Recently, we started rewatching Alias, the 2000s ABC spy thriller by J.J. Abrams.1 All five seasons are on Disney+ and we started from the beginning. Season 1 has 22 episodes, which was once considered a “full season.” Now, a streaming show rarely has more than 8 or 10 episodes a season.
Alias became a hit and attracted new viewers over the first season. But in the broadcast TV era, there wasn’t an easy way for people to go back and watch the episodes they’d missed. I remember ABC trying to rerun episodes as it gained popularity. And the “previously on” section got hilariously longer to try and catch people up.
The 17th episode of season 1, “Q&A,” is an exposition-filled clip show where a skeptical FBI agent quizzes super spy Sydney Bristow (played by Jennifer Garner). She answers his questions, explaining the premise of the series while showing clips from previous episodes. Sydney basically tells the viewer everything they need to know in the lead up to the season finale. There’s a reveal at the end of the episode… a revelation to keep the newly updated viewer hooked to come back next week.
As I watched it, I realized that this type of clip show episode — once a staple of 20+ episode network TV seasons — will likely fade from existence. Streaming services like Disney+ allow people to go back and watch the whole season easily. And shorter seasons mean that you don’t need a budget-friendly recap episode. In today’s streaming world, there is simply no longer a reason to make a clip show.2
We are in the midst of a huge shift in television. Most of the attention is directed at the financial aspects of the streaming era. The demise of the clip show episode is a comparatively minor shift, but it demonstrates how the changing financial model of the television industry directly shapes the creative product itself.
Bob Wertz is a creative director, type designer, Ph.D. student and researcher living in Columbia, South Carolina.