The Super-Long First Act

I always enjoy reading Kay Reindl’s posts at Seriocity, and one reason is that she talks a lot about how the changes in structure — things like commercial breaks, act length, number of acts, and the length of the show — affect the creativity of TV writing. This has been the hobbiest of my many horses for some time; you can find many posts where I complain about the 20 minute sitcom and other problems inherent in having less than 40 minutes of content in an “hour-long” program.

But what’s changed, as Reindl frequently points out, is not just the number of commercials but where the commercials are placed. The idea that an hour-long show should have four acts of roughly equal length, each act accomplishing a specific function and leading up to a crisis point in the story, is falling apart as the networks demand many acts of unequal length. In a post from a couple of weeks ago, she re-prints a letter from a reader who notes that CSI is one of the few shows to hold out against this trend:

A tv director told me that Tivo is driving the push toward the six act structure with long first act and steadily shortening acts in the back half of the show. According to the networks’ research, people are less likely to fast forward through commercials if there’s a superlong first act– don’t ask me why. Supposedly the CSI shows are under pressure to ditch their short teaser followed by long acts structure, but Carol Mendelson is holding the line. Who knew the CSI franchise was a standard bearer for creative integrity?

And Reindl responds, in part (read the post for the whole thing):

The six-act structure is ass. It isn’t at all organic, because you still have to build to those act-outs, which means you have to have five “natural” climaxes. To me, TeeVee isn’t crafted structurally anymore. There’s no sense of rhythm to it.

You saw this structure in the first half of the 90210 pilot (which will be one hour-long episode when it’s rerun) the first act was very long, finally bringing in the title sequence at the very end when we’d almost given up waiting for it, and then the subsequent acts were often as short as three or four minutes.

The reason that “people are less likely to fast forward through commercials if there’s a superlong first act” may be that it makes us want a break; if we’ve sat through ten minutes of show, then we actually may want to watch the commercials just to take a breather from the show.

Most shows, as you probably remember, used to have either the title sequence at the beginning followed by commercials, or a short “cold opening” followed by the title sequence, followed by commercials. In both cases, the idea was to get to the first commercial break fairly early, so that the subseqent acts — when the story really gets interesting and we don’t want it broken up all the time — can be longer. Now the idea is the opposite: we’re given fewer breaks at the beginning when the stakes are low, and as the episode goes on and we (hopefully) get interested in what’s happening, the commercials come more frequently.

That may be a decent strategy for our time. Certainly it no longer makes any sense for shows to have the opening title and only the opening title before the first break, even though most shows did it exactly that way; it doesn’t even make sense to go the Cheers or Friends route and have a short little punchy joke before the titles start. The reason that doesn’t make sense, business-wise, is that there are more options now, and what’s worse, one or more of those other options may actually have a bunch of fresh content up-front while you’re showing a commercial. Though TiVo has something to do with the new structural rules, I think a lot of it has to do with old-fashioned channel flippers: the idea may be that by putting the commercials in weird places, you might have the best moment of your show while the other show on that other network is on a commercial break, and viewers are channel-flipping. When shows had their act breaks in more predictable spots, it was quite possible for all the networks to be on commercial breaks at exactly the same time. But you don’t bring in the channel-flippers if they flip from one commercial to another.

Still, the irregular act-break structure has huge creative drawbacks, not just because it’s ridiculously hard to find five different places where you can have a “suspenseful” act break, but because when you combine shorter acts with shorter running times, you make it impossible to write long scenes. Or, rather, the only time you can write long scenes with any real character interaction is in the long first act — when the stakes are at their lowest. When the stakes are higher, the crisis is unfolding and it would really help to have the characters say stuff that doesn’t just move the plot along, how can you do that? There’s only two minutes left until the act break, and there’s no time for anything except plot. Reindl again:

It’s impossible to write a scene where there’s anything going on beyond the obvious action. So any little moments you used to be able to have with the characters are gone. The other thing that’s happened is, you have to write SO much to time, because you can’t afford to shoot more. You used to be able to cut to time, but now you have to write to it.

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