But there’s a reason multi-part episodes have been the exception rather than the norm. The development of the syndication market gave shows a second life as reruns, but syndication preferred shows with self-contained episodes that could be shown in virtually any order over those that needed to be watched one after another. The occasional multi-part episodes were fine. Long, ongoing storylines were much less welcome. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, however, innovative shows like Wiseguy and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine experimented with multi-episode arcs, laying the groundwork for the era that followed.
76 minutes with ads: Wheel Shows and NBC Mystery Movie. In the late-’60s NBC began experimenting with what came to be known as “wheel shows,” which essentially grouped several complementary series under the same umbrella title. The most famous of these was NBC Mystery Movie, which initially alternated between episodes of McCloud, McMillan & Wife, and Columbo. It was born partly out of necessity. It allowed in-demand stars like Columbo’s Peter Falk and McMillan & Wife’s Rock Hudson to dip into television and appear in three to eight long episodes each year without turning down other work. Each episode clocks in at 76 minutes to fill a 90-minute time slot, which can make watching these shows feel more akin to watching a movie than a TV series. In some respects the model was more akin to the British TV model, with its shorter seasons and sometimes feature-length installments. But, a few success stories aside, it never really took root in the States.
Two and a half hours with ads: The M*A*S*H finale. In the ’80s NBC attempted another experiment by sending stars of some of its most popular sitcoms abroad for TV movies like The Facts of Life Down Under, The Facts of Life Goes to Paris, and Family Ties Vacation, which found the Keaton family enjoying a London getaway. The results were bizarre. The familiar characters look out of place away from the studio, filming on location as they trade sitcom quips for a laugh track that never kicks in. Eventually, the movies were broken into four parts for syndication. But even these were dwarfed by “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the final episode of M*A*S*H. Airing on February 28, 1983, the CBS series’ long goodbye filled a two-and-a-half hour time slot, becoming the most-watched television show in history, a title it held for decades.
40 Minutes with ads: NBC and the Super[sized] Friends
In 2001, NBC (yes, NBC again) began experimenting with airing longer-than-usual episodes of Must See TV favorites Friends and Will & Grace that stretched their usual 30-minute time slot to 40 minutes. This wasn’t done on a whim. After enjoying great success with its then-new reality show Survivor, CBS decided to put it head-to-head with NBC’s biggest night. NBC’s counter-offensive wasn’t an unqualified success and, rather than face off with the Survivor finale, the network ultimately decided to run a Friends clips show and a rerun. But it was effective and popular enough that NBC kept up the practice, ultimately airing 11 supersized episodes of Friends during its final seasons and continuing the practice with The Office and Parks & Recreation in the post-Friends era.