The real debate: did Netflix edit The West Wing?

The West Wing Netflix
Rough cut: Netflix shows a shortened version of this classic episode

The West Wing is the greatest television series ever to be aired. That is a fact. However, if you’ve listened to this week’s The West Wing Weekly podcast, you will hear a concering allegation from one of the show’s writers, Lawrence O’Donnell, that Netflix has edited an episode of the show. Can that be true? Does Netflix really edit third-party content?

The ‘edited’ West Wing on Netflix

On the face of it, O’Donnell’s allegation that Netflix chopped back an episode of The West Wing certainly appears to be true.

The episode in question is an unusual one, episode seven of series seven of the show. It takes the form of a live TV presidential debate between the two candidates – Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda) and Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits).

The episode was shot and broadcast live, like a real presidential debate. In fact, they shot two versions of the debate – one for the East Coast audience in the US and one for the West, so that the show went out in prime time for both audiences.

Due to the special nature of the show, The West Wing producers negotiated with the networks to only have one commercial break in the middle, rather than the four breaks you would normally have in an hour of US television. Hence, this episode of The West Wing was longer than most – just over 50 minutes instead of the normal 42 or 43 minutes.

Netflix, however, is carrying a shortened version – one that’s been edited down to fit the normal 43 minutes runtime. (It’s worth pointing out at this stage that The West Wing is not available on Netflix in the UK; you’ll need a VPN set to the US to watch the show from the UK). The version released on the DVD boxset, on the other hand, is the full 50-minute West coast broadcast.

Why would Netflix edit the show?

As Lawrence O’Donnell points out on The West Wing Weekly, it makes no sense for Netflix to edit the show. One of the great advantages of Netflix is that it doesn’t contain adverts and shows can run to variable length because there are no broadcast schedules to take into account.

Indeed, Netflix routinely lets its own shows run to whatever length is necessary to tell the story. Take the first series of Orange Is The New Black, for example, where episode 1 runs for 52 mins and the final episode of the series tips just over the hour mark. There’s no need to leave good footage on the cutting-room floor.

So why, as O’Donnell asserts, has Netflix edited The West Wing to bring it into line with the rest of the series?

The likely answer is it hasn’t. Whilst Warner Bros negotiated a special, largely ad-free viewing when the show first aired in the US, it’s unrealistic to expect broadcasters to do that every time the show is broadcast on repeat or internationally.

Warner Bros therefore created an edit for syndication so that when the episode is broadcast on Sky Atlantic over here, for example, it doesn’t screw up the schedules. It seems Netflix has simply picked up the syndicated version, not as O’Donnell asserts, edited the show itself.

So, what can you do if you want to watch the full version of the brilliant debates episode? Either scour eBay for the DVDs or – according to some of the commenters on the West Wing Weekly blog – download the show from Google Play, which is carrying the unedited version. Although that doesn’t seem to be available to UK buyers. Don’t you just love regional restrictions?

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at

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