I've been watching a lot of TV on DVD (or Netflix Watch Online) lately. It can be quite an addictive experience, as the shows don't have commercials and many episodes end with something interesting (not necessarily a cliffhanger, but enough to make you want to see what happens next). I usually end up watching a bunch of episodes at once. In the past few months I've watched a bunch of shows in this fashion, including Dexter (seasons 1 and 2), Battlestar Galactica (season 3), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (seasons 1 and 2), Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and The Wire (seasons 1 and 2). It helps that all of these shows are pretty good, but I began to wonder about the impact of watching shows on DVD versus broadcast television. I also started to wonder what the ideal length of a TV episode should be and why most Anime series, even dramatic ones, tend to be only a half-hour, while the best American drama series tend to be an hour per episode...

A few weeks ago, I finished up BSG season three and in my post on the subject, I said:
I'll be able to watch season 4 as it happens. This presents an interesting contrast though, as I've watched the first three seasons on DVD. I've been wondering lately what impact this sort of schedule has on the perception of a series. It's certainly fun to watch. Addicting, actually. Will watching only a single episode a week (as opposed to 4 commercial-free episodes at a time) have a positive impact on my perception of the show? It's obviously a highly subjective question, but I guess I'm going to find out.
So we're a few episodes into season 4 of BSG, and I have to say that I'm not enjoying it as much as when I was watching it on DVD (though the latest episode was pretty good). It's hard to tell if it's the notion of having to wait a week between episodes, or if it's just that the quality of the episodes is bothering me, and there's no real way to accurately test this, though I suppose if I do it more often (i.e. watch a series on DVD and catch up to the broadcast) I could get a better idea of how this impacts a show. Season 3 of Dexter is supposed to start up sometime this summer, so I guess that's my next chance...

I'm particularly interested in this when it comes to Anime episodes, because most of us Westerners pick up DVD sets and watch multiple episodes at a time. Perhaps it's the typical half-hour duration that Anime uses (more on this later), but I wonder if a series would get frustrating if I had to wait a week between episodes. For GitS:SAC, there are some episodes that fit well into the series when watching it all at once, but that I think i'd find frustrating if I had to wait a week to see the next episode. For instance, the entirety of episode 9 takes place in a chat room where a bunch of people talk about the Laughing Man (a cyber-terrrorist whos is being chased throughout the series). I guess some interesting stuff comes to light in that episode, but if I was watching that series as it aired, I might have been a little more underwhelmed. I love Haibane Renmei, but I have to admit that it's probably not something I'd have stuck with if I had to wait a week between each episode (at least, not until DVD). And so on.

I think part of that is that the duration for the grand majority of Anime seems to be a half-hour (with commercials, OPs, and EDs, it works out to around 22-23 minutes an episode), and I'm not sure that's the ideal length for some of the stories that are being told through Anime. Of course, lumping all Anime together is foolish, as it's extremely broad and some series work fine.

So what is the ideal length of a TV episode? Let's take a look at the typical lengths (emphasis is on American series, as that's what I'm most familiar with, but I'll also go a little into Anime):
  • 3-15 Minute Episodes: These series aren't common except on the Cartoon Network's late night programming block, Adult Swim, which features many series that fit this format, including Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Metalocalypse, etc... Each episode airs in a 15 minute timeslot, though with commercials, that ends up being around 11 minutes per episode. However, all of these shows are broad comedies or parodies, and often don't tell a single coherent story, instead relying on one-liners, funny situations (though I wouldn't classify these shows as sit-coms) and short parodies. There also isn't much of a continuity between episodes, which perhaps explains why we don't see much dramatic content being pushed out in this sort of timeslot. However, one high-profile exception to this is the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series. Volume 1 of the series featured a whole slew of 3 minute episodes, while volume 2 featured 12 minute episodes. It's a good series, though again, I've only ever seen the DVDs where all the episodes are strung together... It's worth noting that all of the examples I could come up with for this short duration are animated series...
  • Half-Hour Episodes: Probably the most common duration of a television show. Without commercials, episodes weigh in at around 22-24 minutes long. In general, though, half-hour shows still tend to be comedic in nature. Most sit-coms are a half hour long, for instance. The major exception here is Anime, most of which, even dramatic series, are a half-hour long. However, as I hinted at above, I think this might not be ideal for some of the stories being told through Anime. None of which is to say that a half-hour isn't enough to tell a story, but it is telling that the most successful half-hour episodes are ones that tell rather small stories. Seinfeld is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) sit-coms in history, and it's famous for being a show about nothing. Of course, each show has a subject, but they're small subjects and things we can relate to (perhaps adding our own context to the story, thus making it a richer experience), things like getting lost in a parking lot or waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant. These are brilliant episodes, but there isn't that much of an impact to them, and a lot of sit-coms lose their touch when they try to do something more dramatic (I suppose Scrubs has done a reasonable job of mixing comedy with dramatic tension in only a half-hour episode). One other thing to note about the half-hour format is that it seems to match well with the average human attention span, which is around 20 minutes or so. (this is almost perfect if you're watching it on DVD, though broadcast might be a little worse... then again, commercials give you a break, which might not be a bad thing).
  • One Hour Episodes: The impression I have is that one hour shows are becoming more and more popular. Without commercials, they usually clock in at around 42-46 minutes an episode, and this is where you start to see more drama and less comedy. There's more time here to establish characters and grow a conflict while still keeping it at a manageable attention level. You start to get to a point where you can tell a complete narrative in the time alotted, though where things are really going is to have each episode be part of a larger story arc. There can be some overlap with mini-series here, especially when you get away from network television and start talking about original series made by HBO or Showtime. Since those are pay channels, they don't have to have commercials and those episodes often clock in at a full 50-65 minutes. What's more, you tend to see much more of a continuity in these series, to the point where they do start to resemble a 12 or 13 hour movie instead of a show with discrete episodes. The Wire is probably the best example of this - there's no stand-alone episodes in The Wire. Each season tells a complete 12 or 13 hour story.
  • Mini-Series: Mini-series are typically a limited set of 1 or 2 hour blocks, typically broadcast for a limited time. Big examples of this include Roots, V, Salem's Lot, From the Earth to the Moon, and Band of Brothers. In some cases, a miniseries is really a collection of smaller tales, connected in some way (as with Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon). Mini-series aren't common elsewhere in the world (and really, there aren't that many here either) because most series are actually limited in scope from the start. Anime is generally like this, with either 13 or 26 half-hour episodes to a series, and that's it. Sometimes there will be a sequel, and I'm pretty sure there are some long running series, but for the most part, they tend towards a more limited run. I think mini-series are interesting in theory, but their quality level varies drastically. Part of the reason for that is that a two hour installment is more difficult to produce than a one hour segment, and more is riding on each installment of a miniseries than each episode of a regular series. A one hour show probably has the best balance between story, budget and expectations.
As previously mentioned, many one hour TV series are blurring the line between TV shows and miniseries, with long and complex story arcs that last an entire season or longer. For instance, both Dexter and The Wire tell a single story over the course of a season, then start a new story featuring the same characters the next season. This is something that wasn't that common in the past. There was a series in the 1980s called Wiseguy that had two story arcs each season, connected by some of the characters. Then you have Twin Peaks, a murder mystery that captured the nation for a season. However, once the mystery was solved, interest declined considerably. The X-Files made a name for itself in the 1990s by mixing stand-alone episodes with continuity episodes, though ultimately I think many got fed up by the open-ended nature of the long-term story.

These days there are too many long-form TV shows to list. A big part of this is that people have broken away from broadcast television and consume their media in different ways (DVRs, torrents, even waiting for a DVD set), so they don't really have to worry about missing an episode and losing track of what's happening in the story. There's also a notion that television series have gotten much more complex and referential to be more cognitively engaging for the audience (Steven Johnson makes a compelling case for this sort of thing in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You). It's much easier to develop a multi-threaded story comprised of a complex network of relationships in 12-24 hours than it is in one or two hours.

Interestingly, television used to be the domain of the short form narrative, where a story was crammed into a 23 or 46 minute timeframe. Movies told more of a long form story that took 90 minutes to 3 or even 4 hours to develop. However, as time goes on and our ability to time-shift television programming gets better, television and film have become inverted. Television now tells the long form stories, and because they have even more time than movies, their stories can be that much richer and more complex. Of course, this all depends on how well done the television show is. The Wire would certainly hold its own with most movies, but it's also a bit of an outlier. Most shows are not done at the same quality level as The Wire.

Given the above, I have to wonder why there aren't more Anime series that have a one hour format. I think hour long episodes tend to be better for telling a complete narrative (or contributing a more meaningful chunk of an overall story arc) than a half hour episode, so I think it would be interesting to see an Anime series take on that sort of format. For instance, I think GitS:SAC would benefit greatly from a little more time to flesh out the characters and their universe (which, as I've noted before, can sometimes be a little confusing - though I should note that SAC is better at this than the feature films, which have even less time to spare). Instead, I get a rushed feeling from some episodes (and I had a similar reaction to some episodes of of Vandread and Cowboy Bebop too). In many cases, Anime series are already telling a long form story, so it would be interesting to see if an hour long format would make that long form story better (or worse?)