Why Does Hollywood...?

I just watched the Stranger Things finale--it was two-and-a-half hours long! Why is this the case with some streaming shows? --Emilie

Until the "Stranger Things 4" finale, the "M.A.S.H." series ender was the longest episode in TV history.

Two events smashed together in the television world to make this happen. The first is that streaming services are ad-free. Since traditional shows were structured around commercials, they had to hit a precise length of time (21-24 minutes for a half-hour program and 42-45 minutes for an hour long program). That requirement has been entirely removed, which leads many shows, especially those headed by younger leadership, to explore the space they’ve been given.

The second event that led to these supersized episodes was the pandemic. Many productions were affected, and some had to stop repeatedly during their seasons. This means the cast and crew’s schedules had to be realigned multiple times, which led to plot lines and sets becoming rearranged to fit the time an actor had to play their part. As such, episodes were combined or stretched to fit that new reality, the result being fewer episodes with longer runtimes.This reality, however, leaves the door open for two unsavory tendencies to enter into narrative television: entitlement and indulgence. 


To explain what I mean, I’ll go back to my film-school days. Then, traditional film was on its last breath, and only a few professors were clinging to the days of old. Digital film was making strides in visual resolution, with cameras like RED and ARRI being chosen for even blockbuster films. I was caught in the middle, and I did both my freshman and sophomore efforts on 16mm reels. Then, in junior year, I switched to fully digital, and was caught off-guard with how many takes I could do for each scene.

In the older days, each take of a shot took a certain amount of film. Film was extremely expensive, so a broke student director treated every frame as precious. Actors had to rehearse and shots had to be practiced before cameras rolled. With digital, each take was, instead, a file stored on an SD card. A filmmaker could have hundreds of takes before the camera was full! And hundreds of takes are what my underclassmen used. The result was exhausting, leading to a bone-worked cast and crew along with a fuming editor. Does any eight-minute film made by a 20-year-old need 12 hours of footage? No, but they did that because they could.

To be clear, I’m grateful every day that we live in a digital world. VFX, color correction, and picture editing are one-tenth the pain that they used to be. Production is easier as well because batteries are a dream to move and store compared to the shoulder-ruining camera mounts of old. I’m simply saying that working with film taught me budget and discipline that some young filmmakers are missing.


Having seen the Stranger Things finale (now the longest episode in television history), I can confidently say that it needed to be “supersized.” There was a ton of story that built to a towering climax. An episode break may have ruined that pacing. I can also confidently say that 30 minutes could’ve been cut.

Do I think TV should go back to the old days with a third of the programming replaced by commercials? Emphatically not, but just like my work with film taught me to ration, so too did ad blocks and programming lengths for TV creators. One of the core guidelines in writing is conciseness. The removal of length requirements may, in some cases, mean the freedom to tell the necessary story. In many others, though, it just means needless repetition or unimportant detours.

You know what else was needlessly repetitive and contained unimportant detours? Commercials.


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