Summer brings great opportunities for family togetherness from vacations to the beach, or trips to foreign lands or even just relaxing around the house gardening and doing crafts. Many people take this opportunity to break out of the hum-drum routine that defines the rest of the year by going to the theater, concerts or movie house to catch one of the summer blockbusters. The reason for all this activity is simple: There’s nothing good on TV.
For decades, the networks have released new episodes of existing shows and premiered new original programming in the fall; typically around the end of August to mid September. The shows would continue to air new episodes every week until Spring; usually around May. Oh, they would air a rerun or two during the holidays if the competition with another network was too great, but in that time—20-25 weeks—there were new episodes most weeks. In fact, in the 60’s, some shows were one two or three times a week.
A prime time television series ran approximately 16 episodes in a season over that 20-25 week fall/winter span. The time slot remained assigned to that show over the summer, but the series reran the episodes from that prior season for those who missed them and of course, to make more money from commercial breaks to offset the cost of production and licensing.
Today, things have changed. It seems there is no season anymore. Shows air episodes whenever the network chooses, and that appears—for the most part—quite random. Some networks run shows on different nights of the week—even airing two separate new episodes the same week. Some shows will just skip a couple of weeks and the network will air other shows instead; not always new shows either. It is getting to the point where a person can no longer plan on regular viewing of their favorite show.
Some shows are filming fewer episodes as well, as few as 13 episodes in a season instead of 16. “Game of Thrones,” a new series on HBO, only aired 9 episodes in its premiere season and announced that the next season won’t air for another year. “True Blood” made fans wait for more than a year for the season premiere of its fourth season.
Networks have long had to balance the cost of producing shows against the revenues generated from selling commercial airtime. For each hour-long show that airs, only 40-42 minutes is actually allocated for the show; the rest of the time is for commercials. The production costs can get quite cumbersome, with some shows costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode once actors and writers and producers and directors and crew salaries are factored in with effects, set design and construction and special effects costs. Networks, looking to maximize profits, are looking for cheaper shows to air. This is where ‘Reality TV’ came into being. Shows like “Survivor”, “American Idol,” and too many others to list here fill the program guide. No name-brand actors, no scripts, no special effects means cheaper production and, if the show is popular, they can get just as much ad revenue. This means more profit and that is the defining factor in network executive’s heads.
The cable networks are in a slightly better position than the broadcast networks in that since the premium networks are subscription based, they know how much money is coming in ahead of time and can budget for it. This is why shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Pillars of the Earth” are so well done with cinematic production values. That coupled with the fact that there is no FCC censorship issues that networks contend with allows the cable channels to offer more titillating fare with sexual themes and nudity to draw in viewers that may otherwise not watch.
But here again, the cable networks do not subscribe to a season model. They debut a show whenever they want to, and end it the same way; even if it is only a 9 episode “season” like “Game of Thrones”. NBCUniversal, which owns the SYFY network, has been adopting the “half-season” model. Airing only 6-8 episodes at a time then taking a 3-6 month hiatus before debuting new episodes. This tactic seems particularly stupid because, in those 3-6 months, viewer loyalty wanes. The fan favorites “Heroes” and “V” fell victim to this programming dilemma.
Unfortunately, with the increase of reality programming like “Wipeout”, “The Voice”, “Amazing Race,” etc. and the decrease in scripted original shows such as “Law & Order” or “Smallville,” the complete lack of originality in the few shows that are produced like “The Vampire Diaries,” it is getting more common to hear people lament about what’s on the TV. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe we all need to get out more and spend more time with our families, take in a play or go to the symphony. That way, people can look forward to saying “there’s nothing good on TV.”