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."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
"Grey's Anatomy," now in its 17th season, is keeping the doctor drama fresh. The show is adding new characters, bringing back old ones and writing in COVID-19 subplots.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREY'S ANATOMY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Eighty-three. He was fine yesterday - became hypoxic an hour ago. It's the fourth patient I've lost today.
CHANG: Scripted shows rarely last as long as "Grey's Anatomy" has. Given all the changes in the TV industry since that show began, NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered if a new show starting today could hope to run for as many seasons.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Things have changed since the early days of "Grey's Anatomy" or "Law & Order: SVU."
(SOUNDBITE OF "LAW & ORDER: SVU" THEME SONG)
ULABY: When that show first started, there was no Netflix. You used VCRs to tape programs you might have missed. Now "Law & Order: SVU" is one of the longest running scripted shows still on air, says Steve Mosko. He used to run Sony Pictures Television.
STEVE MOSKO: Look at how, like, "Law & Order" and some these great dramas on broadcast TV were doing 22 episodes a year plus. That's like writing 22 movies a year. I mean, it's not easy.
ULABY: Compare that to great dramas on cable or streaming video like "The Crown" that has only 10 episodes a year. Shows like "The Crown" or "Queen's Gambit" are not meant to last forever, and that's OK with some new showrunners.
NASIM PEDRAD: You know, I think it's pretty unlikely that a show could ever do six seasons, let alone 16 seasons nowadays.
ULABY: That's Nasim Pedrad. She just created a new show called "Chad" on TBS. It's a comedy. She plays a teenaged American Muslim boy trying to fit in in high school.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHAD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Roll call. Let's go. Ferydoon Amani.
PEDRAD: (As Chad) It's Chad. I legally changed it to Chad.
ULABY: Pedrad started on "Saturday Night Live," which you might mostly catch these days on YouTube. Her show, she says, has to compete with TikTok and Instagram as well as everything else. Steven D. Binder, who produces the cop show "NCIS," agrees.
STEVEN D BINDER: I do think it's harder today in the sense that eyeballs are more fractured. People are now playing video games as much as they're watching television.
ULABY: "NCIS" is an old-school hit now in its 18th season, but police procedurals are a special case. They're built to run forever.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NCIS")
MARK HARMON: (As Leroy Jethro Gibbs) Grab your gear.
MICHAEL WEATHERLY: (As Anthony DiNozzo) My three favorite words.
ULABY: Procedurals are simple. Every week, they solve a single case. The cast can easily get swapped out. The other kind of show with a built-in advantage when it comes to sticking are animated shows like "The Simpsons."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")
HANK AZARIA: (As Carl Carlson) Congratulations, Homer.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yay.
ULABY: "The Simpsons" is the longest running scripted primetime show ever, with 32 seasons. Animated shows are easier for actors, and they're relatively cheap to make. "Family Guy" is about to start its 20th season, and "American Dad," 18. Writer and producer Mike Barker has worked on both.
MIKE BARKER: I don't know of a show that was created now could go the distance like those shows because everything has changed so much.
ULABY: Netflix, for example, now drops an entire season all at once, he says. You binge the whole thing in a week, then wait for a year. The changes in how we watch TV means a change in how writers tell stories.
PEDRAD: Things on shows happen fast. You have to, you know, find an audience quickly because of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")
DAVID SCHWIMMER: (As Ross Geller) You're over me?
ULABY: Showrunner Nasim Pedrad.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")
SCHWIMMER: (As Ross Geller) When were you under me?
PEDRAD: Like, it used to take multiple seasons before the friends started sleeping with each other, for example. But now with binge culture, there's just so much pressure to hook the audience that things need to just happen faster. You're burning through plot a lot faster.
ULABY: And there's less incentive than ever to give plots and shows time to breathe, says Stephen Binder of "NCIS."
BINDER: A streaming provider has incredible amounts of data on a television show, and they're so data-driven that maybe they won't let a show nurture. They'll cut it off and just replace it with another one.
ULABY: A constant stream of brand-new shows works for Netflix, which uses them to draw new subscribers. It works less well for an advertising-driven network relying on long relationships between shows and fans. Even if somehow Nasim Pedrad's new show "Chad" ends up as a long-running hit, she's not convinced that's the best possible thing.
PEDRAD: Oh, my goodness. (Laughter) I don't know that I can pull off looking like a 14-year-old boy for 15, 16 or 17 seasons.
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.