One of the biggest television shows next season won't air until the season is nearly over – and that should tell you something about broadcasters' wavering loyalty to the traditional September-May broadcast season.
Fox plans to debut its 12-episode "24" revival in May, and use it to launch another much-hyped, limited-run series, M. Night Shyamalan's "Wayward Pines." The network is following the lead of NBC, which used an unconventional April launch date for "The Voice" in 2011 to build it into a hit.
Gone are the days that broadcast networks bet the house on shows by debuting them at the start of the season with plans for a 22- or 24-episode run. Like their cable rivals, they are taking a year-round approach to programming — and it's changing the way they unveil their schedules to advertisers at the upfront presentations in New York.
The traditional season, with regularly scheduled sweeps periods, is still useful to advertisers and networks. But some of the old ways are clearly losing their appeal to network programmers, who are coping with falling ratings and increased competition from cable and online.
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Midseason replacements used to be just that – replacements. Now, networks are holding promising shows for midseason – or late midseason. Or summer.
Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly goes so far as to say he'd "like to strike the phrase midseason from our lexicon, frankly."
"The cable networks roll things out and use all their resources to focus on a couple of shows at a time, and we do these mass releases at once," Reilly told TheWrap. "It's a bit, I think, beyond its usefulness. … It doesn’t mean the business is broken, it just means it's time to break from the pack."
Networks are also ordering fewer episodes of scripted series – or ordering limited-run series that they could, if viewers really twisted their arms, turn into regular shows. It saves them from big commitments and big failures.
There's nothing new about limited-run series – aka "miniseries" — even if they disappeared from the networks for a few years. Jimmy Kimmel joked at ABC's upfront Tuesday that ABC had several miniseries recently – then listed shows the network had canceled.
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The short-order approach to episodes is new, however. It worked for Fox this season with "The Following," one of the year's few successful new shows. It aired just 15 episodes.
Fox will take the same approach with some shows this coming season, and ABC is adopting it with the 13-episode, juicy drama "Betrayal," slated for fall. First-place network CBS, meanwhile, ordered just 15 episodes of its upcoming Monday drama, "Hostages." And CBS is launching the Stephen King limited-run series "Under the Dome" (left) on June 24.
Broadcasters are more risk-averse – and more desperate to cover their bases year-round – because ratings are down dramatically in the last five years. This season, the four biggest networks have all slipped in the key 18-49 demographic, and every network but CBS, which is up slightly, have slid in total viewers. One executive at Univision's upfront Tuesday said ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC "used to be called the Big 4 networks."
Now networks are taking lessons from the cable networks eating into their audiences. Cable learned long ago to program some of their strongest shows in the months when broadcasters didn't have much to offer. Now the grid is so filled with so many shows year-round that networks can no longer essentially take summers off.
Online offers yet more options. Viewers can watch Netflix shows like "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development" – premiering May 26 – whenever they want to. Never before has so much high-quality, original programming been available to viewers whenever they want it. (Netflix rubbed that fact in network's faces by setting up an "Arrested Development" banana stand near the NBC and ABC upfronts.)
Even if year-round programming destroys, as Reilly hopes, the concept of midseason, fall will remain the anchor of the TV year for the time being – partly because of football. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" is easily the most-watched primetime show, and the NFL brings in huge ratings for Fox, as well.
And debuting shows at unusual times of year doesn't always work the way it did for "The Voice." People still need to want to watch the shows.
ABC premiered "Duets," its answer to "The Voice," "American Idol" and "X Factor," last May – and it disappointed.
Just like countless shows that air in the fall and midseason.