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'The X-Files' six-show series: Why the broadcast TV shift to a shorter season?

Following the example of cable networks and streaming services, broadcast networks have been shortening the seasons of TV shows, including the upcoming six-episode run of 'The X-Files.' Is it working?

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    'The X-Files' stars Gillian Anderson (l.) and David Duchovny (r.).
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The Fox science fiction series “The X-Files” returns for a six-episode run later this month.

Is a shorter season better?  The answer seems to depend on the show and who you ask: The audience, critics, or sponsors. 

The X-Files six-episode length is part of a trend in broadcast TV of cutting down on season or series lengths. Cable networks and streaming services both air shorter seasons than a traditional broadcast season of, say, 22 episodes. For example, HBO’s hit show “Game of Thrones” airs 10 episodes a season, while Netflix’s program “Orange Is the New Black” usually airs 13 installments.

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And so programs like “Heroes Reborn,” NBC’s revival of its mid-2000s superhero show “Heroes,” and ABC’s anthology series “American Crime” go on the air with seasons consisting of 13 episodes and 11 episodes, respectively. “X-Files” is airing for even fewer installments.

It seems reasonable to assume that in the age of the dominance of networks like HBO and Netflix, broadcast networks may have been inspired by their example when ordering episodes. 

There are other benefits, too. As noted by Jethro Nededog of Business Insider, networks can get big stars for a new show on board more easily with a shorter run. HBO exemplified this with the first season of "True Detective," which starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and which earned both actors Emmy nominations.

And networks can hopefully hang on to audiences by airing short seasons of original shows rather than airing reruns during traditionally sleepy TV times like the summer.

With shows like “X-Files” and “Heroes,” the scheduling move may also be a response to such past hit shows as the ABC mid-2000s hit “Lost.” “Lost” aired for six seasons consisting of around 20 episodes, a typical network length. But some viewers complained that those behind the program waited too long into the run to reveal answers to the science fiction show’s mysteries. 

In creating short versions of sci-fi shows, such as X-Files, networks are most likely trying to appease viewers wary of investing time in a long-running show that they feel won't provide answers. 

Has shortening their seasons helped the networks create new hits? 

“American Crime” was a hit with reviewers and was recently nominated for various Golden Globes. Ratings declined as the first season went on and the season two premiere earlier this month was about the same size audience as it had at the end of season one, so we'll see how the new episodes do with viewers.

Meanwhile, “Heroes Reborn” was not well-received critically and viewership has decreased as the show has gone on. In this case, it seems that the answer is fairly simple: Shorter isn't better if the show isn’t creatively engaging or tries to do too much. Ken Tucker of Yahoo TV wrote of the program, "The problem with 'Heroes Reborn' is that it’s got a lot of subplots... but all of these characters end up doing the same thing."

So does running fewer episodes benefit “X-Files”?

Judging by early reviews, the answer seems to be no. The original “X-Files” show was known for its detailed universe and some critics say that six episodes may not be enough to answer the questions raised by the new show and that the shortened season means that characters spend a lot of time explaining the story.

Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter called the first episode of the show "tedious... Why... only give six episodes when the series famously couldn’t explain its larger mysteries in hundreds of episodes?... [Creator Chris] Carter’s dialogue is prone to exposition (again, partly the result of only having six episodes to work with) and overheated soliloquies."

And Ben Travers of Indiewire wrote of the premiere, "So much is said, so many pieces are put in motion, and so little of it actually holds the meaning for the audience."

However, it's early days yet for "X-Files" and we have yet to see how viewers respond to the new installments.

And as cable and streaming continue to succeed with these short seasons, broadcast networks most likely won't back away from this experiment just yet.

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