Thursday, May 24th, 2012

The Slow Death of the Traditional Television Season

If you haven't noticed, this isn't the end of 2012 (and according to my Mayan friend, Maya, the end of the universe). We are drawing a distinction between a Season In Review and a Year In Review, as to celebrate the traditional television season. But in doing so, I realized the idea of the television season itself doesn’t seem to loom as large as it once did. The excitement over finales and the despair over time apart from favorite shows feels shorter lived. Mostly, it doesn’t feel final, as it's not like television is going anywhere. If anything, the summer is a more exciting time for television as for so long it was a period lacking really any original programming but has recently grown to be the home of the most dynamic comedies.

The idea of the television season starting in the fall originated not with the invention of the television but the rise of the automobile. Television has always been an advertisement-based platform and when television began, the only major national advertisable industry was cars. Since every year new cars were being introduced in September, September was when the television season would start. There was no reason to put up new shows in the summer if all the major ad dollars were coming in the fall. And it just stuck; regardless of the fact that many car companies have moved much of their advertising to the summer months as a lead up to September and to correspond with summer sales on soon-to-be year-old models. Sure, there is something to be said about how people go on vacation during the summer so you don't want to launch new shows then, but that seems like an after the fact overstatement when you consider 1) that it seems unlikely a huge portion of a TV audience in a given week will be away and 2) plenty of shows have VERY successfully launched during the summer, namely American Idol. It all adds up to a general feeling of this is how it always been so this how it will be.

It's why the younger cable networks have been more willing to launch shows without regard of the time of year, as they are most focused on just getting people to their channels, especially the subscription based networks. Also, with the broadcast networks putting less focus on programming, cable shows would hypothetically be more likely to break through. Dramas have for a while found success on cable during the summer but real comedies — so excluding whatever you'd call Entourage or the vaguely comedic fair that Showtime has aired, like Weeds — haven't as much. But that is starting to change in a huge way.

It's hard not to overstate the importance of Louie, which has been an early summer show since it started. In a way it represented the comedy version of what shows like Breaking Bad were for dramas. It made it safe to launch put good comedy programming on in the summer — not just the left over series that networks air out of pity. From there HBO, after successfully airing Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 8 last summer, released two very, very good comedies this spring/summer, Veep and Girls. The buzz of the latter especially seemed to overshadow much of the big spring finales. And then continuing on forward it seems like this trend will grow only more significant. As an example, IFC, a network that doesn't produce tons of original programming, will introduce its two new comedies, Comedy Bang! Bang! and Bunk, in June. There is obviously a demand for summer comedies and these networks are responding to it.

In that way, there are parallels between the shift away from the traditional season and the shift away from appointment viewing. Where before advertisers had the biggest say on when we watch television shows, now television has to work to shape itself around its audiences viewing habits. Just like the networks having to figure out a way to make money off DVR and Hulu views, they will also have to adapt to audience looking for summer content.

It takes television networks, after decades of stagnation that correlated with decades of innovation elsewhere, accepting they're not in the automobile industry anymore. NBC, the network with the least to lose, has been moving in that direction. NBC President Bob Greenblatt comes from Showtime and there's definitely a cable feel to how the network is being run. By ordering half seasons, there is a much greater flexibility in where shows are place. They're even launching some of their new shows in the summer to correspond with the Olympics. Maybe it will stick and represent the beginning of shift towards more summer programming because otherwise we'd have to, you know, go outside, which sounds gross. Until then, like college football's bowl system or the Electoral College or cars powered solely by gas, we might as well celebrate this old model while it's still here.

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  • Eric

    Can you point me to where you found the information that stated that auto ads dictated the start of the tv season (as opposed, say, to the beginning of the school year)?

  • John T

    "…when television began, the only major national advertisable industry was cars." That seems preposterous. Perhaps you meant something else.

  • TV_Historian

    This article is completely inaccurate.

    The original television season was wholly adapted from the traditional radio broadcast season, which had been in existence for two decades by 1948-9 when television first made a national impact.  The broadcast season generally ended in June and started the first week of October before TV was invented.  The classic radio and early TV season – 39 weeks, with 13 weeks off for the summer – was adapted from the traditional vaudeville season.  In the summer, before movie theaters got air conditioning, it was just too hot over much of America (and farm workers were just too tired) to have the vaudeville circuits running at full steam.  The summer is when the second-stringers went into the near-empty theaters (if they even stayed open) while the stars rested in various vaudeville beach colonies.   The great radio comedian Fred Allen wrote extensively about the connection between the vaudeville, radio, and TV broadcasting seasons in his two classic autobiographies, Treadmill to Oblivion and Much Ado About Me.  The author's statements about automobiles dominating early TV advertising to such an extent that they set the parameters of the broadcast season makes zeros sense in other ways.  For example, here, in order, are the sponsors of the 15 top-rated broadcasts in 1950-1: Texaco, Proctor & Gamble, Philco, Admiral, Colgate, Gillette, General Mills, Lipton Tea, Sunbeam Bread, Maxwell House Coffee, Lucky Strike Cigarettes (2 programs), RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Kraft Food products, and, finally, in 15th place, the only car company – Lincoln Mercury ("The Toast of the Town" or Ed Sullivan program).  Auto advertising came late to TV – the most important sponsors in early TV were selling low-cost, everyday use, items: household cleaners, foodstuffs, personal care products, and cigarettes.   This is very well-established by media historians.

    • John T

      Thanks a lot for this post.

  • Billyfla

    Thank god for commenters like "TV Historian".  He certainly burst the bubble of the dude who wrote this nonsense article.  These days it seems that just anyone can pull some reasonable sounding argument out of their ass and publish.  Anyone who read this article just wasted 3 minutes of his life that he ain't gonna get back again!

  • Diogenes

    Mr. Fox, can you tell us where you got the incorrect information on which you based your article?  It would be fascinating to trace the original source and see who was the first to pull these facts out of thin air. 

  • Diogenes

    No reply from Mr. Fox.  Can we deduct from this that he was the "journalist" who pulled facts from thin air?  Beginning to look that way.

  • Relax
    • TV_Historian

      In fact, I've written the Corrections Desk at the New York Times. You will see a correction shortly.