Recently, with the ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, I found myself on the hunt for a good show to rewatch. Much like everyone else does these days, I began to scroll aimlessly through Netflix in search of the golden jackpot of TV — something with multiple seasons, many episodes and preferably an hour long.
Where there once was an abundance of this kind of series, I now struggled to find anything with more than 10-13 episodes or more than two to three seasons. In a sea of limited series' and single-season shows for which the promise of a next season remained two years in the future, I began to wonder, what happened to long-form TV?
Like most Americans, I am a faithful viewer of hit TV shows such as "Succession," "White Lotus" and "The Bear." But after watching these shows, I am always left with the feeling of wanting more, feeling as though the season is just beginning or "just getting to the good stuff," when it leaves me hanging in anticipation for the next season.
And, my mood is further deflated as I feverishly search for any details I can get on this next season — only to find out I must wait for two years, by which point I will surely have forgotten the entire series, to see the next round of episodes.
When did we give up the days of 25-episode seasons, hour-long TV shows and double-digit seasons for a 10-episode mini-series? Surprisingly, the answer to this question goes back to an earlier WGA strike that occurred in 2007.
What was known as "the Golden Age of TV" the early 2000s was filled with shows such as "Grey’s Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "The Office" — all churning out 20 plus episodes of quality TV content that captivated viewers and gathered households in front of the TV every night. When the strike hit in 2007, all of these shows were forced to stop production with just a few episodes shot and developed, leading to greatly cut-back seasons and chopped-down scripts.
While numbers suffered and viewers were upset about the drawbacks, audiences still tuned in to their favorite shows for what little they received. Large networks began to look for lessons from the strike. They saw an opportunity to lower the cost of production and the amount to be paid to actors, set workers and writers by cutting down on the season lengths and pressuring writers to boil down the seasons to essentials.
The rise of the streaming services, which was coming soon after the WGA strike ended, expedited this process as it eliminated some of the obstacles that large networks might have had by cutting down seasons. A big change came in the form of reruns or syndication — a significant source of revenue for large networks and a big incentive to create longer seasons with more episodes to meet the 100-episode requirement needed to qualify.
With streaming, all the revenue from watching was internal, along with the production costs. This incentivized production teams to spend less and make more, often by creating shorter seasons that fit the binge-watching model better and resulted in greater engagement with the streaming platform.
2007 also alerted networks to the risks of making long-form content, which had a longer run time and involved more risks than shorter content. Whereas a long show was a true investment of money, time and other resources, all of which would result in greater loss were the show to flop — shorter shows could be canned and losses cut with more ease.
Now, the issues of the 2007 strike and its consequences have come back to haunt us as the 2023 WGA strike continues into well more than 100 days of picketing. Not only is this short-form content a painful tease for viewers who miss the 20-episode-long seasons, but it also created a business model that is unsustainable for the writers who make these shows and disproportionately favorable to large networks.
While many writers used to be able to put food on the table, get insurance and know they had months of work in front of them when working for long cable TV shows, now writers must work for multiple shows and bounce around from one series to the next as their skills are required for less time and are no longer continually compensated for as they once were in the form of residuals.
Not only do I miss long-form TV shows for the hours of guaranteed entertainment they provide, but I also feel for the writers whose creativity is clouded by the pressures of networks and streaming services.
As the strike continues to loom and many viewers flock to rewatch some of their old favorites, I hope that we appreciate and support the writers as they fight to make a livable wage and continue to provide us with the type of content we are sorely missing.
Emily Zhivotovski is a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in cell biology and neuroscience and minoring in health and society. Her column, "Are You Thinking what I am Thinking," runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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