The venerable doctor drama Grey's Anatomy is adding new characters, bringing back old ones and writing in COVID-19 subplots in its 17th season. When you look at a list of the longest-running scripted shows, Grey's Anatomy is among the very few still airing on primetime TV, along with The Simpsons (32 seasons), Law & Order: SVU (22 seasons), Family Guy (19 seasons) and NCIS (18 seasons.)
They all come from a completely different era of television, says Steve Mosko, a former Sony Pictures Television executive, now CEO of Village Roadshow Entertainment Group. Back when those shows first started, people still used VCRs to tape TV programs they missed.
"Look at how Law & Order and some of these great dramas on broadcast TV were doing 22 episodes year plus. That's like 22 movies a year," he points out. "That's not easy."
Compare that to today, he says, when great dramas on cable and streaming TV like The Crown or Game of Thrones run only 10 episodes a season — or fewer. And for some shows today, he adds, such as new comedies, the old calculus of re-runs and syndication, which depends on making a certain number of shows, simply does not apply.
Nasim Pedrad can testify. "You know, I think it's pretty unlikely that a show could ever do six seasons, let alone 16 seasons nowadays, just based on the way that we produce content and watch things," she observes. Pedrad created and stars in Chad, which started this month on TBS. She plays an obnoxious, teenage American Muslim boy trying to fit in at his high school. "I'm not right now picturing Chad going off to college," she laughs.
Pedrad started her career on Saturday Night Live — a show you now may mostly watch on YouTube. "The competition is just so different now," Pedrad says, pointing to the sheer volume of original scripted shows today, around 500 a year. "Now, there's not only so many more shows, but there's also different mediums distracting us. TV shows are also competing against Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and other things that are taking our attention."
"I do think it's harder today in the sense that eyeballs are more fractured," agrees Steven D. Binder, a showrunner for NCIS. "People are now playing video games as much as they're watching television."
NCIS, which started in 2003, still pulls in phenomenal ratings. It draws more than 10 million viewers a week. Police procedurals are a special case; they're built to last forever. On that list of the longest-running scripted primetime shows, CSI and Criminal Minds are also way up there along with two Law & Order franchises.
As my colleague Linda Holmes pointed out to me, these cop procedurals are not complicated, conceptually. Every week, a case gets solved. Actors can get swapped out. Some shows have baked-in advantages that make it easier to stick around, including animated shows like The Simpsons, American Dad and Family Guy, all also at the top of that list. Making these shows is easier for actors, you can watch them no matter how old you are, and they're relatively cheap.
"I don't know if a show created now could go the distance," says Mike Barker, who's written and produced for Family Guy (on its 20thseason) and American Dad (on its 18th). "Because everything has changed so much."
Those changes are not only in how we consume TV shows, says Nasim Pedrad. They translate to changes in how TV writers tell stories.
"Things on shows happen fast. You have to find an audience quickly because of that," she says. "Like, it used to take multiples seasons before the Friends [characters] started sleeping with each other, for example, but now with binge culture, there's so much pressure to hook the audience that things just need to happen faster. You're burning through plot a lot faster."
"A streaming provider has incredible amounts of data on a TV show," adds Binder. "And they're so data-driven, maybe they won't let a show nurture. They'll cut it off and replace it with another one."
A constant stream of brand-new shows works for Netflix, which uses them to draw new subscribers. It works less well for an old-school, advertiser-driven network relying on relationships between shows and their fans. Even if somehow, Pedrad's new show Chad ends up becoming a long-running hit, she's not sure if that's the best thing.
"Oh my goodness," she says. "I don't know if I can pull off looking like a 14-year old-boy for 14, 15, 17 seasons."