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I understand that shows intended for broadcast TV need to fit into a fixed-length slot in a schedule for a fixed number of weeks.

However, with the rise of streaming services developing their own content, especially ones that release an entire "season" at once, why are they sticking to this same format?

I've seen some variation in episode length, which makes sense since there is no longer a need to pad or squeeze each episode to fit a fixed slot, but most are still roughly one hour each.

At one extreme, if you want to release gradually, why go with ten 1-hour chunks, with a huge gap between seasons, rather than releasing smaller chunks (maybe as little as one scene) until the next season is ready—or getting rid of the idea of seasons entirely and going to continuous production?

At the other extreme, if you're going to release an entire season at once, why break it up at all? There's nothing stopping you from releasing one 10-hour chunk since viewers can start, stop, rewind, etc. at their leisure.

Is the lack of experimentation just a matter of inertia, or is there some "behind the scenes" reason for why things are the way they are?

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    Episodes have a defined start and end, how would you know where to stop a 10h movie? Likewise, you can stop the episode at any time. – Luciano Apr 15 at 7:58
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    @Luciano - why post a vague answer as a comment, especially when the point has already been properly made in three actual answers so far? This serves no purpose but to make your comment the first thing read by people after the question & absolves you of any penalty as regards a poor answer. – Tetsujin Apr 15 at 13:20
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Is the lack of experimentation just a matter of inertia[?]

To an extent. People (both viewers and producers) are used to the episodic format, so that's what's prevailed so far. After all, why mess with a winning formula?

At one extreme, if you want to release gradually, why go with ten 1-hour chunks, with a huge gap between seasons, rather than releasing smaller chunks (maybe as little as one scene) until the next season is ready—or getting rid of the idea of seasons entirely and going to continuous production?

By sheer coincidence, this week saw the launch of Quibi, a video-streaming app that enables, if not encourages, this sort of production model. Every show on Quibi has episodes that are 10 minutes or shorter, with movies being broken up into segments. I don't know whether any Quibi shows are being produced and aired one scene at a time, as you suggest, but there certainly is experimentation with shorter-form content.

At the other extreme, if you're going to release an entire season at once, why break it up at all? There's nothing stopping you from releasing one 10-hour chunk since viewers can start, stop, rewind, etc. at their leisure.

There's nothing stopping them, sure, but here's the thing: streaming focuses heavily on convenience. A 10-hour show broken up into roughly equal segments is much more convenient than a 10-hour show where you have to look for convenient stopping points, which may not be evenly-spaced or clearly noticeable, and then potentially fast-forward/skip back to them when you resume, depending on the service you're using.

Of course, the Internet can help with that. A few months ago, when The Irishman came out on Netflix, there was a widely-circulated guide describing how to break it up into a four-episode miniseries - and The Irishman was "only" a 3 1/2-hour movie. Your 10-hour series would almost certainly attract similar guides, advising people where to stop in order to turn it into (say) 13 episodes, and at that point you might as well just do it for them and save them the hassle.

Think of it in terms of novels. A 500-page novel with 250 chapters would probably have quite a staccato pace, but would be perfectly readable. A 500-page novel with no chapters at all would feel like a bit of a slog.

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  • I'm not sure about the novel comparison. Even if they don't have chapters, written works generally have other breaks in the text that make for reasonable stopping points. – Anthony Grist Apr 15 at 11:13
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    @AnthonyGrist TV show & movies have scene changes, which fulfil a similar role. You just don't normally notice them until after the next part has already started... – Chronocidal Apr 15 at 11:57
  • @Chronocidal The scene change in a TV show is an instant transition from one to the next, like a new paragraph in a novel. There are non-chapter breaks in written text that are not just a new paragraph. The closest equivalent in TV I can think of is the black screens where commercial breaks would be during broadcast, but they presumably wouldn't be present in a single continuous 10-hour "show". – Anthony Grist Apr 15 at 13:05
  • It’s all about what we’re used to and pacing. Its far easier to pace and write story snippets into a 30-60 minute episode than a 600minute movie...even thinking about clicking a 10h movie knowing that i would have to stop at some point and continue on, never knowing when scenes end or begin, it’d bother me so much in advance i’d never even consider starting it. – morbo Apr 18 at 15:57
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For starters, how long do you wish to employ everyone?

A TV series takes months and months to make.
Once it's written and you have all the actors and crew in place to make it, how long can you afford to keep them all there? It would be tough to spin it out so they all were only needed one day a week, all year. people would drift off, find other commitments.

If you dispensed with that and still made it to the original schedule, what length are you going to choose?

Do you want to make 52 10-minute episodes, leaving a week between each so your audience lose interest in your pacing - in fact doing that you would have no pacing - or would you prefer one single 10-hour episode, like a movie on steroids, so your audience wouldn't know when would be a good point to pause and come back tomorrow?

Hour-long episodes are a 'known quantity' - they have a start and an end, a small plot arc within a larger structure. They can be watched singly, or one after another until you fall asleep. You know where to leave and come back later. You wouldn't pause in the middle of some large battle scene, you'd wait until it was over, but would you miss the next cliff-hanger? The bit that is designed to make you want to "watch next week"… even if "next week" is actually "right now".

When the cable channels first started packaging 'box sets' of old episodes they quickly discovered people actually like to watch this way - but it's still rare that anyone will actually watch an entire season in one sitting.

Episodes work because the format is well accepted and fits the human psyche. Charles Dickens did it in newspapers over a century ago. Most of his novels, before being chapters in a book, were weekly 'episodes' in a newspaper.

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Your understanding of production comes from viewing final product. Not from the real process behind it.

  1. Ease of creating - If you plan whole season, divide it into chapters (episodes) then you can easily split tasks. Five episodes for this director, 3 to this screen writer, 15 scenes with this characters. You can start location scouting before even script is written. Terrence Malick said, that two years prior to directing Thin Red Line he and operator (?) went to island they were to film and planted that tall grass. THEN they started hiring actors. Production start much earlier and prepare much more than you see on a screen.
  2. Ease of production - Production is not linear as the product you see. Scenes from the end might be recorded at the begining, scenes with certain characters might be recorded "in bulk" so the actors are not tied to time it need to make whole 10 hours.
  3. It's financialy responsible thing to do - there are only few "production houses" that are willing to invest money for whole season. Rather they like to produce pilot, maybe 3-4 episodes and if the rating are good then they give money for the rest of episodes. For example Netflix Money Heist is released in two parts. Giving time to make decision if the second "chapter" should be made.
  4. It's much easier to write a chapter than whole book - since the development of moveable type we were able to make cheaper and more avaiable books. So much that the books were printed as Serial. One episode per week (or month). That's why 19th century books are so long. The producerds didn't wanted to kill the show after six seasons (and a movie). So we have more than 200 years of experience in cliffhangers, hooks, "meanwhiles..." etc. While making a 10 hour long "stop where you like" movie would require either constant use of them or none at all to be linear. If you use cliffhanger every 30 minutes of movie and resolve it 15 minutes later just to be followed by another cliffhanger you just created 45 minutes episode. Without intro/outro.
  5. Not everyone want to sit for 10 hours straight and watch a show. And even if they did, healthy human would need to take at least one trip to the bathroom. Episode give actually more freedom to decide where to stop. There is a definite moment in watching that you can reach. There is also a mutual agreement beetwen the viewer that end of the episode "fade to black" is a good place to stop watching as place of picking up again is designed to ease the transition.
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  • "Production is not linear" In lots of cases it still is to some degree, i.e. they work episode by episode. – BCdotWEB Apr 15 at 13:13
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    They may generally work in an episodic manner, but if only one day is needed for location shooting out of 3 episodes, then they're more likely to get everybody in for that one day than bring different principals & directors back on 3 separate occasions, not to mention getting the entire production base moved out there & back home again. Or if a few days at the end are needed for re-shoots, again, it's everybody in at once, to get them done. Cost wins, in those circumstances. There's a tendency to shoot in blocks, rather than episodes, for this type of thing. – Tetsujin Apr 15 at 13:29
  • @BCdotWEB that depends of production. But it's some sort of a bracket they work within. Same director, same special guest star, maybe avaiability of filming locations. But even in one episode what we see first might not be the first thing filmed. – SZCZERZO KŁY Apr 15 at 13:29

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