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Crosstalk: Is The American TV "Season" Outmoded?

Noel: So Scott, we're about a week away from the re-starts of The Shield and The Sopranos, and once they première, fans can count on seeing new episodes every week until the respective season finales. Not only that, but if fans miss the initial airing of those episodes, they'll have other chances to catch up throughout the week. Meanwhile, fans of Heroes are drumming their fingers, waiting for a show that was hotter than Arkansas asphalt a couple of weeks ago to come back and tell us how this year's story ends. And those who enjoy The Amazing Race—many of whom missed the last two weeks' worth of episodes because of NCAA basketball run-over—have had to rely on TV blog recaps to fill in the gaps.

Media-wise, we're clearly living through an age of transition. Record stores—and CD sales—are on the wane, while digital downloads are up. The Amazon UnBox and Apple TV have just been unveiled, both promising to move us away from watching blurry, buffering videos on our computers, and toward watching pristine, legal copies of recent Hollywood hits on our HDTVs. And Hollywood itself, without bothering to alert all those entertainment magazines and trade publications that spend months putting together "Summer Movie Preview" issues, has apparently decided that the new blockbuster event calendar is year-round. A year ago, a studio opening a Will Ferrell comedy like Blades Of Glory on the last weekend of March would've been showing a lack of confidence in the film's chances. Now, after the success of Norbit, Wild Hogs, Ghost Rider, and 300, it just looks like smart business: See an open Friday and fill it.

When it comes to the major TV networks, though, change has been coming slowly. They've just begun to realize the Internet's power to increase a show's fan base, thanks largely to iTunes-fueled hits like The Office. Yet even with multiple cable subsidiaries to partner with for repeat airings and cross-promotion, the networks largely remain locked into 24-episode seasons that run from September to May, with each episode airing once a week, followed by an often-illogical repeat schedule during non-sweeps months.

Now, I grew up with the old model of American TV scheduling, and I still find some charm in it. But before I rise to its defense, let's beat it up some more. Scott, should the networks move to the cable model of three-month seasons, which are often fully scripted and shot before the first episode airs? Or maybe even the British model of six-episode "series," sometimes separated by a year or more? Would TV be better if it were scarcer and more tightly planned?

Scott: My answer to every one of your questions is "depends," but before I get into what sorts of shows might work better in six- or 12- or 22-episode seasons, I'll say that without question, the old model for major network TV shows has grown antiquated. We live in a TiVo world now, where DVRs, online videos from iTunes and network sites, and OnDemand have made traditional scheduling largely irrelevant to the tech-savvy consumer. Simply put, we want what we want when we want it, and it matters less and less when a show appears on the schedule, because that isn't necessarily when we're going to watch it anyway. Unless it's a live event, like sports, there's no reason for viewers to plant themselves on the couch at 8 p.m. and watch their favorite show as it unspools. Of course, that prospect has always been alarming to advertisers, who would prefer we not skip past their commercials, but the advent of DVRs and online video has been nirvana for couch potatoes such as ourselves, who can watch substantially more television in substantially less time. For networks, I think that means greater flexibility is essential as television moves forward and viewers continue to enjoy more power in dictating the terms of how they watch it.

As for how to shake up the old model, that's a much more nuanced question. I'm not a television executive, so I can't speak to the economics of going with six- or 12-episode runs instead of the traditional two dozen, but I'm guessing that networks rely on hit shows to become part of viewers' weekly routines. If Thursday is Must-See Comedy night on NBC, then an abbreviated run just won't do the trick, because you need 22 episodes to keep the balls in the air—either that, or a much greater arsenal of quality sitcoms waiting to fill those slots. And I seriously doubt such a thing is possible. Unlike cable channels, which can get away with showing movies or repeats in the endless hours between new episodes, the major networks have to turn out original programming far more frequently. An outlet like Bravo can basically turn into the Project Runway Channel for a day (or a week), but can you imagine NBC filling 12 hours with back-to-back Deal Or No Deal reruns?

But let me pretend for a minute that I'm completely oblivious to how networks operate—which wouldn't be that far from the truth anyway—and could dictate what I'd want in a perfect world. For network dramas, especially serialized shows like Lost or even Heroes, I'd argue for fewer episodes and finite runs, something closer to the cable model of The Shield, The Sopranos, and The Wire. When a show like Lost becomes a hit and it's unclear when the run will come to an end, it puts the writers in the impossible position of having to keep the show moving forward without knowing when the third act is coming, much less how they're going to get there. For Lost, the solution has been to add more elements to its ever-more-cryptic mythology, which has confused and frustrated a lot of its supporters. And that condition has been exacerbated by Lost's monthlong breaks, which occasionally come between episodes. (For that reason alone, I've heard many people testify that Lost's second season plays much better on DVD than it did when it originally aired.) And as much as I'd credit Heroes for plotting a long run more effectively—though, granted, we're still in season one here—there's little doubt in my mind that the show would be far more purposeful and exciting were it tightened to 12 episodes instead of spread out over eight months.

And yet, at times, the old model works just fine. A perfect example for me is The Office. In terms of quality, I find the difference between the British and American versions to be more or less negligible. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant created a perfect show, beautifully conceived and executed at every turn, and the whole thing wrapped up in two six-episode "series" and a special. In spite of having to turn out 22 episodes a season, the improbably good American version hasn't dipped much in quality, and the extra time has allowed for a more expansive cast of characters that I wouldn't want to live without. (To quote Michael Scott: "You think Stanleys grow on trees? Well, they don't. There is no Stanley tree.") For half-hour comedies especially, there's something to be said for the traditional long season, because it simply means more good television, and who's to argue with that? In The Office, certain ongoing storylines, like the "Jim and Pam" non-romance, advance over the course of a season, but those developments can inch forward slowly without anyone getting restless. All that's really required of a half-hour comedy is that it be funny week after week. So in that respect, I'm more grateful to the American version for simply providing more entertainment than the abbreviated British run.

I know it's easy to bash these lumbering network warhorses for being woefully out of touch. But is there an argument to be made for the old way of doing things?


Noel: Well, you've tapped one of them, which is the prolificacy thing. You said that networks need a lot of episodes of certain shows to keep viewers tuning in on a week-in, week-out basis—not to mention needing to reach a certain threshold in order to make money off the syndication rights—and to a large extent, that addiction to certain characters and storylines is what distinguishes television from other media.

Television as a medium can be used lots of ways, but lately, the debate seems to boil down to two opposing perspectives: should TV be telling long, involved stories with lots of character development, or should it just show us the characters we love in individual playlets that only offer the illusion of change? Consider one of the more divisive recent Lost episodes, "Tricia Tanaka Is Dead." (No real spoilers here, by the way, for those of you who catch up with Lost on DVD… and more on that phenomenon in a moment.) To those who've been watching Lost because they're interested in following its long, involved narrative, "Tricia Tanaka Is Dead" was a wasted hour, in which nothing significant happened. "They spent the whole episode trying to start a car," I heard more than one friend grumble. But to those who enjoy spending time with Lost's characters, "Tricia Tanaka Is Dead" was one of the best episodes of the season so far, bringing a lot of people who hadn't spent much time together this year into the same space, and letting them (and us) just enjoy the company. (Of course, there's another group of Lost fans, who fervently believe that even a literally wheel-spinning episode like "Tricia Tanaka Is Dead" will one day make sense in the larger scheme of the show. I sympathize with those dudes, but I think their hopes may be too high.)

The problem with the old model—the "spending time with characters you like" model—is that, as you point out, TV fans increasingly don't watch shows in the old weekly way. I still do, by and large, because I read a lot of TV blogs, and I hate to be too far behind the action. I record my favorite shows, but I rarely wait more than a day—or even an hour—to watch them. But I've also had the experience of watching shows like The Shield, Gilmore Girls, and Battlestar Galactica via DVD sets and cable-network marathons, then making the shift to weekly viewing once I got caught up, and I can see the difference between watching a bunch of episodes in a big chunk, when everything seems to fit together fairly well, and watching them once a week, where a stiff, go-nowhere episode can feel like the beginning of the end.

The only comparable dilemma I can think of in any other medium is in comics, where fans increasingly prefer to wait for the trade collections on series they enjoy, rather than buying six or eight issues over the course of a year. Of course, if everyone waits for the trade, the series gets cancelled, and no trade ever gets produced. (Oops.) And some of us still like the feeling of walking into a comics shop and walking out with a stack of floppies, even if they cost way too much—and clutter up the house way too much—for the 15 minutes of entertainment they're going to provide.

That's kind of how I am with television, too. As much as the critic in me wishes that more shows were tightly plotted with an endpoint in mind—like the "novel on film" ideal that the medium rarely comes close to reaching—I confess that I also head into any given evening just looking for something to watch. Which also appears to be the case for the vast majority of TV watchers, who've made miss-a-week-it-doesn't-matter procedural shows and reality shows the real ratings champs of the past decade, even as critics have been championing serials.


Scott: It's my sincerest hope that the miss-a-week-it-doesn't-matter shows will eventually become more the exception than the rule, though we're still far from that ideal. I haven't watched a minute of any of those CBS procedurals—Without A Trace, Cold Case, CSI, etc.—but their dominant ratings are undeniable, so they won't be going away any time soon. Now that shows can be watched in so many different ways (on the Internet, on DVRs, on DVD), the playing field has been leveled substantially for serials, because even if you decided to do something else with a given evening, it's possible to catch up with an episode (or every episode) and not lose the thread. For me, the "something to watch" philosophy is annoyingly passive. I've come to expect more from the shows I follow. I'm more forgiving of comedies that don't advance from week to week than dramas, because it's frustrating to see characters who are left unaffected by the things that have happened to them. Shouldn't sifting through dozens upon dozens of grisly crime scenes every week eventually have an impact on the lives of the CSI investigators?

A prime example for me is House. I respect House. I think it's an entertaining show, and I don't begrudge those who tune in every week, because I can never tear myself away from an episode once I've started watching it. And yet I stopped watching it after season one, because little ever changed: Every week, it was SSDD—Same Shit, Different Disease. Which is a shame, because the House character, so brilliantly played by Hugh Laurie, would probably have a lot to offer if we were ever given the opportunity to witness him evolve over time. I haven't seen the Lost episode you mention, but as a general rule, I'm wary of "placeholder" episodes in serialized shows, even as I acknowledge that they're probably necessary over the long haul. This year's season of Battlestar Galactica is a good case in point: The first four episodes, set on the besieged colony of New Caprica, were as good as any in that show's stellar history—tense, purposeful, and politically audacious in their references to the Iraq occupation. Then once things returned to normal and everyone was back on the ship, the momentum quickly slipped away. Having watched a couple of "placeholder" episodes—including a real stinker involving a pilot we've never seen miraculously reappearing and then disappearing forevermore—I currently have the final eight episodes languishing on my DVR, and haven't worked up the interest to watch them. That's the danger of serialized shows: Like sharks, they have to keep moving or they die. The trouble is, if the writers don't know when they're going to reach their final destination, such wheel-spinning is unavoidable.

All that said, the novel-on-film ideal isn't really all that rare any more, and we're watching it happen with The Wire, The Shield, and The Sopranos—all shows that keep building on seasons past and working off an accumulated history. I just blew through the fifth season of The Shield over the weekend, and the entire arc of that season is staked on an event that happened in the very first episode of the first season, when a cop killed another cop who was trying to infiltrate his crew and expose them for corruption. And we don't have the bandwidth to get into The Wire, which has evolved into the greatest novel-on-film ever produced, and regularly plants minor details in one episode that will pay off several episodes or even seasons down the line. The Wire will wrap up its run after the fifth season next year, and it definitely feels like it was intended to last precisely that long. Most shows don't have the luxury of planning far in advance exactly when they're going to get cancelled.

To bring this back to the main thread, I think 12-episode seasons are just about right, because it's too much of a challenge for a show to maintain quality control over twice as many episodes. It can be exhausting for viewers, too: 24 would lose its real-time gimmick if it were cut in half—though at least poor Kiefer could get a little sleep—but 24 hours of nonstop action and twists sounds a lot more appealing than it turns out to be. I applaud my current favorite Friday Night Lights for stretching out quite comfortably across a full season, but even that fine show has to plug in melodramatic subplots (a bipolar girlfriend! the MILF next door and her precocious imp of a son!) that I'm guessing would be dropped if it had only 12 episodes to fill. While I can sympathize with the major networks' need to fill out a much larger and more commercial schedule than its cable counterparts, I think there's room for experimentation with serialized shows with a finite endpoint. Consider them "maxi-series": Instead of a four-hour miniseries over two nights, how about trying a six- or 12-hour maxiseries over a series of weeks with no breaks between them where you forget about everything that happened? I'm guessing that networks could attract big-name talent this way, too, because they wouldn't have to commit to the purgatory of a long run on television. Had they been forced to commit to more than one glorious season apiece on The Shield, do you think Glenn Close or Forest Whitaker would have signed on? Probably not.

At the beginning of this Crosstalk, you cited a number of recent films—Wild Hogs, Norbit, Ghost Rider, and 300—that opened to blockbuster numbers during a part of the movie year generally reserved for less promising box-office fare. I think you're right to observe that the industry is changing, and there's no reason that can't happen with network television, which all but shuts down during the summer months. I wonder whether there's still much logic to everyone releasing their shows at once. Granted, there's something exciting about spending a few weeks separating wheat from chaff, but I wonder if a modest, critically acclaimed show like Friday Night Lights would have received a better shake had it come out after the storm, when there's less competition for press and promo space. Again, I'm sure TV executives have their reasons, but the medium is more viewer-controlled now than ever, and it's worth rethinking how viewers might like to receive their programming.

Here's a challenge for you, Noel: Pretend you've just been hired as a programmer at a major network. How would you do things differently? I know you get excited about the start of a new TV season (please, please share with us your TV Guide-aided planning ritual), but has its time passed?

Noel: Wow, I'm in charge! I feel like the Barefoot Executive.

You raise an interesting point about Friday Night Lights, though I'm not sure I agree with you about the timing of its première. Not everyone reads magazines—or websites, ahem—so a large part of the TV audience finds out about new shows by watching TV. That's why NBC can justify spending millions of dollars an episode to keep something like Friends on an extra year, because it brought eyes to the set, where those eyes were exposed to promos for new NBC shows. (Not that it helped much back then, when the network's programming was at a low ebb.) Given that, I think the networks could do a better job with staggering returning shows and new ones—maybe by unveiling each one a month apart or so, to make them more of an event.

Also, I'm with you in thinking that it's time for the networks to stop building around "the new fall season." As it is, we already end up with a slew of midseason replacements, and as series like American Idol and 24 have proven, it's possible to keep an audience's attention even if a show is only airing four months out of the year. Why not stay on that course? Let the seasons follow the seasons: fall, winter, spring, and maybe even summer, with 12- to 15-episode runs in each. Maybe the nets could run a new set of shows each season, or maybe some shows could run two seasons a year.

Of course, that's pie-in-the-sky talk, and doesn't take into account special events like the Oscars or the Olympics, which pre-empt shows. Nor does it consider the new shows that get cancelled early, leaving holes in the schedule. (In my version of TV reality, all series would get to run at least 12 episodes.) But it would be an interesting experiment, and make the premières of new shows feel special again, like they did when I was a kid, and—as you've embarrassingly remembered on my behalf—I'd ritually pore over the Fall Preview issue of TV Guide, ballpoint pen in hand.

At the least, I'd like to see networks start treating serialized dramas and cult shows a little differently than they do the Datelines and CSIs, which draw viewers no matter when they air. A lot of the success of The Closer on basic cable is due to the fact that TNT has aired several Closer marathons, catching people just looking for something to watch on a Saturday afternoon, and bringing them up to speed in a single day. Other TV critics and bloggers have made this suggestion, but it would be great if networks devoted Fridays and Saturdays to running mini-marathons of their serialized shows, giving audiences a chance to immerse themselves a little, like they do with TV-on-DVD. These are expensive assets, and it's a shame how carelessly they get thrown away. Because who knows? The characters in today's quick-to-the-ashcan serial could be the people that America can't wait to tune in for every week—or at least 12 to 15 weeks out of the year.