Television in Trimesters

Remember when the TV season began right around the time you (or, if you're older than me, your kids) went back to school and ended right around the time school let out for the year? (And yeah, I'm doing this on an American bias; school and television in other countries are different.) Back then—and it wasn't that long ago, folks, 'cause I'm not that old—it was assumed there was no reason to bother programming for the summer because people went out and did stuff. Like, took vacations. Or just spent time outside. So the summer television slate was filled with reruns of stuff people may have missed (and forgotten to set a VCR to record).

Then the DVR and cable's On Demand options began to change the television landscape. People didn't need to wait for summer reruns, didn't have to go to the hassle of figuring out their VCRs, because the cable box could save their shows for them. Or, even better, they could find the show On Demand and watch it whenever. Vacation wasn't just for summer any more.

On top of this, with the proliferation of WiFi and remote offices, of being always connected to one's job, true vacations became a thing of the past. Sure, go to Italy. Just don't forget your laptop and Blackberry.

AND . . . As we got busier, we got lazier. Our computer-centric lifestyles have made us immobile. We sit. A lot. And drive. A lot. And when we sit in front of the TV, we want something other than reruns.

So: people aren't going out in the summer any more, aren't spending their sunny days outdoors, are instead working 'round the clock and then flatlining their brains in front of the television. Year round. And they won't tune into your network if you don't offer them something fresh. So began the summer television season.

This was where the networks filled time with cheap, stupid reality programs (i.e., Wipeout) and the occasional evening game show (Who Wants to Be an Idiot While Everyone Is Looking?). Bonus: the nets could use the increased viewing to up ad revenue and promote new fall shows. Everyone wins! Except the actual viewers who are growing obese on their couches while their brains melt out their ears.

So for a while the model was: regular fall/spring season and then this other summer season. But the summer shows were light, not appointment viewing. They were fodder for the people too poor or busy or lazy to go out and do anything with themselves over the summer break. If you didn't watch over the summer, you weren't missing anything.

But at some point (and I'm too lazy to go track down the who, what, when, &c.) a show that didn't make it to the fall/spring schedule got "dumped" in summer. And people watched. Because there was nothing else on, or maybe they were curious, or both. The network was thinking, Gotta do something with this, we paid for it, might as well use it . . . And there it was: a summer TV show. Sure, a misfit, a reject, but something other than what had been airing. And it turned out those eight or twelve episodes that were produced fit neatly into that summer slot.

People have shorter attention spans these days. They get bored faster. Shows that once could stretch themselves over 22 to 24 episodes? Not if they keep using the same gags (sitcoms) or plot devices (dramas). And dramas are expensive to produce anyway. (Well, the good ones are.) But if networks—who were already fighting to survive against the influx of cable and Netflix streaming and so forth—could spend a little less money and test the waters? Suddenly, ordering only eight or ten episodes was okay. Because it could always go in summer if nowhere else.

Summer, which had once been nothing but months of Saturday-night specials, had become a viable option for showcasing new series.

And then . . . You know how really good ice cream shops supposedly have 69 flavors? The networks began to believe they should, too.

Look at it this way: You're a network executive who has ordered 13 episodes of something. You test it over the summer, and it actually does pretty well. But can it hold up against the fall/spring heavyweights? And how much time will it take to make more episodes? It can't be ready for fall, but it can be ready for spring . . . So you start changing things up. You get your fall slate ready. But you have a bunch of pinch hitters waiting in the wings. You can pull the plug on one thing and have something else in that slot without missing a beat.

You are now looking at, really, three potential television seasons. Fall: for existing shows that will run the traditional 20+ episodes. Fall(2): for the new shows that you want to try out on people but only have a few eps in the can. Spring: for plugging the dam—if any show is leaking viewers, you pull it and stuff in yet another show to see if that works better. And Summer: for those cheap reality shows and anything else you need to either test or burn off.

This is all network, mind. Cable has been doing the summer thing for a while, too, what with True Blood and Mad Men having been summer shows. And now each spring brings more Game of Thrones. Networks and cablers are juggling shows constantly.

This is better, right? Gives more shows a chance, gives the audience more choices?

Well . . . Yes and no. For shows, it does ideally give them more chance to be "tried out" but it also makes them that much faster and easier to replace. And of course the more shows there are, the more competition.

Also, remember the ice cream shop? Well, in some cases having a lot of flavors is great. Except . . . When one is so focused on doing so many different things, one doesn't always do any of them very well. Oh, sure, the vanilla and chocolate are pretty much what one would expect. No surprises there. And there's cookie 'n' cream and . . . Oooh, cotton candy fudge ripple? Let me try . . . Yech!

We think we want variety, but what we really want are our favorite flavors done well. That's why there are so many of the same types of shows on television. Procedurals. Jesus, there are a lot of those. But that's the vanilla, that's what a lot of people want, and it's what the networks do best. Crappy family sitcoms with stereotypical roles? Check. That's chocolate. Anything more complicated starts to be a hazard: Try this new flavor . . .

I don't think it's likely we'll go back to the old fall/spring viewing schedule. As older shows die out, we'll have more and more of the kinds of things that air in the fall and come back the following summer or fall, things that preem in spring and then reappear in fall, etc. A lot of moving parts. Forces viewers to pay attention if they don't want to miss their favorite shows. Because the balls are always in the air, and you never know where they might fall.

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