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Why do They Hiatus?: Network Television’s Stunted Evolution

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer


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It can’t be a hit show if everyone forgets about it!

Editor’s Note: This is a repost of a classic article, still very relevant, because right about now all the fall shows are coming out of hiatus and honestly, who can even remember what happened last season?

By the time you are able to read this, NBC’s Heroes will have made its (hopefully) triumphant return to the prime time lineup. As I have written before , I am a very big fan of this show, and I have been anxiously awaiting it to come back and finish what it started. Having said that…I almost completely forgot about it.

Back when television first started appearing in people’s homes, there were only a very few programs, playing on even fewer networks. Viewers had to know when and where each show was going to appear, or else they’d miss it forever. This was not a problem, however, since each and every episode of a given show was an event: live broadcasts that people scheduled their evenings around. Imagine a day when something as commonplace and de rigeur as a TV held all the wonder and excitement as the internet in the late nineties, and you might get a sense of how much potential had yet to be tapped from it.

As it grew in popularity, television programming evolved to a point where patterns formed, and stagnation set in. Comedies came in thirty-minute increments, often centered around a family, and were accompanied by studio audiences and laugh tracks. Dramas came in sixty-minute increments, typically centered around an individual protagonist, ended happily, and each episode had almost no connection with the ones before or after it. As for seasons, new episodes for shows would start in the fall (when kids were back at school, families were back from vacations, and everyone got back into their comfortable ruts…I mean grooves), give way to repeats (from that same season) around the Thanksgiving holiday, get back into gear in January, and mix in new and repeated material from there until the season ended in May. The summer season was television’s wasteland: nothing but repeats of everything and dreg programming aired because of contractual obligation, which no one watched except shut-ins, and kids desperate for their opiate fix.

The main assumption, upon which this entire premise rested, was that since no one watched television in the summer, no one was willing to watch television in the summer. Therefore, the television year was shortened by a full season, and so all new ad revenue generating programming had to be shoved into the remaining three.

In the past few years, several things have occurred which have mercifully changed this:

1. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? — This show was conceived as a two-week stunt for August; the slowest month of the television year. The makers grabbed a B-list talent for a host, and counted on the show’s interactivity (fans from home could ostensibly make their way to the show, and contestants had the never-before-seen “call a friend” feature) to act as a novelty draw. To everyone’s surprise, the show was a monster hit, and ABC acted fast to reap the rewards. They locked up Regis Philbin to an absurdly lucrative contract, and decided that if the numbers were that good when the show ran every night for two weeks in the summer, it would be a phenomenon during the “good” months. Before you knew it, Millionaire was running FOUR NIGHTS A WEEK during ABC’s fall primetime schedule. When the show ultimately failed, the question that remained was “Can you work with a show that is a success for a limited run, but won’t sustain an audience over a long stretch?”

2. Survivor — Shows like these are so common now that it’s pretty remarkable to consider that it was only a scant few years ago that the entire trend was kicked off. Survivor premiered in the summer of 2000 on US television (it was initially pitched to ABC and rejected, then sent overseas and made a big hit in the Netherlands, and finally picked up by CBS), and the entire idea sounded incredibly absurd: a game show that ran more or less in real time, had to air in order, and for the most part could not be re-run. It was a certain disaster…and yet the ratings continued to climb. By the time the fat gay man betrayed all his friends on the way to the championship, Survivor was a huge hit, and the paradigms of television had already started to shift. Suddenly, television executives had to come to grips with a marketplace where shows could find big audiences in the summer, and timeslots had to be carved into primetime schedules for series that, by design, could not maintain for a full season.

3. Cable Programming — Reality television series cost, on average, about six times less than a scripted show. Therefore, once the reality craze was in full swing, it was only a matter of time before cable channels started attempting their own. When hit programming started showing up on non-network channels: Trading Spaces, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, American Chopper, etc., executives now started to see that viewers would chase down content they wanted to watch, and not just defer to the big boys.

3a. The Sopranos — Related to the above, but different, is the example started by HBO, and now carried on by Showtime. With audiences fracturing, HBO realized that, ESPECIALLY for a channel that required a monthly fee to view, they needed original content that rose above and beyond traditional fare. In came The Sopranos, a brilliantly crafted show that ingeniously followed the BBC formula: limited episodes per season, high production values, incessant repeats. The pressure to meet episode quotas was eliminated, and the results were astonishing. What’s even better is that, in the wake of HBO’s success, networks from F/X to Lifetime soon followed suit and made shows that are almost equally as provocative and entertaining. These days, just about everyone’s top ten lists of favorite shows includes something from this model.

Image 4. 24 — A typical season of a typical dramatic show was made up of 22 standalone episodes, which made summer repeats a breeze to schedule. What then to do with 24, a show that featured 24 episodes, each one tied inexorably the one before and after it? It was not only bold television, it was an insane project: it could not be re-run, since the order was so important, and viewers coming to it late would be hopelessly lost, and thus it would be nearly impossible for the numbers to rise. However, the gamble paid off in a big way. 24 was enormous, and it showed that viewers will remain cultishly loyal to a storyline, even if it means keeping complicated plots in their heads from one week to the next.

5. TiVo/DVDs/Downloads — Today, technology has made television viewing increasingly controlled by the viewer. Once somebody makes the decision to see a show, there are many ways to accomplish this above and beyond waiting for it to air. This has both helped and hindered the networks. On one hand, the ability to purchase and keep a show has given old shows a new life, and current shows a longer life. Networks now have a revenue stream for their backlog that never before could be exploited. However, the drop in traditional ratings means that ad revenues are falling, along with the opportunities to promote their shows. In other words, before a viewer can start following a new show, they have to know its there, and they have to care enough to look for it.

This pretty much brings us to today. Even as the debate about the quality of today’s movies rages on, television is undoubtedly in the midst of a second coming. Great, compelling programming can be found many different channels, with new stuff appearing year-round.  Today’s TV watcher has more good options than ever before, and if a favorite show begins to disappoint, there are a half dozen other options out there to take its place.

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Once you hit the top, there’s nowhere to go but down.

Unfortunately for the major networks, they have yet to grasp the full ramifications of the evolution they themselves helped to create. Lost is a perfect example. Lost might be (or at least it was when it debuted) the most ambitious dramatic series on television: a supernatural yet realistic account of people who survive a plane crash onto a mysterious island full of secrets. It was a huge success…and yet it nearly dropped the ball during its first season by hiding new episodes between repeats so much throughout the year. Season two was better than the first, both creatively and with its scheduling, and the ratings showed. And then…there’s this year.

Lost‘s Season Three has been, by almost all accounts, a disaster . Story-wise, the writers seemed to abandon the characters and plots that kept the show brisk and fun, in order to focus on elements that were either inscrutable or simply uninteresting. Then, after airing eight or nine new episodes, and only just beginning to hit on some good material…they went off the air. For MONTHS! Now, with the resumption of new shows, the creators are playing a desperate game of catch-up with their fans, and no one can seem to figure out why the ratings are no longer as good as they once were. These aren’t the days of Dallas anymore: if you lose us, we’re going to go elsewhere.

And this brings me ALL the way back to my original thesis: Heroes nearly screwed up too. This show had been VERY good about keeping its viewers titillated with new episodes, and few repeats. I was a loyal viewer, despite the fact that I did not own a DVR, and that it was scheduled against another show that I watch regularly.*

*That show is 24, which has figured this whole thing out. New episodes begin in January, and run consecutively until the season ends. (I can’t believe I’m about to type this…) Well done, Fox!

Then, at some point in early March, Heroes let it be known that they were going off the air until late April. With that much time, excitement can wear off, and time can be allotted elsewhere. Not only did NBC risk losing the important ad revenue that comes from having a consistently high-rated show, but they also risk the long-term affects of having people lose interest in a story that stretches on too long.

Television has forever shifted to a medium where the consumer is now in charge more than ever before. With that power comes fickleness; we don’t care WHERE are shows come from, only that we enjoy watching them. We’re not going to keep our dial locked onto one channel and wait for something good; if you disappoint us, we’re gone.

Networks, you’re in a Darwinian landscape now. It’s survival of the fittest; either evolve, or die.

 

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Author: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

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