Why TV shows like “The Simpsons” and “Grey’s Anatomy” keep getting shorter

Getting shorter.
Getting shorter.
Image: Reuters/Fred Prouser
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Over the last several decades, the TV show has shrunk.

With fewer people watching, figuring out how to maximize revenues has been a tricky balance for network executives. One approach taken by networks has been to reduce the length of their shows in order to cram more advertisements into an hour of television. More ads means more revenues in the short term, but may also cause even fewer people to tune in. A number of networks now think they went too far, and in an attempt to better compete with ad-free platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, have reduced time devoted to ads.

Take The Simpsons, the longest running primetime TV show in the US. In the legendary Fox cartoon’s first season in 1989, the average episode was exactly 23 minutes long. By the show’s 29th season, which aired in 2017-2018, the average run time fell to 21.3 minutes, according to data from Amazon analyzed by Quartz. That is more than one-and-a-half minutes less of action, and more of advertisements.

In early 2018, Fox decided they might have gone overboard in squeezing their content. The network announced it would attempt to cut about two minutes of ads per hour by 2020, which totaled 13 minutes per hour in 2017 on broadcast and 16 minutes on Fox’s cable stations. To make up for lost revenue, Fox would charge higher rates for the remaining ads. Fox’s head of ad sales said fewer ads would keep viewers more “sustainable” in the long-run by keeping viewers more engaged. They were not alone. NBC, CBS, and Turner also claimed they would try to reduce ad loads.

The network made some progress, at least judging by The Simpsons. Episodes of the show in the 2019-2020 season—its 31st—average almost 22 minutes, a 40 second increase from 2018. Over a full hour, that would mean one minute and 20 seconds less advertising.

Similar trends exist for other long-running shows like CBS’s NCIS and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. Both hour-long shows had run times close to 44 minutes in the late 2000s. That declined between 2015 and 2017 to about 42.5 minutes. Over the last few seasons, each show’s run time bounced back to about 43 minutes.

It’s not clear whether the recent increase in runtime for these shows is representative of TV in general. Data from the media research firm MoffettNathanson shows that ad times for major cable networks had actually been rising through much of 2018 and 2019, but recently started to fall. Average commercial minutes per hour went from 12.7 minutes in the second quarter of 2019 to 12.4 minutes in 2020. Data for major networks is not available.

Reducing ad loads is only half the battle. In order to better compete with ad-free services like Netflix, TV networks are experimenting with ways to make commercials less disruptive. Ads don’t just need to be shorter—they need to be better. And that’s a problem increasing series runtimes can’t help solve.

The recent cuts in ad times are smaller what many networks say they would like to achieve. But with declining ratings, and thus reductions in what advertisers will pay per ad, it would mean swallowing bigger temporary losses. “Everyone’s got pressure to make their quarterly numbers,” Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffetNathanson, told the LA Times. “Long term, it’s a very bad decision, but you don’t want to miss your numbers and have your stock go down.”