How Many Episodes Are Right For A TV Series?

22 or 12 episodes a year. What is the right length for a TV show?

With its 26-episode seasons, Star Trek was once the behemoth of the airwaves. Between Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, 517 episodes were produced across 21 seasons. The majority of those seasons hit the 26-episode format. That’s a lot to write, produce and direct each year.

Now a days shows manage 22 episodes if they’re lucky. Castle, Arrow and NCIS, all big network shows, manage to fill the schedules with 20+ hours of programming. But even these are stretched out from September to May with gaps throughout, meaning you could never watch those shows on a continuous basis unless you stock pile them up or wait to binge-watch on Netflix or DVD.

Is a 22+ episode season too much? The UK with its smaller budgets never makes it close to producing the amount of episodes the US does. Doctor Who is making 13 episodes this year with its Christmas special. Merlin also managed 13 at a time. The reality is that most shows here in the UK last for about 6-8 episodes a year. Sherlock makes 3 feature length dramas every 18 months! In the end you’re always left wanting more.

In the US we have the new episode format that has become the favourite of US cable shows like HBO and Showtime; 12-13 episodes. It was a format that became popular with shows like Dexter or True Blood. We’ve now seen an even shorter 10-episode schedule on the immensely expensive Game Of Thrones. (Apparently each episode cost $6 million). One of the noticeable things about these shorter shows is that they run almost continuously.

You could ask if these shorter shows are loosing out against the likes of Arrow, Elementary or Agents Of SHIELD. Likely not. The trouble with 22 or 26 episode shows is that the budgets can only go so far. The result is a number of episodes, traditionally referred to as the ‘bottle episodes’, that look visibly cheaper and are a way to extend the season length to gain more viewing figures. It might work for procedural shows like Castle but on-going story arcs often suffer. Furthermore, gaps lasting 2-3 weeks mean audiences don’t stick with the show each time it is broadcast. It’s hard to follow an ongoing story line when the last episode was on a month earlier. As we all know, failing viewing figures brings with it the threat of a show’s cancellation.

Hannibal with it’s 13-episode format shows no sign of faltering before the finishing line. Every episode has been perfectly crafted and each season has had a clear progression building to an intense finale. With smaller series / seasons (depending on which side of the pond you live) we usually get quality over quantity, which is always a winning argument when it comes to making great television

If you’re unconvinced, take a look at the latest season of 24. ‘Live Another Day’ was a tight, action-packed thriller that didn’t show the same level of fatigue previous seasons had. Sure we had the government mole and new new villains entering the fray at the eleventh hour, but these were staples of 24 that were never going to go away. At the same time, there were no random sub plots where a member of the CIA unit headed off to deal with a random family matter. We saw no story lines involving a character with selective amnesia and there were no cougars. Simply put, the fat was trimmed and it proved to be one of the most exciting seasons to date.

Perhaps 12 episodes is the answer to the prefect series length. There’s enough room for character and arc development, without a level of fatigue in storytelling or the obvious cheaper episodes mid way through. Doctor Who is entering a new 12-episode run of stories. The always-tight BBC budgets will allow for some great drama, vividly-created aliens and planets and what is sure to be an explosive finale. We might all want 22 episodes a year but the chances are stretching the BBC’s coffers will likely result in more ‘Fear Her’s than ‘Girl In The Fireplace’s.

As audiences, we always want to see more of our favourite TV shows (and frankly it’s great to have more than a small handful of episodes of Doctor Who on this year). But a tightly-structured season without the flaws of larger seasons is the better choice overall. Had Agent’s Of SHIELD cut out nine episodes from its first-season run, we might have had the great show we always imagined it would be from the start.

And truth be told, Star Trek had many classics but it also had many duds. 26 episode shows are not always the best option and perhaps television as a whole is being a little smarter with its story telling. Let’s be thankful that there are so much great choices on the air these days rather than asking for more!


Updated: Aug 26, 2014

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
How Many Episodes Are Right For A TV Series? | The Digital Fix