Rethinking the Fall TV season schedule
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 23:09
Fall is my favorite time of year. The bees go away, the leaves change, a rhythm is found with classes and the weather gets cooler, or at least less humid. I can pull off an outfit in shorts or jeans and a hoodie and still feel comfortable. However, the part about fall that I really love more than anything else is the television.
That’s right, as students settle into a new year and graduates settle into work, the coveted 18-49 year-old advertising demographic is ready for a cavalcade of new shows. Anyone who has been online or bothered to watch a commercial for the past few weeks knows that the big four networks—CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC—are gearing up their cadre of new comedies and dramas to attract your attention. I love the fall TV season and until recently I thought I always would.
I thought this because it didn’t occur to me that there might be a better system for rolling out new series. A recent New York Times article by Bill Carter did some research on the fall season system and found that the now 60 year-old system, which is meant to be the 34.5 weeks between mid-September and mid-May, was merely a marketing ploy to make the new television shows coincide with the new model year for cars.
However, just because its origins are arbitrary doesn’t necessarily mean that the system itself is flawed. After all, the amount of coverage that the new pairings of fall-lineups have been receiving has to be indicative of something. Turns out, it is. Blocking shows together in a bundle of new and potential successes is the big four’s way of dueling it out over who will have the monopoly on Thursday, Wednesday or whatever night’s ad revenue. This is an arbitrary battle in an arbitrary system.
If they are willing to battle it out over which network becomes top dog, why are they restricted to doing so the same seven days out of the same 34.5 weeks out of the year? You know who doesn’t hold to that logic and has been making out like a bandit by releasing new seasons and shows all year round? Cable networks. AMC, which cleaned house at the Emmys on Sunday, has gotten advertisers to pay top dollar for ad time with shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” or FX’s “Louie,” another Emmy hit. These cable networks premiered their shows over the summer when the airwaves were a barren desert of repeats and anticipation for fall. The hit show “The Walking Dead,” which will appropriately emerge from the ruble of this fall scheduling mess next month, looks to be an insanely valuable advertising opportunity. Networks have 54 weeks to fill but only 34.5 weeks to premiere original content. The end result is noise.
According to Carter’s article, NBC has estimated that the number of returning cable and network shows will jump in 2012 from 633 to 1,122, with most premiering in the next couple of days. In that same article, FX network has done research on tracking data and found that none of the new premiering shows have reached 10 percent in viewer awareness, a figure that the president of the network called the “I am surely going to try this new series” category. The possible reason is that the clutter of shows that they’re forced to up the ante with every year has created a noisy television atmosphere in which the viewer doesn’t know which show to bother with next. After all, the best part about television is discussing it over the water cooler the next day. With a possible 1,122 shows premiering, that’s an absurd number or water cooler trips, so why even bother?
There’s no real danger in doing away with the archaic Nielson system. Sure, Hollywood would have to adapt to the change, but the end result would be that the 365 day a year business is treated like a 365 day a year business. The big four’s ongoing chess game to dominate the airwaves with premium content to garner the most ad revenue would extend across the entire calendar and viewers would be able to stagger the viewing of their favorite shows across the entire year. There would be no more summer drought and we could all enjoy the premieres of our favorite network shows at the most strategic time possible so that they don’t get lost in the noise of the fall season system.