilly defined the voice of FX before heading to Fox, with a three-year stint at the top of NBC in between. It makes sense that all three are attracted to the business models that helped shape their careers, even if ratings expectations are much higher on the broadcast stage than on cable.

Budget-wise, shorter seasons are a double-edged sword; one only needs to look at the gargantuan cost of the decidedly mediocre "Terra Nova" for proof that fewer episodes don't necessarily insulate you against spending more. Still, being flexible with scheduling allows networks to take creative risks that they might otherwise be loath to make, if they were confined to a standard episode order.

Having fewer hours to fill is also attractive creatively, at least for fans of serialized storytelling. Any genre addict can tell you that 22- to 24-episode seasons are subject to a fair amount of filler material. Many mythology-based shows find themselves forced to spin their wheels with "standalone" episodes that pad out the season and prevent the writers from burning through material too quickly. (Comedies and procedurals are generally exempt from this rule.) Hell, even in a season containing only 12 episodes, "True Blood" still manages to stuff in a whole heap of extraneous material. Any good writer knows that the goal is always to leave the audience wanting more, which is why so many fans were left rabid at the end of "The Walking Dead's" svelte, six-episode freshman season.

Shorter runs have also proved enticing for a greater number of film actors this season. When HBO scores thespians like Dustin Hoffman or Steve Buscemi to head up their 9- or 12-episode dramas, no one bats an eye; yet it still seems jarring to see stars like Anjelica Huston, Ashley Judd or Jason Isaacs "slumming it" on network TV. Fox and Kevin Williamson even managed to lure Kevin Bacon into committing to a broadcast pilot for next season's slate, under the caveat that Bacon would only commit to a maximum of 15 episodes per season.

Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it, too in Hollywood. Stars are trying to keep their options open for feature film work; but as "Missing" star Ashley Judd pointed out during the TCA press tour panel for her show: "I was aware that this is a golden age in television; that incredible film producers are making special TV; that [the] once rather impermeable membrane between film actors and TV actors has completely vanished." With so much creativity -- and the allure of a steady, multi-year income standing in stark contrast the ephemeral nature of film work -- TV no longer has such a second-class stigma attached.

Then there's the worst-case scenario: When viewers are given an abridged season as a consolation prize when the networks want to avoid canceling an ailing show without closure. Die-hard "Chuck" fans earned the resilient show that right for its fifth and final season (although NBC was far from respectful in the way they burned off episodes during the winter break) and "One Tree Hill" fans will see their show draw to a close in a similar fashion this spring. With series living on borrowed time, it's an attractive prospect to both the audience and execs who don't want to raise the ire of a loyal fanbase; but would more networks be prepared to make that concession if all of their shows were 12 or 13 episodes long and they had more hours of programming to schedule in a year?

For British audiences -- and US Anglophiles -- who live for series like "Downton Abbey" and "Doctor Who," condensed seasons are the norm. UK shows are often presented like miniseries, with shows like "Sherlock" and "Luther" utilizing the fact that they air on the BBC (a commercial-free broadcast network) to present episodes that are more like movies, often clocking in at 60 or 90 minutes in length. I'm not sure that the lengthier episodes quite make up for the fact that their seasons are only three or four episodes long and often take a year-long break in between, but it must be a liberating experience for the actors and writers, allowing them to tackle other projects without exhausting themselves creatively.

It's a concept that US networks seem to be embracing, since we've witnessed a surge in two-hour drama premieres this season (recent examples include "Alcatraz," "Terra Nova" and "The River") that seem reminiscent of the meatier running times employed by miniseries. In this way, the debut night can be marketed as an "event," often resulting in a marketing blitz in the weeks leading up to a premiere.

Networks and studios are clearly beginning to reevaluate the way they schedule their programming, but even more encouragingly, they finally seem to be embracing alternative methods of presenting it, too. Broadcasters used to be terrified by the prospect of making their products available online, but the recent success of previewing "New Girl" and "Smash" before their network bows may indicate that the tide is beginning to turn.

Can a push towards studio-backed webseries be far behind? The producers and stars of truncated shows have often hinted that there could be life for fan-favorite characters beyond the confines of a traditional network model, but such promises rarely bear fruit. (See the "One Life to Live" and "All My Children" ordeal.)

Still, the biggest question facing proponents of a scheduling evolution remains: Would die-hard fans be willing to sacrifice quality time with their favorite characters for the possibility of uninterrupted seasons and tighter plotting? Perhaps. As agonizing as it is to wait for the better part of a year for new episodes of "Game of Thrones" or "Homeland," it's almost worth it to know that the narrative will be razor sharp and the visuals will be cinematic in quality. Almost.

We TV lovers are greedy, and for some of my favorite shows, like "Supernatural," "Fringe" and "The Good Wife," the thought of giving up almost 10 hours of enthralling adventure or heartbreaking character dynamics for the sake of better pacing or more impressive visual effects seems like a hefty price to pay. We all profess to love quality over quantity, but when it comes to that precious hour of escapism at the end of a busy work day, is less really more? And are the networks truly brave enough to find out?

Would you rather see shortened seasons if it meant higher quality shows, or are you satisfied with 22-episode orders for your favorite series? Does 8 episodes seem like enough to wrap up "The River's" first season? Weigh in below.

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