The first part of “Stranger Things 4” drops today and with it comes a mega-sized mid-season finale: Episode 7 clocks in at 1 hour, 38 minutes long. But wait, there’s more — much more. The two-episode second part of the season premieres July 1 with a penultimate episode that runs another 1 hour, 38 minutes and a finale that is nearly two-and-a-half hours long.
The “Stranger Things” S4 finale will likely become the longest episode of American television in history. In industry parlance, these “supersized” episodes have become more commonplace, but they stretch back to the 1983 series finale of “M*A*S*H.” It was 2 1/2 hours long, although that was considered to be a TV movie — and one that contained a number of very expensive commercials. “The Long Night” episode from Season 8 of “Game of Thrones” ran 82 minutes and the 2016 “Gilmore Girls” revival offered four installments of 90 minutes each.
A traditional comedy occupies 30 minutes of total TV time; a drama gets 60. Excluding commercials, that means a sitcom is 22 minutes of actual episode; similarly, hour-long shows have about 44-46 minutes of story. Unmoored from the native format of broadcast and ad-supported cable, streaming creators have a freedom and flexibility that even movies can’t always provide.
The previous longest episode of “Stranger Things” clocked in at 76 minutes. Sources tell IndieWire that after Matt and Ross Duffer delivered three back-to-back hit seasons of “Stranger Things” for Netflix — Season 3 is the streamer’s third most-watched ever, and Season 4 should eclipse even “Bridgerton,” which holds the top two slots in as many seasons — the powers that be were more than happy to indulge the showrunners’ creative vision for the fourth season’s mega-episodes.
“It was always the central creative vision of the season to have these episodes be the way that they are,” Matt Thunell, a Netflix executive and a “Stranger Things” executive producer, told Variety. “Part of the reason the episodes are a bit longer is that we have a huge ensemble of characters. And by the way, fans love each and every one of them. To give them their due episode over episode, it just means the episodes need to expand to fit them. That was really what drove a lot of the length this season, the fact that we have an amazing ensemble that everybody cares about and we want to make sure that we’re delivering on each and every one of those stories.”
Reps for the Duffer Brothers declined a request to be interviewed by IndieWire. When reached, Netflix did not comment on this story.
While the episodes may have been designed to fit the “Stranger Things” ensemble, the Duffers will now be known as the creators whose show earned the longest they’re-episodes-not-movies in TV history. (At a reported per-episode budget as high as $30 million, they very well could be.) While it remains to be seen just how the marathon episodes will go over in a culture that grows less attentive by the day, the brothers Duffer have opened a Pandora’s box. (Somewhat appropriate for the smash’s sci-fi themes.)
Their timing for this experiment is ideal; by next year, it may be impossible. “Stranger Things 5,” the series’ final season, does not yet have a production timetable or a premiere date, but it will exist within a very different Netflix landscape.
After a disastrous first quarter of 2022, the formerly ads-averse streaming service plans to offer a (cheaper) subscription tier with commercials as soon as the end of this year. The move to boost subscriber numbers and add a new revenue stream comes as Netflix stock languishes beneath $200 per share; it was as high as $700 per share last fall. Financials shape creative: Factor ad breaks into the equation and an episode over two hours becomes much more complicated. The “Stranger Things 4” finale would feel less cinematic if interrupted every 15 minutes or so with commercials for allergy medications. Might as well control the breaks in post-production — and at that point, might as well do a 13-episode season with hour-long installments instead of a backloaded 13-hour season with nine episodes of varying lengths.
Since little is known of the Netflix AVOD plans, it’s unclear if all series would have commercials, how many commercial minutes per hour, and where the ads would fall. HBO Max, for example, has stated that not all of its shows will carry ads, although it’s unclear how they will make that distinction. (Those that do will have no more than four minutes of ads per hour, the company said; Disney+ recently made the same promise for its own upcoming AVOD tier.) HBO Max currently limits its ads-on-movies product to a 90-second block ahead of the film’s presentation, with no commercials during the actual presentation.
Ad-supported streaming on premium platforms is nascent and complicated — but that’s what happens when the replacement for traditional TV starts to become traditional TV. However, one traditional element that no longer works is the blanket per-episode compensation model for series regulars. Predictable episode lengths meant talent reps could negotiate actors’ pay based on the number of episodes in a season. In a landscape of supersized episodes, more math must go into securing appropriate pay for the time committed.
Sources who work in talent negotiations tell IndieWire that lawyers and agents in the know bake a pro-rated fee into personal service agreements that spells out how much more money an actor will earn for episodes that go beyond a typical runtime. SAG-AFTRA also has a side letter in its AMPTP agreement that deals with supersized episodes.
If that doesn’t happen, sometimes a correction is required in the form of extra compensation for the next season. Call it a “make good” — the advertising community that will soon be in talks with Netflix certainly knows what that means.
Yes, there is always next season. And as “Stranger Things 5” converges with Netflix AVOD, next season will definitely be one to watch.