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The Industry: Placing Limits

Amongst the several good suggestions Matthew Gilbert offers to “fix what ails network television” is the following, which actually leads off his list.

NO MORE OVERINDULGENCE

1. Follow “Lost” (below) into the limited-run business. Start a series, and if it catches on, announce an end date. Viewers are weary from shows that run until they’re limping. If finish dates were announced for “The Office,” which is losing its oomph, or “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which is losing William Petersen next month, or “Prison Break,” which is losing its mind, I bet the writers and actors - and the viewers - would perk up for the remaining tenure.

Sure, it stinks when networks start serial dramas such as “Dirty Sexy Money” and then cut them down too soon. But the greater evil is the overstaying guest, the show that won’t go away. Leave us wanting more, and we’ll want more.

I’ll add to that one other, and arguably related, suggestion — one that, for example, would preempt any need to cancel primetime dramas in the wake of NBC’s Leno decision. It’s a suggestion nicely outlined by io9.

This may be a moot point, given that two of the original fall launch shows in that slot have already been cancelled, but giving Leno five hours of primetime mean that five hours need to become available, by hook or by crook (”It’s a bummer for the writers who are writing for drama. There are five less scripted shows at 10 p.m. That’s bad for writers. People don’t get it. They can’t understand,” according to one agent). Does this mean outright cancellations of series (Although ER is already due to finish this year, freeing up one more hour), or something more creative? We’ve already seen Knight Rider’s season become shortened, but with rumors arising that Heroes will be following suit next year, will be see the same number of dramas, but each with shortened seasons on NBC? …

If so, that may be a best case scenario; ABC’s Lost (and many British dramas) have shown that shorter seasons can allow for less plot filler and more incisive storytelling, and if NBC reduces the length of seasons, that could free up slots for new shows in the future, instead of letting the existing hits (or, in the case of Chuck and Heroes, quasi-hits) bogart the airwaves.

As argued there, moving more network dramas to shorter seasons would also mean a potential increase in the variety of genres and types of dramas developed and aired, since it would open up slots throughout the schedule, throughout the year.

To an extent, current trends, combined with everyone suddenly pondering what the Leno decision means, should be pointing the networks to something of a daft idea: Focus on the craft of storytelling and let that inform the commerce of television.

Lure writers and actors to network TV by giving them limited series with shorter, more easily-crafted seasons. It isn’t just British television and ABC’s Lost that have figured this out. Almost all of the celebrated dramas on cable television have shorter seasons as well.

Meanwhile, for viewers, shows would be easier to follow, and catch up on. And the options for them would increase since no series would require a traditionally long season in the schedule. Arguably, it would also be easier to get viewers to commit from the start.

All of which might mean more programs, better programs, and an audience more willing to invest its time in viewing them.

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