Matt Weiner Strikes a Blow For Longer Episodes

This has not been a great time for those of us who would like to see longer running times and fewer commercials in TV programming. (This isn’t just about the boredom of commercial breaks, which after all can increasingly be skipped; it’s about the limitations on storytelling that are imposed by the ever-shrinking running times.) The failure of Fox’s “Remote Free TV,” even after it proved that audiences are more likely to watch the commercials in short breaks, seemed to demonstrate that the networks probably won’t return to selling 10 minutes of commercial time per hour, as opposed to 20.

That’s why it was good to see Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, actually stood up for the idea that a minute of screen time is a precious and valuable thing. Mad Men has a running time of 47-8 minutes per episode, which isn’t long by historical standards but is several minutes longer than usual for a show with commercials (we’re usually talking 43-4 minutes on basic cable, 41-2 on network). It is the running time an hour-long show would have had in, say, the late ’80s. When AMC decided that it needed to sell more commercial time on the show, this wasn’t an unreasonable decision. The show still isn’t a big hit, it’s not cheap to make, and the network needs all the advertising revenue it can reasonably get. But Weiner absolutely refused to cut his episodes back to today’s standard length:

A very hands-on creator, he fought back and got AMC to instead let the show run longer than an hour with the additional commercials so that he wouldn’t have to trim dialogue and scenes from the show. Of course, AMC and cable operators will have to find a way to insure that the show’s post-11 p.m. end time doesn’t screw with our TiVos and DVRs.

To a certain extent, Weiner is being the unreasonable one here, forcing the network to inconvenience itself, its viewers and cable companies so he can have three extra minutes of time on the show. But artistically, he’s right. Mad Men is a show whose pacing is part of its style: it takes its time, lingers on certain shots, extends conversations to a length that suggests (but doesn’t actually resemble) real life, and sometimes even shows people walking in and out of a room. None of these things are possible in today’s shorter-length shows; where Mad Men will have people shaking hands and exchanging small talk as they sit down in Don’s office, a shorter show would often have to start with the first line in the scene that advances the plot.

(The curse of the short running time is that you have to cut out everything that doesn’t “advance the plot,” even though some of the best moments can come from seemingly extraneous moments. It’s why many classic shows seem less interesting in syndication than they do in their complete versions, because in cutting from 25 to 22 minutes you lose all the cool stuff that wasn’t plot-specific.)

So while Weiner’s decision may not be great for AMC, and may not even have any ramifications for other television shows, it’s nice to see someone standing up for the basic principle that a few minutes more or less really do matter. They really, really do.

An alternative view is Ron Moore’s, that “I’ve got to cut this thing down, but the real episode will be on DVD.” But as I’ve said before, the “extended-length” DVD episodes are rarely better than the aired ones. The advantage of a longer running time is not just the ability to include extra scenes, but to subtly change the way shows are written and shot. A show is either a 43-minute type of show or a 48-minute type of show; if Mad Men had to be 43 minutes in its initial airings (and still make sense), it would not magically become its original self again on an extra-length DVD.

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