Now is the Time to Reimagine Network TV

Network TV, increasingly forced to deal with stiff competition from streaming shows that have top-tier talent and suck up all the oxygen in the media ecosphere, was already facing some difficult times before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down productions around the world, leaving a number of 22- and 24-episode TV shows hanging in the air, their seasons unfinished and the season-long "big bad" not yet overcome. Now, with soaring infection rates around the world and many businesses debating whether they can continue getting together in-person between now and when the COVID-19 vaccines start to be distributed, may be the perfect time to reimagine network TV.

The average network TV series has 13- or 22-episode seasons (sometimes more, sometimes less), and a great many of them -- including almost every genre show you can think of -- feature over-arching storylines that run the length of the season. In recent years, as fan-favorite series on streaming started weighing in at 8 or 10 episodes per season, fans and showrunners alike have started to question the necessity or wisdom of that format.

And now, about a month into production on several of The CW's genre shows and their previous seasons' planned endings likely just now getting resolved, it may be time to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Eight months ago, most people did not think we would still be dealing with COVID deaths in the thousands every week by now. Now that we're here, though, it feels more and more plausible that we could still be stuck in this "mode" for months, until the FDA can fast-track a coronavirus vaccine and make it widely available.

That means a lot of people stuck at home, but it also means the very real possibility of productions being shut down or paused, possibly for weeks at a time, as productions continue to work out best practices around working in pandemic times.

With all of that in mind, it may be time to seriously consider a return to the kind of one-and-done stories that were largely the norm in the days before everyone could easily DVR their favorite shows or buy it the next morning on Vudu. Gotham and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD both had success with their audiences by reducing the long-form story from 20-odd episodes to 13 or fewer, then having somewhere between two and four of them each TV season. That would give audiences a chance to enjoy some version of long-form storytelling, without running the risk that they will feel like they put 18 weeks in, only to have the plug pulled in February and the last four episodes on hold for months.

There are challenges with such formats, for sure: it's difficult to get guest stars to travel internationally, and having fewer long-form stories and more one-offs would therefore be likely to create a kind of casting bottleneck, since you can't expect to turn back to that big bad to drive an episode every four weeks or so.

It's also harder to keep the audience invested when there isn't an over-arching storyline, because the stakes feel smaller. This is the challenge that keeps comic book fans from buying fill-in issues, or anything that takes place immediately before or during a big crossover event the book isn't part of; everything can feel like padding, or like it doesn't "matter." Keeping those fans coming back week after week, rather than abandoning you to stream previous seasons -- or watch other shows altogether -- is a challenge that's likely standing in the way of any radical rethinking of story structures post-COVID.

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Those challenges can be turned into advantages, though. Creating a more workable digital release plan, or figuring out other ways to reach out and engage the audience, networks can create structures that are covid-friendly, but also beneficial across the board after the pandemic is no longer raging. And while things like police procedurals and sitcoms are very different from the kind of continuity-driven genre shows we love now, there are certainly lessons you could take from those shows in terms of how to keep the audience engaged without getting bogged down in continuity porn.

And of course, some shows will be better suited to it than others. The first season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow, which has shorter seasons than other Arrowverse shows anyway, was a lot of one-and-done stories that all built to a single over-arcing story arc at the end of the season. It isn't the most beloved season of the show, but the series' identity has also evolved a lot since then, and each season there are at least two or three stand-alone episodes that turn out to be fan-favorites. A show like that seems ideally suited to reworking its season slightly to something less likely to be obliterated if numbers continue to rise and productions have to be put on hiatus again.