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Recent TV trends drive shorter seasons, new release patterns

June 10, 2024

Trends in the television industry have evolved over the years to include streaming, binge-watching and most recently, a decrease in the number of episodes per season of a given TV show. 

In the late 1900s, it was normal for a TV show to have seasons ranging from 20 to 30 episodes. In recent years, this average has dropped significantly. In 2023, the average number of episodes per season for U.S. scripted shows was 10.2 for network television and 9.6 for streaming, according to data from Parrot Analytics.

episodes-shortening

There are several factors that play into the decrease of episodes per season. The biggest one, perhaps, is money. Lansing Community College Digital Media, Audio and Cinema Professor Brock Elsesser said making a television show is a very lengthy and costly process, so making more shows with fewer episodes is a way for studios to increase revenue. 

“I think it’s just a way for the networks to figure out how to maximize money without putting forth too much effort,” Elsesser said.

After the writer’s strike of 2023, television studios and networks focused on making as much money as possible. The way they determine which shows to renew, cancel, make longer seasons and more content for is by analyzing viewer metrics

Studios take into account how many people are watching a show, when they watch and how they rate it, Michigan State University content strategist and writer Jessica Mussell said.

“I think we have the ability to capture more data than ever before, and I think the outlets that are producing these... (are) keeping a really close eye on it,” Mussell said. “I think having that data at their fingertips... maybe pressures them into making decisions quickly about that kind of content.”

The shows that garner the most viewership for the longest time are going to be treated better by networks, getting more episodes and more seasons. But with the overwhelming amount of media for viewers to choose from, the desired viewer metrics for a single show are hard to reach. 

“There’s always other stuff going on; you’re not gonna be able to hold attention,” advertising management sophomore Bryceson Lynn said. “My attention span is a lot shorter now than it was before.”

One thing that streaming platforms have done in an attempt to hold viewers’ attention for longer periods of time is splitting up the release of a single season into multiple parts. A recent example of this is the third season of Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” which released four episodes on May 13 and is holding out on dropping the last four until June 13. 

“Like how ‘Stranger Things’ put their finale after like the first seven episodes— please don’t do this,” Lynn said. “I just want the whole thing... I don’t like parts.”

Breaking up seasons into parts seems to be a way for streaming services to find the middle ground between an entire season drop and the weekly episode release model of network television, Mussell said. 

“The way that people used to watch these big shows used to happen in such a different way that streaming services are really just trying to figure out how to recapture some of that consistent, prime slots,” Mussell said. “They're kind of adjusting, figuring out the best ways to capture the market.”

With streaming services multiplying and gaining popularity, financial issues and an oversaturation of media, this is a heavily transitional time for television. Studios seem to be trying to figure things out, and hopefully the industry will find its balance soon, Elsesser said.

“I don’t think the way it is now is how it will be in five years,” Elsesser said. “I think things will be a little more streamlined. I think we’re kind of still in the Wild West of how things are being produced and how people can take in the content.”

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