Welcome to Ban Week, in which Splinter writers will build a case for burning it all down.
There are too many goddamn TV shows.
For once, I am not just being dramatic: FX, an early standard-bearer of the unfortunately named “prestige TV” movement, has taken on the task of tabulating just how many shows we all don’t have time to watch in this somehow even more unfortunately named era of “peak TV.” According to their calculations, there was a record 454 scripted series on TV in 2016, a 71 percent jump from just five years ago.
And 2017 is already on track to be just as bloated with programs. From an August report in Variety:
According to [FX Networks chief John] Landgraf, for 2017 to date, some 342 scripted series have aired, compared to 325 over the same period last year. The biggest increase has been from streaming services, with 62 airing this year to date compared to 51 last year. Landgraf noted that streaming services have announced orders for some 79 series that have yet to air this year.
As Landgraf notes, streaming networks—mainly Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon—play a key role in inflating the number of TV shows vying for our attention. Netflix, in particular, has already positioned itself as the largest producer of original programming in all TV, including broadcast networks. And the streaming giant has made it abundantly clear it has no interest in slowing down: Earlier this month, Netflix announced it intends to spend between $7 and $8 billion on programming in 2018, up from the $6 billion it spent in 2017.
Oh, and then Apple is apparently getting into the streaming game, too: The Wall Street Journal reported in August that the company had assembled a $1 billion “war chest” to fund original shows, including one starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. There are already too many shows and now there will be even more.
There is far too much money to be made (and spent) in TV to really make the case for there being less TV, at least not right now. Let’s just set aside that fantasy for the moment. Here is my modest proposal in the meantime: All scripted TV shows should only be 30 minutes, across all networks and genres.
Yes, all of them. The Sopranos. Breaking Bad. Game of Thrones. THE MOTHERFUCKING WIRE. As much as I enjoy the ontological psychodrama of Westworld, my enjoyment of it and every other hour-long show would increase 100 percent if there was approximately 50 percent less show. Because we are being, in my opinion, scammed. On premium cable networks (HBO, Showtime), dramas can run between 55 and, for season finales, 90 minutes. Too long. Is there even 55 minutes worth of plot in an episode of Game of Thrones? I don’t think so.
(Movies? That’s an entirely separate discussion that is not germane to the one we’re having now, PLEASE stay on topic.)
Don’t believe me? I’m going to ask you to do something now and it would be nice if you approached the experiment with ice-cold objectivity. Let’s just agree to meet in good faith, OK?
Now: Think about all those times watching an hour-long show when you thought to yourself, “Wish something was happening right now.” For example, like when the camera did a sweeping pan of a gorgeous landscape for like five fucking minutes that was indeed very pretty, and boy does New Zealand look great, but did nothing to move the plot forward. Add all those minutes up and subtract them from 60 minutes, and then see what you get. I bet it’s closer to 30 minutes. What did I freaking tell you.
You could say cutting down all TV shows to 30 minutes is just coddling viewers and their short, iPhone-addled attention spans, and robs them of complex, overarching narratives and rich character development for the sake of making TV more snackable. But this is not what I am saying; all we are limiting here is the runtime, not creativity. I believe this necessary constraint is good for both the TV viewer’s wellbeing, but also challenging creators to be more precise and economical in their storytelling. More bang for your buck, so to speak. The platonic ideal of course, is Sex and the City, which packed four characters’ worth of plot into the perfect 30-minute package.
And limiting all TV shows to 30 minutes would also force us to do away with the outdated notion that “comedies” are half-hour shows and “dramas” are full-hour shows. The distinction is no longer useful, especially given how much more TV there is now. One actual benefit of flooding the zone with programming in the last few years has allowed smaller, weirder shows to not only exist, but thrive. The best, bleakest dramas on TV right now are frequently 30 minute shows marketed as “comedies.” Some recent examples include: Better Things, BoJack Horseman, Fleabag, Broad City, The Good Place. You will not find a show laced with more existential dread than the American version of The Office. The creative success of these 30 minute shows is all the more proof and reason why we don’t need TV episodes to be any longer.
I can tell you are nearly convinced that this is the better way, so one last thing. Friend, consider this: Do you have any damn respect for yourself? Think about the days you spent watching all of Lost. How you toiled through all those episodes of scenery-chewing in Outlander. Enough. The best perk of all TV shows being 30 minutes is that you now have more time to do other things, like not watch TV. Or! To watch even more shows. If you can currently juggle about five or six hour-long shows at once, then TV being shorter would easily justify you doubling the amount of TV you’re watching, if that’s what you want. No more missing out! It’s much easier to commit to a 30-minute show (or decide you hate it) than a longer one. You literally catch up on past seasons much quicker. Because of time! We would be creating a truly low-risk, high-reward system. Incredible.
We now live in a world where there are hundreds of hours of TV available to us with the simple click of an app; yet there are still only 24 hours in a day. How do you want to spend them?
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