May 18, 2006
What's made it worse is that the number of episodes per season for a given show has dropped from 26 to - at most - 22 (the show "24" is the obvious exception). So in the last five to ten years, networks have been stretching 22 new episodes over 35 weeks or more - from September through May - while airing the bulk of new episodes in the sweeps months. The biggest question you hear around the water-cooler regarding network TV shows is not "did you see 'such and such' last night?" but rather "is 'such and such' new tonight?" Well, the displeasure of the audience must be reaching the ears of the network executives because more and more we are seeing a change in scheduling for some shows. Fox learned back in 2004 that the ideal format for "24" was to air its season premiere in January and run it straight - without repeats - through May. It's audience wanted to know for certain that a given episode was new to make sure they didn't miss it.
Now ABC has announced that "Lost" will follow a similar format. Shows next season will run for seven straight weeks in the Fall, break for the holidays and pick back up in January for 15 straight weeks. "ER" will be doing something like this as well. "Battlestar Galactica", which airs on the sci-fi channel, breaks its twenty-episode season into two 10-episode runs (although they are starting next season closer to the traditional Fall premiere time-frame).
Is this the future? Possibly. With more entertainment options with cable and with tools like VCRs, DVRs and TiVo, the networks are no doubt looking at this new format as the way to go. Rather than have ratings ebb and flow with the rotation of repeats they are ensuring that their audience is more focused on regular viewing, especially for shows that have long story arcs. Sitcoms will probably get the same sporadic scheduling as most episodes can be viewed as stand-alone. But it seems the best way to hold an audience is to make it unthinkable to miss any episodes.
In addition to this advantage, the networks can use the hiatus breaks to run new shows that didn't make the first cut for the fall season. During "ER"s break, NBC plans on airing a series about Irish mobsters called "The Black Donnellys". If the show picks up an audience in "ER"s absence, then NBC has a strong candidate to introduce the following season. And the only repeats of "ER" will be seen in the summer, or not if the networks have alternative programming. This also encourages sales and rentals of a TV show's seasons on DVD, making it the only way a viewer can go back and catch any episodes they missed during the first run.
If this trend continues, I'm all for it. Life is too hectic to keep asking somebody "hey, is 'Lost' a repeat tonight?".
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