Spies, Lies and Allies wrapped recently, and it was the longest season yet. It had 19 episodes, each of them being 90-minutes (aside from the one random 60-minute episode). The fans have spoken, and most people think this is way too long.
This begs the question: what’s the perfect length for a Challenge season? Of course, this is opinion-based, but we’ve seen a lot of variation over time. Some formats worked better than others.
Why Was Spies, Lies and Allies So Long?
Spies, Lies and Allies and Double Agents were 19 episodes long and Total Madness had 18. Most of these episodes were 90-minutes, and it did drag the season out. Of course, they also aired during the pandemic. Filming took longer due to safety protocols and quarantines, so MTV wanted to get the most bang for their buck. The Challenge gets higher ratings than any other MTV show, but it gives out a $1,000,000 prize. So long seasons keep content on the air for months and longer episodes allow more ads to run during the airings.
At this point in time, I don’t see anything changing. I expect season 38 to have 90-minute episodes and air about 19 of them.
15 to 17 30-Minute Episodes
Early Challenge seasons were only 30 minutes each, and this was the standard for about 6 years. Battle of the Seasons (2002)- The Inferno 3 maintained this format, and it’s pretty obvious The Gauntlet 3 was filmed to air in a 30-minute format. Going back, it’s shocking to see how great these episodes are, but they’re quick. Some episodes glaze past the actual missions and fights feel really choppy. I’d never recommend going back to this format, but I’d always recommend rewatching early seasons.
10 60-Minute Episodes
When the show migrated to the hour-long format, we had a series of 10-episode seasons (The Duel 2 to Battle of the Exes). This format worked really well for the time, but they started and ended in two-and-a-half months. This usually meant there were fewer daily missions, and many cast members had little screen time. Don’t get me wrong, the hour-long format was a step in the right direction, but short seasons left fans craving more.
12 60-Minute Episodes
After the success of Exes 1, production responded by upping the number of episodes from 10 to 12. We saw this format from Battle of the Seasons (2012) to Battle of the Exes 2. Then Bloodlines upped the number to 13, Rivals 3 went to 14, and Invasion went to 15. Seasons with 12 episodes were in a sweet spot: ten missions, a suspense episode prior to the final, and an overnight final. I would say this is the minimum for a Challenge because it gives enough content and tells a good story. Rivals 3 started to see some issues because episodes were packed with random drama and cliffhangers were used to disburse competitions more evenly across episodes.
13+ 60-Minute Episodes
When we look at seasons with more than 12 episodes, especially Dirty Thirty, we start to see some cracks in the formula. Formatting becomes unclear with twists and episodes are ruined by cliffhangers. These episodes are decent for binging but can feel like a commitment for live viewers. Yet we can watch War of the Worlds and see a 16-episode season done well. This all depends on production’s ability to stick to a schedule and edit a good story.
20 60-Minute Episodes
Final Reckoning is a 20-episode marathon, and it can feel drawn-out and overly complicated if you watch one episode at a time. Yet it’s a fun season to watch on a binge because you can pause it mid-episode and mitigate the cliffhangers. However, I’d never recommend production does this again. Live viewers matter most, and they don’t like the fragmentation of the season.
16 90-Minute Episodes
War of the Worlds 2 transitioned to 90-minute episodes, and it worked pretty well. There was a lot of drama that season, and they kept the episodes moving at a good speed. The episodes with less drama felt slow, but when there’s a good story to tell, the extra time was appreciated.
What Format Works Best?
If I were an editor, I would pick the format of War of the Worlds. 16 episodes are long enough to make the show very competitive and tell a lot of storylines. I also feel editors should be able to comfortably fit a challenge and an elimination in an hour. Meanwhile, 19-episode seasons can drag and 90-minute episodes often feel too long. I’d love for MTV to air a 60-minute episode then air an Aftershow, but those have been regulated to YouTube these days.
A lot of the episodes tend to drag these days. Spies, Lies and Allies seemed to tease storylines that never came to fruition just to fill time (example: Logan toying with the idea of facing a vet in elimination). If there’s not a meaningful story to tell, we don’t need to overfill the episode.
Yet, we know we’re going to keep getting 90-minute episodes, and I’d rather have that than no Challenge at all.