COMMENTARY

The evolution of the episode count: How many episodes is too many?

Viewers can't watch every show, and shorter seasons certainly lend themselves to binge-watching

By Sabrina Reed

Published May 11, 2022 4:55PM (EDT)

Supernatural (CW)
Supernatural (CW)

This story originally appeared on Hidden Remote.

How many episodes should a season or series of television be? Depending on who you ask, answers vary. We're in a TV era overflowing with options on broadcast and streaming, and episode count is playing a major role in our television habits more than ever.

There's a verifiable cornucopia of content for viewers to consume and how many episodes a piece of media has can be the deciding factor when it comes to watching it or not. This includes bingeing classics that have shaped pop culture.

Of course, there will always be TV lovers who give shows like "X-Files," "Friends," "The Office," "Smallville," and "Supernatural" a chance despite being over 200 episodes long, or in "Supernatural's" case over 300, but the time of the long running series is drawing to a close outside of procedurals.

Much of this has to do with an overabundance of television. There's simply too many programs to watch with very little time to watch them. Not to mention viewers are less willing to spend season upon season with a show that's begun to deteriorate in quality. Also, a drop in the required number of episodes for a show to reach syndication plus the birth of streaming has shifted the landscape.

Episode count is a major factor in this era of TV and streaming

We're in a new frontier, one kicked off by Netflix. The binge model of television watching changed audiences expectations for the shows they watch. New series premiering on streamers can't be up to 22 episodes or more like broadcast (though there are shows clocking in at 13 episodes per season on TV). It's just not feasible especially when episodes drop all at once on premiere day.

Could you imagine trying to binge 22 episodes of a "Stranger Things" release? In a time when you have to log out of all social media accounts and basically not surf the web in order not to be spoiled, it would be stressful and not worth anyone's time to binge it. That's a limitation of streaming in the era of binge television.

The measure of how many episodes is too many is dependent on where a piece of media has made its home. If you're still tuning into week-to-week broadcast television, you know you're typically in for 18-22 episodes a season. The pandemic has shortened that episode count for many shows, especially on The CW, but TV viewers know what to expect.

About 18-22 episodes gives shows the opportunity to experiment with filler content such as bottle episodes, flashbacks, crossovers, etc. It's the kind of entertainment that can have fans going up with excitement or groaning over yet another detour from the overall plot but at least there's room for expanded storytelling.

Streaming series don't have that luxury. They're in and out of their stories between 4-13 episodes. It's a model that works well for the platforms even when a season or show releases weekly. However, there are drawbacks. There isn't a set runtime for episodes so a short season doesn't mean you won't be caught off guard by long episode.

For example, "Stranger Things" season 4 episodes will clock-in at over an hour. K-dramas on Netflix often do have episodes that run up to 60 minutes and can even be as long as 90 minutes. Obviously, established shows or vehicles with big name actors can get away with feature length episodes of television, but that's still a lot of time for viewers to invest in a series.

So, this isn't only a question of episode count, it's also a question of episode length. It's great that creators are pushing boundaries in the medium of television on streaming. But the amount of episodes a season has on top of how long those episodes are can make or break audience retention for shows just starting out.

While there isn't a consensus on how many episodes is the sweet spot for streaming shows, it does seem that 8-10 episodes per season works well for shows. 45 minutes to an hour in run-time per episode is the preferred standard that's carried over from broadcast.

As for network television, some shows would benefit from breaking away from the 18-22 episode standard. 13-15 episodes would likely produce tighter storytelling especially for series where there's clearly not enough material to stretch past that marker.


Sabrina Reed

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