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It makes sense for TV channels to broadcast with their schedules divided into half-hour chunks, so that (including ads where applicable) 30, 60 and 90-minute episodes are typical. The half-hour comedy format has been prevalent in UK and US TV since at least the 1950s (e.g. Hancock's Half Hour and I Love Lucy), and animations in Japan, the UK and the US have long also had a half-hour format.

I think the hour-long drama format is a more recent standard, since for example The Quatermass Experiment and Dragnet both used a half-hour format in the 1950s, but again it applies to both the UK and US. Though usually child-friendly, Doctor Who is clearly intended as a drama, and experimented with an episode-doubling format in 1985, only to then abandon it until 2005, when it stuck. Whether this is because a tolerance for longer dramas became locked in c. 1990 I don't know.

How and when did these conventions develop? How independent were nations' paths with this? In particular, how far did the US influence the UK and Japan?

  • Since you mention Doctor Who specifically, it's worth noting that the show was cancelled entirely in 1989, until the revival in 2005, with the only exception being a made-for-TV movie in 1996. So they didn't abandon any specific formatting so much as they abandoned the entire show. Interesting question in general, though. I look forward to seeing what answers come. :) – Steve-O Jul 4 '17 at 20:59
  • @Steve-O Not so; the old 25-minute format returned for four seasons before the cancellation. (However, the first of these followed a longer than usual hiatus, with season 23 airing 18 months after season 22 ended, in part due to BBC strikes.) – J.G. Jul 4 '17 at 21:02
  • Could it be linked to the rise in length and frequency of ad breaks? Weren't most shows "sponsored" by a single company in the 1950s, meaning the shorter episodes made for more slots to sell - then later, a 45 minute production in a 60 minute slot allowed 15 minutes of advertising (instead of two 25 minute shows in the same hour only providing 10 minutes). Doctor Who is an odd case because the BBC doesn't advertise: but the show is syndicated to networks that do. – HorusKol Jul 5 '17 at 4:26
  • @HorusKol That's a possible partial explanation, though it doesn't explain why the length increase is rare in comedies. Longer ones "work", as Benidorm shows. It also shifts the question to why multiple nations have had similar advertising methods over time. – J.G. Jul 5 '17 at 6:00
  • (Commenting instead of answering because I feel it's tangential) If you're asking about the difference in runtime between comedy and drama; I would expect that this difference exists because drama requires a deeper plot than comedy; therefore (on average) needing more time for exposition and running longer. As to why half hours and hours are used; it stands to reason that using these means that you can keep a schedule that can be remembered easily (19h, 19h30, 20h30) as opposed to e.g. 37 minute and 79 minute blocks (19h, 19h37, 20h56) – Flater Jul 5 '17 at 9:43

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