Rethinking the “Season”

We’re watching another fundamental shift in the way the networks are going to be schedule series in the future.

Serialized shows continue to attract diehard fans in the desirable demographics but they are also demanding fans who dislike being kept waiting. In the past, Fox with 24 and ABC with Alias pioneered the notion of debuting their shows later in a season but running them without a break or repeat. Both shows experienced upticks in the ratings as a result. Fox has continued that with 24 ever since.

ABC, though, tried something different this year with Lost. With just 22 episodes to spread out over the 39 week season, they tried a six episode mini-season in the fall and then came back uninterrupted during the February sweeps. Problem was, the mini-season focused on The Others so people were angered they didn’t get to see more of the “regular” cast. The ratings reflected that and I’m sure the new 10 p.m. timeslot didn’t help. The slide by 3 million viewers was a little too glaring to ignore. (On the other hand, now that statistics are coming in as to how shares fare when recorded for later viewer, Lost jumped by 18% which shows the impact DVRs are having.)

Wisely, ABC and the producers sat down and worked out a game plan and the, even more wisely, announced it now ahead of the Upfronts, the announcement f the new 2007-2008 schedules which begin next week. In case you missed it, Lost will run for three more seasons, at 16 episodes each, and will be schedule without interruption each season in an earlier timeslot. This gives the producers an exact number of episodes they have left to make certain every thread is tied off, every question answered and the viewer left satisfied. This also announced to the audience that the show will be given the time needed to satisfactorily wrap up so they can continue to commit their precious viewing time to the series.

Heroes which effectively supplanted Lost as the it show of the season, took a seven week hiatus after ending what they considered their second pod of episodes. However, when it returned last week, it lost three million viewers achieving its lowest ratings. The ratings this week were also lower than the average — a worrisome sign considering how hot the storyline has gotten. That must have been alarming and now NBC has to figure out how best to schedule the series, also stretching out 22 episodes over a 39-week season. Word is they will do something like two halves, 11 or so episodes each, with self-contained arcs while character storylines continued. (For more on this, see this week’s excellent Entertainment Weekly cover story.)

Of course, many of the cable channels already figured this out by running short seasons, mostly for budget reasons, but also giving them scheduling flexibility. Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Weeds, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Closer and others have all benefited from this approach. Why the networks have taken this long to start replicating the successful pattern beats me. The entire economic model needs to be rethought and the major networks should be learning some new tricks.

Rather than give us cheaper game shows and reality fare, they might want to look into shorter seasons which might keep the cast and crew fresher and provide greater variety in the offerings. It used to be, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the thirteen weeks between seasons would either be reruns or cheaper series that also served as testing grounds for new talent and new concepts. By the 1970s that notion got lost as reruns almost exclusively filled the airwaves. In the 1990s, competition from cable had the networks offering up more shows or, like Fox, debuting their new seasons earlier in an effort to introduce their series when people were seeking something new and to avoid rolling out the shows right before interrupting them for the baseball post-season.

I certainly long for more variety among the choices available to us and certainly don’t need 22 episodes of marginally entertaining shows that might be keeping better, more interesting fare off the air.

Next week’s announcement will bear watching. We’ll talk more after all five networks speak.

3 comments

  • That’s a small number of episodes per season, if memory serves, LOST has been unusual in having a large number of episodes per season — the Trek shows usually have 26 episodes per season, but most network television has 22. Well, hopefully the box sets will be that much cheaper.

    Speaking of which, I started watching my DS9 box sets again about a month ago — I just started Season 3. It’s great to watch all the episodes so close together and get to see the arcs and the small character details the writers put in so early. God I miss this show.

  • Oh – and I was very happy to learn that BSG’s 4th season has been announced at 13 episodes. After a mediocre third and second-half-of-the-second seasons, I’m hoping the shorter seasons will return to the high quality of the first season (BSG’s gotta be one of the few shows I can think of where the first season was better then the successive seasons).

  • surabin

    And this is the way the Brits do it and for some reason people think Brit TV is the best, and this is why my wife is pissed that Life on Mars is finished after only 2 seasons with less than 24 episodes.