There's a column in today's Salt Lake Trib in which television columnist Vince Horiuchi comments upon the decline of the traditional TV "season." If you'll cast your mind back to the Good Ol' Days, you may recall that new programming used to run in one big consecutive block that lasted, roughly, from fall through spring, with re-runs airing during the summer. That's no longer the case, which Horiuchi thinks is a good thing. I'm not so sure myself.
When I was a kid, there were really only two seasons that mattered: schooltime and freetime. (These days, thanks to global warming or evil spirits or whatever it is that's screwed up the local climate here in Utah, there really are only two seasons, cold and hot, with none of the delightful shadings that are supposed to come between. But I digress...) The usual four climatological seasons were like overlays on top of these sociological seasons, as was the TV season. As someone who has always watched way more of the Boob Tube than is probably healthy -- my fourth-grade teacher, an anti-television crusader who made his students keep logs of their viewing, was consistently appalled by the numbers I delivered each week -- I have been acutely conscious of programming schedules for as long as I can remember. The rhythms of television in the 1970s and '80s seemed as natural to me as the changing colors of the leaves and the melting of the winter snows, as normal as the paradigm of school in the colder months and three months of laziness in the warmest ones.
The thinking at that time was that people were outdoors in the summertime and weren't watching much TV, so there was no need for new programming during that part of the year. Vince dismisses that "tired old notion" with a blithe wave of the hand, sniffing that "people still want to come in after a hot day in the sun and watch something on television. And, more to the point, they want to watch something they haven't seen before." He's probably correct -- I remember how frustrating summer evenings were sometimes because of the inescapable re-runs -- but I think he's ignoring a few important facts about the modern paradigm that replaced the "tradition" I grew up with.
First, the new "seasonless" paradigm doesn't guarantee fresh programming at all times of the year. There are still plenty of re-runs during the summer; worse, re-runs can and do appear at any time of the year. It seems that these days, most fictional programs run in six- or eight-episode cycles, with the same number of repeats in between blocks of new stuff, at least on the regular broadcast networks. (I can't speak for what happens on cable, because I'm one of those cheap bastards who won't shell out money to gain a few more channels. I manage to find plenty of free content to suck away my free time and don't really need any more choices, thank you.) Unless you follow the schedules very closely -- and who does that except losers with no life, like me? -- you never know for sure when you tune in to your favorite show if it's going to be a new one or not. This is especially problematic if you're only an occasional viewer of a particular show. For example, I enjoy both C.S.I. and E.R., but for various reasons I catch them only at random intervals; when I do manage to tune in to one of these shows, it seems at least fifty percent of the time that it's one I've seen before. (I've seen the C.S.I. in which Grissom receives a human head in the mail at least three times in the last couple of months, and it's getting really old.) I can't help but wonder if this phenemenon doesn't actually cause a show to lose viewers who get frustrated with the boom-or-bust cycle. Of course, it's also possible that this same phenemenon tends to keep less-attentive viewers from changing the channel, because they're not sure if they've seen the current episode or not (hmmm... I'm suddenly imagining a conspiracy theory involving audiences held captive by their own ignorance and forgetfulness...).
Another issue is the impact that the on-and-off cycle has on the overall quality of television programming. Horiuchi mentions the infrequent and unpredictable airings of popular cable series such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under (neither of which I've seen because of the aforementioned lack of cable in the Bennion home), and notes that the year-long delays between new episodes of these shows may actually allow producers to make them better. Presumably, the long delay enables the writers more time to hone their scripts. I can accept that as a general theory, but I don't think it necessarily follows in practice. For one thing, there are plenty of non-cable shows that follow relatively regular schedules and still manage to be consistently good -- 24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example. (There were also plenty of shows back in the days of the "fall schedule" that boasted consistently strong writing, such as All in the Family, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere, just to name a few off the top of my head.)
A handful of good shows aside, however, the overall quality of TV programming does seem to be declining, so Horiuchi's premise that no schedule results in better shows doesn't hold -- at least not on broadcast TV, which is what he started off talking about. Instead of the "no-season" paradigm leading to improved writing, it seems to have led to no writing at all with the rise of unscripted "reality" shows. The new programming offered during the summertime to Vince's hypothetical hot 'n' sweaty couch potatotes is largely composed of these glorified game shows, most of which aren't worth the powder to blow them to hell. So where's the increase of quality that Horiuchi says is coming from the freedom from a September start-date? Answer: it has been swept aside by economic concerns, which demand more and cheaper programming to fill a never-ending entertainment meat grinder.
Since the success in the late '80s of the syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was the first show I remember doing the six-new, six-repeat cycle, viewers have grown accustomed to always having a fifty-fifty shot of finding something new, just as Vince says. In order to feed that appetite, the networks must always have new content available, and content costs money, so it's in their best interests to make cheaper content. If a network is faced with the choice of funding a well-written new drama at two million bucks for six episodes or yet another variant of The Bachelor for only one million, which do you suppose it's going to back? (To be fair, there must be a market for the reality shows or it wouldn't be worth funding them at any price. That doesn't mean that their relative cheapness doesn't come into the decision of what type of show to make, however.)
This leads me to the final point Horiuchi makes that I can't quite agree with, which is that the "no-schedule" schedule actually helps new shows to succeed. He mentions that in the old days, a new show launching in September had to compete with 30 other new shows and most didn't survive the cut, whereas now a new show can be launched anytime and so have a better chance of finding its audience wihtout having to break free from the pack. Again, true in theory but wrong in practice. These days most shows seem to get six episodes or less to find their audiences, and that often isn't enough time. In the old days of a set-in-stone fall-to-spring schedule, a network would usually give a show a complete year's run of at least fifteen or twenty episodes in order to work out the kinks in its format and find viewers. Granted, this would occasionally backfire and leave the network stuck with a ratings blackhole for the year, but it also allowed shows that started off mediocre to grow into their potential. A prime example is a show that most people seem to hold dear to their hearts, M*A*S*H, which was a relative failure in its first season. The aforementioned All in the Family is another, as is Magnum, P.I., Star Trek, and a lot of other acknowledged classics that all took time to start drawing viewers.
Nowadays, if a show isn't an instant success, the networks pull it before it has a chance to grow. Sometimes, a program doesn't even get enough episodes for potential viewers to realize it has started. Chris Carter's Harsh Realm comes to mind, a show I was interested in seeing but which was cancelled before I was even conscious of it being on the air. If I remember correctly, it lasted all of three episodes. I realize, of course, that there are a lot of factors contributing to this sort of impatience, but I do feel that the seasonless paradigm is the major one. If Fox had been committed to giving Carter's show a year's run as it would have been twenty years ago, perhaps it wouldn't have been so quick to declare the show a failure. The series might still have been cancelled, but at least it would have had a fighting chance.
There are those who would say that it's ridiculous to call something like a TV programming schedule a tradition, and even more ridiculous to mourn its loss. I can only imagine what Mr. LeBaron, my old school teacher, would say if he could read this. Still, the programming schedule really was a tradition of a sort, and I mourn its loss. I miss the days when the premiere of a new show was an event that was tied to a definite time of year. It went hand-in-hand with the smell of dry leaves and woodsmoke as well as the nip in the air that told you Halloween was just around the corner. The coming of new shows that you'd seen advertised all summer long produced the same sort of pleasure that you used to get from unwrapping a package on Christmas Day and finding that One Special Toy that you'd been dreaming of since August. In the neverending drive to do everything faster, cheaper and more conveniently, we've left a lot of the little pleasures of life by the wayside. Who'd have thought that September start-dates would be one of them?