When Kevin Bacon signed on last month to play a serial killer in the new Fox pilot from The Vampire Diaries producer Kevin Williamson, there was a catch: Bacon would only commit to star in 15 episodes a year. Eager to make Bacon sizzle in primetime, the network agreed.
Fox execs view the Bacon drama, should it go to series, as an opportunity to start airing more cable-like short-order TV series. ABC struck a similar deal this past year with Missing star Ashley Judd in order to accommodate her schedule. Only ten episodes of Missing were shot this year, and even in success, that number will never be more than 13.
Short 13-episode (or less) orders are the norm in cable, allowing networks to attract A-list stars like Glenn Close (Damages) and Dustin Hoffman (Luck). Both stars like the flexibility of having time to shoot movies, and neither would have agreed to a full 22-episode TV season.
In the early days of network TV, shows aired as many as 39 episodes a season. That number was eventually reduced to 22 episodes, which allowed enough repeats for networks to make a nice return on their programming investment. Those 22 episodes a year also allowed studios to reach syndication by roughly the fourth year of a show, when they were in spitting distance of 100 episodes.
But these days, the Big Four see an opportunity to finally start experimenting with different ways of how they present series (particularly serialized drama). Where a short-order season once was a money-losing proposition for a studio, money from international and digital rights can sometimes now justify such a move.
Plus, as the business changes, repeats (particularly of serialized shows) have become so low-rated that they come with more negatives than positives. Plus, serialized shows are rarely big syndication draws — so that race to get 100 episodes as fast as possible is no longer critical. Plus, viewers have shown that they're more likely to stick with a serialized show if it's presented in a digestible, shorter string of episodes. Produce fewer episodes, and it's more likely you can air them consecutively without a break for repeats.
The networks have toyed with short orders in the summer, particularly with international co-productions like Rookie Blue. ABC also experimented this season with The River, which was picked up for just eight episodes, while Terra Nova, due to its time-consuming special effects, was given just a 13-episode first season. Had Fox renewed Terra Nova, the second season would have likely been 13 episodes as well.
For some producers, who have long been frustrated with the idea of having to come up with 22 ideas a year (which often include a few clunkers) rather than 13 really good ones, the move is welcome. "Certainly there's more pressure doing 22 episodes," says A Gifted Man executive producer Neal Baer. "The train leaves in July and never stops 'til the end of April or mid-May. Once, I did 25 episodes of Law & Order: SVU on one year by tandeming — doing two shows at once, three times that season! It makes me tired to think about it."
Execs and producers have also argued that it's unfair to pit cable's 13-episode seasons against broadcast's 22-episode seasons at the Emmys. According to the argument, a short-order season will naturally have fewer bad episodes and a sharper episode. But Baer says he thinks it's not the shorter orders that voters are drawn to, but the fact that those cable shows are more serialized and character-driven.
Lost executive producer Damon Lindelof has been a big proponent of decreasing episodic orders, and managed to secure that for Lost's final three years.
"To any broadcast network willing to reduce an episodic order I say simply, 'Bravo!'" Lindelof exults. "I do wish that the [networks] would make these decisions based on the show itself — not just to lure top talent — as some series would benefit significantly by having less episodes. But this is certainly a hell of a start."