Media Index
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC (ABD)in Economics from University of California

Movies Are 2 Hours, Dramas 1, Comedies 1/2, Why?
Furthermore, What is the Purpose of Episodic TV ?

Reading a typical newspaper story might take three minutes, many stories on TV news programs take even less. Still, these stories connect emotionally. Because the news is real you instantly care about what happens. A news photo is perhaps faster still, it can instantly make you care. Fiction takes longer. The writers, directors, actors, the artists must develop their characters, so we will care about what happens to them.

Episodic TV has the advantage that you know some of the characters already because you have seen them in previous episodes. This allows the TV program to tell stories that you care about more quickly and efficiently. This is why we have episodic tv shows and they are so popular.

In many half-hour comedies, you know most of the characters from previous episodes so the story can be told quickly, in a half hour minus commercials, about twenty-two minutes.

In hour long dramas you typically have the same policemen, private eyes, lawyers, doctors, etc. but the story introduces and develops new villains and potential victims who narrowly escape with the hero's help. It takes time to develop these new characters, so this is one reason dramas are typically twice as long as comedies.

Why New Characters In Dramas?

Why do dramas require new characters, but comedies use the same ones? There are several reasons. Most of us go through many funny, often embarrassing experiences, but few will go through the type of life-threatening experiences seen in the typical TV drama even once. Police and other professionals may face many of these experiences, but the potential victims and even the villains will face few. If the same potential victims were narrowly escaping death every week, and the same villains were being locked up for many years every week, the realism of the stories would clearly suffer. So new villains and potential victims must be introduced and their characters developed. This is a major reason dramas typically take longer.

A second reason could be found in a point I just made, realism. Dramas tend to emphasize realism, comedy often avoids realism. Adventure and dramatic comics are typically drawn more realistically than humor comics. Clearly Bill Watterson the creator of Calvin and Hobbes could draw realistically. He drew wonderful realistic fantasies for Calvin, but the normal humor comic was done in an unrealistic style. Dramas need new characters to maintain realism, comedy is often not concerned with realism, and in many cases is consciously avoiding it, so there is less need for new characters. This allows the writer to use the characters his audience already knows and tell the story more quickly.

A third reason might be that you have to know a character better to care about them than you do to laugh at them.

Movies and Franchises

Movies often develop all their characters from scratch, so they are about twice as long as the episodes of a dramatic series. Movies are typically about two hours, dramatic series an hour minus commercials. Note that both comedies and dramatic movies usually create a new set of characters and both are typically about two hours. Television comedy series are usually half the length of dramas. As argued above this is because most of the characters have already been developed in previous episodes.

Today many of our movies are part of franchises. There are sequels and/or prequels in addition to the original movie so the whole experience lasts much more than two hours. Many of these franchises are fantasies, or at least involve fantastic elements. As the story becomes more distant from reality you not only have to sell the characters, you have to sell the world or "universe" the story is set in. This requires more time than simply developing characters in a realistic world. This is one reason franchises, trilogies, and other long forms are so common in fantasy, science fiction, and other forms where a new world must be developed and sold to the audience.

The longer form is also used in historical drama, and even when the story is about a current environment that the audience is unfamiliar with, for example, the God Father trilogy.

Sometimes the audience is thoroughly familiar with a period history, or at least Hollywood's version of it. For example, several decades ago audiences were thoroughly familiar with the Hollywood version of the Old West. So Westerns could be told as rapidly as contemporary stories. More recently Westerns have been extended into mini-series, for example, Lonesome Dove. This was no doubt in part because they were introducing a new version of the Old West but perhaps may have also reflected the reality that today's audiences are less familiar with the Old West.

Similarly established fantasies, like werewolves, vampires, zombies, and mummies facilitate more rapid storytelling. Many movies on these fantasy creatures do not have sequels. This is a major reason that fantasy is so conservative. It constantly reuses the same fantastic beings.

It is also a reason why movies use well-established superheroes and do not simply create their own. Movies with the established heroes of DC and Marvel tend to be massively more successful than those where the characters are created for the movie. This is why the Marvel universe and the Star Wars universe were worth four billion dollars to Disney. In both cases, it looks like Disney will make huge profits off of their expensive acquisitions.

But what of Star Trek, is it as valuable as the others. I suspect it is not. As Star Trek is more realistic it is easier create similar franchises or universes. To some degree, Star Gate, Babylon 5, and other shows have done this. So the less realistic, the more fanciful, the universe the more valuable it is.

There have been a number of very successful science fiction movies in recent years: Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian. These films were much more realistic than Star Trek and so far they have not had sequels. Once again, the more realistic the less the need for long stories.

It has been often noted that sequels are far more common than they once were. This reflects the rising importance of special effects. Special effects allow the filmmaker to create fantasy worlds, and even bring to life historical epics with greater realism. But as these stories take us to unfamiliar surroundings that we must learn to care about the stories need to be longer. So the rapid improvement of special effects changes what types of stories are told, which in turn changes the length of the stories.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

There is a saying, "The exception that proves the rule." This saying sometimes creates controversy because exceptions typically disprove, rather than prove, rules. But sometimes an exception to a rule can help us understand why the rule exists. So paradoxically the exception can give us even more confidence in the rule.

The science fiction-horror series The Twilight Zone can help us understand exactly why half hour comedies are a half hour, dramas an hour and movies two hours. In each episode of the The Twilight Zone, a new cast of characters is introduced and The Twilight Zone was only half an hour long. The Twilight Zone is not the only show to follow this format. HBO's Tales from the Crypt and Tales from the Dark Side are other examples of this half hour horror/science fiction anthology genre. The stories are one-quarter, and if you account for commercials possibly one-fifth, the length of a traditional movie. Yet, both movies and The Twilight Zone used a totally new cast of characters.

In The Twilight Zone stories it is quite common that something horrible happens to the main character. Therefore, contrary to most story telling it is important that the audience not care too much about the character. The hour-long series The Outer Limits did not work nearly as well even though it was telling very similar stories. After an hour you simply cared too much about the main character, and that made it too depressing.

The daily newspaper comic, The Far Side used much the same principles. New characters were introduced every day. They were typically ugly, self-centered, and unappealing. They frequently wore thick glasses and their eyes were obscured. Given the horrible things that Gary Larsen, the writer/artist, was doing to them it worked better the less we cared about them. If you want to avoid having the audience care, short works great.

The Twilight Zone and similar anthologies work on twist endings which do not require us to connect with the characters. The same could be said about The Far Side. But what about humor in general. Humor, in general, is based on cute twist endings. These twist endings are generally not as horrifying as The Twilight Zone or The Far Side. The characters in comedies do not suffer death or dismemberment.

Furthermore, in many comedies we are clearly intended to know and care about the characters. Still, as argued above, it might be said that we do not have to develop as deep a connection with the characters in a comedy as a drama. You do not have to know a character as well to laugh as you do to cry.

So half-hour comedies may be shorter not only because the continuing characters are more central to half-hour comedies than one-hour dramas, but also because we need less of a connection to laugh.

Respect for Episodic TV

Understanding episodic TV this way can create respect for the form. Yes, the established characters limit the creativity of the writer. Yes, we do not see the characters grow from episode to episode. In the stories they may learn lessons, but next week they return to form, much like most of us, most of the time in real life. Nevertheless, there is a real advantage to episodic TV. Episodic TV allows us to tell stories quickly. Anthology series are frequently admired by the critics, but short stories without returning characters leave us with an empty feeling because we never really cared about the characters.

Browsers and the Minds of the Audience

The underlying principle being discussed here has more general applications, for example, the very web page you are looking at. A page of text typically takes about two thousand bytes or characters. A picture that would fill a full page would typically take many times that much information. Text is easy to store, and cheap to transmit.

Why is this? The page is quite complex. Why can it be stored and transmitted so easily? The answer is that your computer stores the information necessary to form each of the letters. So one byte can transmit one character. If one sends a bit map of that same character it takes far more bytes. So the efficiency of text is that information is stored on the computer and used over and over again.

The episodic TV show uses much the same principle. The audience has stored in their minds the characters of the story. The writer uses these characters to tell a new story and because he does not have to develop new characters can tell it far more quickly and efficiently. Sure efficiency may not appeal to the critic, the connoisseur, the purist, but it goes a long way with the typical audience member. Brevity is the soul of wit.

So we are dealing with another aspect of a very general principle of all communication. The audience comes to the experience with some knowledge. The writer, or other communicator uses what the audience already has and builds his story or message on that. The more relevant knowledge the audience brings to the experience the more quickly the story or message can be communicated.

The theory developed here has wide application. It explains why episodic tv series have been so popular. It explains why comedies are half an hour, dramas an hour, movies two hours, and special effects laden films require sequels. It explains why sequels are so common today. The theory shows that developing and selling unrealistic fantasy characters to the audience is likely to be a solid investment, but realistic characters do not have as great a value.

Media is important to modern life. People spend about four times as much time-consuming media as they do in paid work over the course of their life. Media is being watched, listened to, read etc. for more than half of all waking hours. Understanding media is therefore an important part of understanding modern life.


Extensively edited June 19, 2015

I am interested in the underlying theory of stories and entertainment. That is what this essay is about. If this interests you, check out the rest of this media section of this site.

Media Index