DVRs and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are changing how we watch TV shows, but there’s still something to be said about keeping viewers engaged throughout the year.
Lately, it seems that network TV show seasons are being broken up into two parts, with a long hiatus between them. Does this strategy work?
The model seems to be an attempt to follow what the premium cable outfits—your HBO and your FX—do with their shorter seasons. Network TV shows average about 22 episodes a season, while cable shows average 10 to 13. In effect, the networks are making two half-seasons and spreading them out over the year.
It’s a strategy with merits—it gives the network more opportunities to attract an audience with “new” material over the year, sort of how comics publishers will restart the numbering of a series to goose sales. It used to be 22 straight weeks of new episodes and then repeats for the rest of the year. Now the network will get the audience for a dozen or so weeks, twice a year. But what if it’s not working out that way?
What I’ve noticed is that I have a harder time getting back into shows I only have a middling interest in after the mid-year hiatus. I have no problem getting back into my favorite shows, but others just end up in my DVR backlog. There are currently three episodes of Supergirl and three of Gotham in the DVR. There are none of Arrow or The Flash.
I’m finding that after the break, my desire to watch a show is greatly diminished, which is the opposite of what the networks want to happen. I can also forget outright that a show is coming back after a hiatus. If the show is the only one I’m currently watching on a particular channel and it’s on break, that means I don’t see commercials or anything from that channel to know when the show returns. It just pops back up on the DVR. I’m also wondering why the networks don’t take better advantage of the ten-week (or so) gaps between half-seasons to try to keep the viewers invested in their shows.
ABC and Marvel’s TV division do this with Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Marvel’s Agent Carter. When the former goes on its mid-year break, the latter fills the gap with new episodes. The two shows exist in a shared continuity so there’s likely a lot of viewer crossover between the two, although more could probably be done to to highlight the two shows’ connection, the better to grow their respective audiences.
ABC and Marvel are also setting themselves up to be able to have a new material on for an entire year. The next Agents of SHIELD spin-off, Marvel’s Most Wanted, is set to premiere later this year. What if ABC aired the first half-season of Agents of SHIELD, followed by Agent Carter, followed by the second half of Agents of SHIELD, and closed out the year with Most Wanted? As soon as Most Wanted was over, it would be time for the next season of Agents of SHIELD. If you think of Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, and Most Wanted not as three separate shows but as parts of one big show, what ABC effectively has is non-stop all-new Marvel television on all year.
I thought that the CW was going to do the same thing with the Arrow/Flash spin-off, Legends of Tomorrow. I thought the show was going to air when Arrow and The Flash were on hiatus. Instead, it’s airing right alongside them. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but by doing this, the CW is, in a way, competing with itself on top of the competition from other networks. Even with the convenience afforded by DVR, viewers still have a limited time to watch TV, so by making them watch three interconnected shows during the same span, it could force them to give up one of those shows. I think what ends up happening is that viewers will just wait until the end of the season and binge-watch that one show all at once.
Netflix and Amazon Prime seem to be changing viewing habits anyway, so maybe ratings as we traditionally think of them—a measure of a show’s popularity as it airs—aren’t as important anymore, not when we can watch episodes on-demand days, weeks, or months after they air. This could all be moot, but if the whole point is to create shows that viewers will binge-watch, then the mid-year hiatus strategy becomes irrelevant: If viewers like a show enough, they’ll watch it on DVR on their own pace, in a way that ensures that they remain invested and interested, no mid-year hiatus needed.
Is it better to have the show air all 22 episodes and then go on break for the rest of the year? Probably not. But I have to wonder why more networks don’t follow the Agents of SHIELD-Agent Carter model and have related shows fill in the hiatus time.