Overwhelmed by all those two-hour reality shows? You're not alone, and even the networks admit that it's a lot to watch. But they still benefit from those supersized series — so expect to see even more shows go the expansion route.
Two-hour episodes used to be rare, and reserved for special milestones. But what was once a stunt is now the norm, as two-hour series like Dancing with the Stars, The Sing-Off, The Biggest Loser and The X-Factor all take up loads of on-air real estate — sometimes eating up as much as four hours of programming a week (if lengthy results shows and recap specials are included).
"I don't know anyone who thinks sitting down for two hours is terrific," admits one network exec. "It's a big commitment, and they are so unbelievably padded with crap... At the beginning of the TV season people may go, 'There are things I want to check out (rather than) watching this for two hours."
Viewers are showing signs of fatigue, as some of those shows post double-digit ratings declines this fall. Dancing is down 18% among viewers vs. last year, while Loser has lost 17% of its audience. A producer from one of those shows admits that viewers are overwhelmed. "Two seasons ago we started talking about pulling back to an hour, but no one wants to do it," he says.
That's because, even with those ratings drops, networks like two-hour shows because viewers are still more likely to stick around than if the credits roll and another show comes on. "If the show is good and you show up to watch it, you're going to say," another network exec says. "Something has to be really bad for the ratings to go down. And it makes some of these shows feel bigger."
For some two-hour shows, audiences build throughout the evening, making that last half hour the most valuable. Wednesday night's episode of The X Factor, for example, started off with a 3.5 rating in the adults 18-49 demo in the first half hour, and built to a 4.3 rating in its final half hour.
"Performance shows are easier to expand if you make them compelling enough," one exec says. "But we get a lot of negative feedback for the results shows. But every year we learn how to do them better."
Meanwhile, costs can be amortized over two hours — an important distinction, as reality shows get pricier. "As your show becomes more successful, it gets to be more expensive," one producer says. "A great way to amortize one hour is to make it two hours. Then that second hour becomes a fraction of what the first hour cost. You get into a situation that if a first hour cost a dollar and the second costs 50 cents, then the average is 75 cents per hour. In this day and age we all have to be smarter in how we produce these shows."
In addition to lowering production costs, talent and producers love the two-hour episodes because most of them get paid by the hour — and this essentially doubles their salary. "We've changed people's lives in terms of these two hour shows," says a producer. "They're working the same number of days. But they negotiate an hour rate, and go from 35 hours of pay to 70 hours of pay. That's a whole different lifestyle."
But networks are getting wise and starting to negotiate lower fees for hour two. "I've seen deals now where the networks pay 50% for hour two," the producer says.
Meanwhile, given the amount of filming that takes place on many reality shows, the two-hour shows at least allow producers a chance to use more of that footage. Sometimes it helps story development, and sometimes it stretches things out too much (a criticism of shows like The Apprentice, which started off as a one-hour series).
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition executive producer George Verschoor says he relishes doing more expanded episodes: "In my show we always have far more content and extreme elements than can fit. Having the time in two hours to tell the story does present some challenges, but we make sure we format the show and pace it in order to keep the audience tuned in throughout the whole structure of the two hours." Adds fellow Home Edition executive producer Brady Connell, "When we get thousands of people showing up to help and so many storylines, it's frustrating when we have to edit it down to an hour."
Among the upcoming shows making the weekly leap from one hour to two: The second season of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition, which every week chronicles a different participant's yearlong weight loss program.
"It's a weird conundrum," one producer says. "I'm now getting paid twice as much (and) I'm able to show more character development. But it's a lot to ask of a viewer."