My research might end up being a long way off, but I'm doing the best I can based on the limited resources I have available (IMDB). TV seasons have come a long way since the early days of television. If you go back one of my all time favorite TV shows, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, you will find that all of the early seasons of that series were 39 episodes, each. It's possible all of the seasons were 39 episodes, but many of the seasons have fewer than 39 listed. When comparing this to Perry Mason, another one of my favorites, we also find roughly similar numbers. However, by the mid 1960s, my guess is that most television shows were probably 30 episodes per season. By the early 1970s, I think it's a fairly safe bet to say that the average television season was 24 episodes. In the early 1980s, I'm pretty sure the average run was 22 episodes, which is very similar to today. However, by the mid 1980s, the television season had been elongated back to 26 episodes. It then went back to 24 episodes per season in the mid 1990s to mid 2000s. Finally, by 2005, most full TV seasons had become a relatively standard 22 episodes (some full seasons still vary from this slightly).
If you look at those numbers, you begin to realize how spoiled we were, by the amount of content we were getting, as an audience, in the early days of television. However, it doesn't take long to realize that we are still spoiled by the massive amount of programming choices available to us, on a daily basis. The unfortunate part is that not a lot of it is very good. There weren't many TV programs back then, and it was probably pretty hard to separate people from their cash to buy a TV. The best incentive to get people to buy TVs was to make incredible programming, that, on a weekly basis, might be on par with some of the movies people could see in theaters, at the time. I don't think it's a stretch to say that shows like Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone made people want to buy television sets. The good news for us, the people from different generations, is that we can still continue to see these incredible shows 50 years after they originally aired. It still strikes me as amazing that the viewers were able to see 39 episodes per year, of these classic shows. For 9 months out of the year, you got to see great weekly television, as long as you owned a television set. These days, the typical season lasts about five and a half months, not including hiatuses. School lasts longer. These days the TV season is stretched out longer and longer, but there really isn't all that much content on the networks, when you think about it.
The 26 episode season made the most logical sense, for one reason, and one reason only. 26 x 2 is 52 weeks. You run each episode once, and then for the next 26 weeks, you rerun each episode once. By the time you're done, it's time for a new season, and the viewers are right back in the groove with the show! Unfortunately, that model doesn't really work today. I see a lot of complaining about the Nielsen Ratings, but it's what the advertisers are functioning off of, and it's not likely to change significantly, for at least a few more years.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather claw my eyes out, with the softest feather, ever, than watch a scripted TV show live. That's why DVR has become the most important resource in our household. It allows us to skip the commercials, which probably annoys the advertisers to no end. If you want to watch a show On Demand, well, I hope you like watching live TV, because that's basically what they're giving you. There is no fast forward enabled, so you are stuck watching the commercials. When I was watching Memphis Beat for my friend, Chris P., I really hated seeing those damn commercials. I also think TNT must think the viewers of Memphis Beat are dumb, because, during one of the breaks, they recapped what had just happened. So, it's easy to see, from just this paragraph, that technology is making the viewing habits of TV viewers change rapidly.
I don't think I was able to get a DVR from the cable company until 2005. Up until that point, I just didn't get to watch any television, except via reruns on weekends, from 2002 on. I worked the graveyard shift at my previous job, and I wasn't going to lose any sleep just to get to see the latest episode of Special Victims Unit. The good news for me was that the USA Network had many of my now favorite shows running in reruns. This allowed me to catch Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Special Victims Unit, and eventually House. I use USA as my main point of reference, because I believe USA has been absolutely revolutionary in changing the scripted television landscape, possibly almost as much as reality television has.
A lot of people may disagree with me on this, but I think the first true impact of USA, in regards to original scripted television programming, was the show Monk. Once they had that series going, they had figured out some form of a formula that they knew they needed to exploit. It took them a long time to get going with this, but they eventually got it figured out with Monk. Following in the success of Monk was the show Psych. I haven't seen Psych, yet (I'm going to), but from the promos I've seen, it seems like a show that would be what Monk would be, if he had a "charismatic" personality, and was basically a fraud. There are only so many shows that you can put on like that, so USA decided it had to come up with a different type of "formula". That something different was Burn Notice. Regardless of how much people may disagree with me, on this, Burn Notice, to me, was the final evolution of USA as a network. The new basic formula for USA is to come up with shows that have the wit, chemistry, and convolution of Burn Notice. They may have different characters, but when you break down most of the shows, on USA, they have a similar basic "formula" to Burn Notice. No matter how you feel about these shows, nearly all of them are too universally "hip" for network TV. That's a nice way of saying that none of them would make it on network TV. I'm in no way saying most of the USA shows aren't good. I think USA puts the most consistently solid programming on TV of any network, cable or otherwise. To a certain extent, TNT appears to be trying to follow the same type of formula, while exploring many more demographics, with their shows.
Something most people don't know, that I can comment on, is a different reason of why a show like Burn Notice became such a success. It's not only the traditional writing, casting, etc., but it's also the ability it had to make a solid, watchable show, from a technical standpoint, on what appeared to be a shoestring budget (at least at the beginning). This is where my "expertise" comes in. In the mid 1990s, a company called Liberty Livewire was formed, that basically swallowed up nearly every major Post-Production facility in Los Angeles. Regardless of how unpopular what I'm about to say will make me (hey, I'm not even popular, anyway), I'll still say it. This company basically had the idea that if it bought up everything, it could union bust, drive down wages, and drive up the costs of the Production Companies that were forced to use them, as there were no other alternatives for high end work.
Glen Glenn Sound is the single most important sound house in the history of television, and probably movies. It was associated with nearly every major TV show, that is now considered a classic, and many others that aren't. This facility was eventually bought by Todd-AO, and if I'm not mistaken, was eventually part of the Liberty Livewire buy up. What Liberty Livewire didn't count on was that talent was what was making the Production Companies work at these facilities. You could have a 200 trillion dollar, state of the art facility, but it didn't mean anything if the people running the gear weren't who the Production Companies wanted. So, many of these top workers just left, got the capital to start their own companies, or helped revitalize old, and, in my opinion, dying, companies, such as Larson Sound. Burn Notice was one of the shows that was mixed with these former superstars, who I'm guessing didn't want to be a part of the Liberty Livewire system. This superstar ability brought to the USA Network an unheard of sound quality, for shows of this budget.
As Burn Notice became more popular, the production value went up significantly. The popularity of Burn Notice then brought about other shows on USA, and what we have today, on that network, is, in my opinion, the direct off shoot of Burn Notice. ALL HAIL BURN NOTICE (Thursday nights, at 9pm EDT)!
Now, you may ask me, "Chris, what does this all have to do with the traditional scripted TV season being obsolete?" Well, I'm about to tell you. What's unique about shows like Burn Notice is that they have short seasons. These shows usually have 13 episode seasons. That's just 13 weeks, a little over 3 months. It's slightly more than a half season of other shows, but it's nowhere near the amount of episodes of a full season. Even though nearly all of the shows that follow this amount of episodes are cable shows, I think they are instructive for how networks should start to view the "traditional TV season". These shows are all relatively popular, although not hugely popular, but often are strong enough to compete with the lower rated NBC shows. The reason they are popular is because they fill a hole in the schedule. While everyone else is showing reruns of shows that everyone has already seen, these cable networks are bringing us new shows that will get us through the summertime, or the longer winter hiatuses. They are catering to a niche of people who don't like reruns. That "niche" is everyone.
I understand the networks don't want to have a full schedule of cost, throughout the year. There are lots of technical people in the industry who also like having a summer break, I'm sure. I'm also pretty sure most of those people wouldn't mind working all year, if it were possible. I can also tell you for certain, especially based on last season, that networks don't give new shows a chance to succeed. There is only so much shelf space for new shows, and if something doesn't break out like barn busters, chances are it's not going to be around the following year. That's just way too much pressure. What else is causing the shelf space issue? If you guessed reality TV, you are right. There is too much reality TV, and it squeezes out good scripted TV all the time. The problem is how to overcome the limited leash the networks give, and to give the networks the cost relief they desire.
So, obviously, the best thing to do is completely get rid of reality TV. No? You can't deal with no more American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and their hundred knockoffs? Yeah, you're right, neither can the networks. They're cheap, they're easy to do (relatively), and people watch them, which generates ad dollars. So, if you can't beat reality TV, the best thing is to join them. No, wait a minute, the best thing is to steer clear of them. How do we do that? Simple, the networks need to start having three distinct TV "seasons". That way, we fill up the voracious appetites of network executives for reality TV, and don't do it at the expense of scripted TV. The more successful reality TV you have, the more money you have to properly develop your scripted TV shows! It's a win/win, for everyone.
Well, it's almost a win/win. The problem with this is that scripted TV shows are pretty expensive to produce, and some are extremely expensive. FOX is apparently going all in on cost for Terra Nova, next season, so that show better get some good ratings.
Right now, I'm going to do a quick breakdown, by network, of how much scripted TV programming each one had last season, and then I'll see if my solution can work. I always like to present a problem I don't know the answer to, because it's just so much more fun, that way. Before doing the analysis, I'm pretty sure I'm right, but I could be wrong. I went to Emerson College, so it's unlikely I'll be able to interpret the numbers in any meaningful way.
Scripted TV Hours By Network (all info from TV by the Numbers):
The Whole Truth-12 hours*
My Generation-8 hours*
Detroit 1-8-7-18 hours*
No Ordinary Family-10 hours*
Off the Map-13 hours*
Happy Endings-6 hours
Brothers & Sisters-22 hours*
Better with You-11 hours*
Mr. Sunshine-6 hours*
The Middle-12 hours
Cougar Town-10.5 hours
Body of Proof-9 hours
Private Practice-22 hours
Desperate Housewives-23 hours
Grey's Anatomy-22 hours
Modern Family-12 hours
ABC had 250.5 hours of scripted TV programming in the 2010-2011 season.
CHAOS-12 hours, 3 aired in the original run*
Flashpoint-I really have no idea how many hours this has, but I'll guess 9
The Defenders-18 hours*
Blue Bloods-22 hours
CSI: NY-22 hours
The Good Wife-23 hours
Mad Love-6.5 hours*
CSI: Miami-22 hours
Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior-13 hours*
Rules of Engagement-12 hours
$#*! My Dad Says-9 hours*
Hawaii Five-O-24 hours
The Mentalist-24 hours
Mike & Molly-12 hours
How I Met Your Mother-12 hours
NCIS: Los Angeles-24 hours
Criminal Minds-24 hours
Big Bang Theory-24 hours
Two and a Half Men-8 hours
CBS had 379.5 hours of scripted TV programming in the 2010-2011 season.
Undercovers-13 hours, but it appears only 11 hours aired*
Friday Night Lights-13 hours*
The Paul Reiser Show-2.5 hours*
The Event-22 hours*
Law & Order: LA-22 hours*
Perfect Couples-6 hours, it appears 5 hours aired*
Harry's Law-12 hours
30 Rock-11 hours
Parks & Recreation-8 hours
Law & Order: SVU-24 hours
The Office-12 hours
NBC had 240.5 hours of scripted TV programming in the 2010-2011 season.
Running Wilde-6.5 hours*
The Good Guys-20 hours*
Lone Star-2 hours*
Traffic Light-6.5 hours*
Lie To Me-13 hours*
The Chicago Code-13 hours*
American Dad-9.5 hours
Human Target-13 hours*
Raising Hope-11 hours
Bob's Burgers-6.5 hours
The Cleveland Show-11 hours
Breaking In-3.5 hours*
The Simpsons-11 hours
Family Guy-9 hours
FOX had 225.5 hours of scripted TV programming in the 2010-2011 season.
Three hours later I have done the research. That was a pain in the boo-tay. Now, let's see if we can turn this into something worth talking about. As I've said before, most networks look at Fridays as a TV wasteland, where you send shows to die. Saturday nights are basically used for encore performances of shows the network is trying to get noticed apart from the day it originally aired. It may have had stiff competition, and they want to give people a chance to see it. So, for ABC, CBS, and NBC, accounting for what I said, there are approximately 15 true primetime hours available per week. For FOX, there are approximately 11 true primetime hours available per week, if I include the typical 3 hour Sunday block that FOX has always had on Sundays. Also, keep in mind that NBC, during the NFL season, has a Sunday night football game, every week. This wipes out 3 hours for them on Sunday nights for approximately 5 months.
For this list, it's important to note that many of these shows were canceled, and replaced by others during the season. So, even though it may appear there are tons of hours of programming available, it turns out that many of the nights of programming, across every network, except CBS, include some form of reality programming. Now that I have told you all of that, let's see how many seasons we can break all of this stuff down into, just based on the number of hours I listed. This will not factor in Sunday Night Football or any reality shows. We can interpret the data, as we see fit, solely based on the numbers. Please don't expect this to be anywhere near perfect analysis. It just is something worth thinking about, in my opinion.
Let's base this on the idea that it would still be a pretty good idea for the networks to have 3 months of no new programming, or very little new programming (think one or two series per network introduced in this dead zone). This will allow the network to try to generate interest from the reruns of shows that weren't particularly successful, while leading both shows in with a very popular set of reruns from the top performers. The first hour would be a popular lead in, then a new show, and then a show that maybe wasn't performing up to par. These rerun blocks are rewards and warnings, respectively. If you end up leading in a new show, that means that show is the top of the heap. If you end up behind the new show, that means your show is in a lot of danger. A key to this strategy would be to blitz audiences with promos for these under performing shows, in addition to promoting the new shows. If these under performing shows still can't find an audience, with mass promotion, even cross network promotion, then the show can be canceled, without much thought. It would probably be best to have this "dead zone" period be four weeks in May, five weeks in August, and four weeks in December. The best strategy for the under performing show would be to show the Pilot (unless the Pilot isn't representative of the show), the two best episodes, and the last episode of the season. Each one of these four week periods (five weeks in August) could be used to pump up an under performing show. If it's successful, the show can be back. If it's not, then it might be time for that show to go. For the new shows, if they're super successful, the networks can consider putting the rest of the season on in one of the "wastelands" of Friday or Saturday programming.
In this new era of TV seasons I'm proposing, each series' season would only be 13 episodes. This allows the network to determine the best course of action during each of the three "breaks". This also allows for more programming to be aired, across the now three TV "seasons". If a show is performing exceptionally well, more episodes can be ordered to air across the four week "break", but the maximum episode order for any season would always be 17.
Since so many shows, these days, have their hearts set on doing a story arc, it's best to do this over short seasons. It leaves the audiences wanting more, even though their show may not be back for a year. If too many fans (and advertisers) get restless, seasons can be moved forward, so there aren't crazy gaps in between shows that people can't live without. The point of this new "formula" is that you keep the schedule fresh all year long. It makes viewers want to constantly tune in to your network, as a destination of many shows, as opposed to just a few particular shows.
After writing all of this, I'm not really sure how to interpret the number of hours of TV programming. However, this new season structure would also potentially allow for more hours of reality TV, which is what many of the networks want. As long as the networks throw enough of a bone to those of us who don't like reality TV, by keeping shows we like around longer, with a longer leash, it's a win/win situation for everyone.
In my model, I would go back to developing shows extensively before putting them on the air. In order to make it to air, shows really have to be the best of the best in whatever they're trying to attempt. I am guessing it would probably take about 2 to 3 years to implement a schedule like the one I'm advocating. For networks like CBS, that are filled with scripted TV programming, already, it would probably only take about a year to implement it. It also probably wouldn't take that long for FOX to implement it, as they have so few hours of "prime" programming time slots available, and already like to do a lot of mid season replacements, and off season type programming. My guess is that ABC would struggle with this idea the most, and NBC would be right behind them.
For my ideas, I would like to base it on there being 2 to 3 hours of scripted 30 minute programming, and 8 to 9 hours of scripted hour long "prime" programming, each week. CBS, NBC, and ABC could tweak this slightly, to their desires, based on whatever programming they want or already have. FOX relies heavily on 30 minute programs on Sunday, and a few during the week, so their numbers would be more along the lines of 4 hours of scripted 30 minute programming, and 4 hours of scripted hour long "prime" programming, each week. FOX should also strongly consider moving the later seasons of American Idol to the Friday and Saturday wasteland, to make room for more scripted programming, and see if it can still be successful. If this new moving of FOX reality shows, to the wasteland, happens to be successful, other networks could also strongly consider trying to get people interested in the "wasteland" programming of Friday and Saturday nights. It would be so fun to see networks put shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars on Friday and Saturday nights, just to see what would happen. Imagine leading in a wasteland show with one of these shows. The networks might be very surprised at the success they find.
You made it this far, in something that may not have ended up making much sense. So, I will be kind, and break it down really simply. Here's my idea for the future of TV programming. The idea was inspired by how USA puts its shows together.
1. TV seasons would no longer be a full season. There would be essentially 3 TV seasons, with the "break" time between each of the 3 "seasons" being used to introduce a new show or two. This "break" would also try to help prop up shows that are struggling, probably by utilizing different time slots than the shows originally aired. The new shows during these "dead zones" would be shows that either are extremely promising, or don't have much promise, but could have success if it didn't have to run counter to other programming, during the normal "seasons". These "dead zone" shows are the best candidates for filling the wasteland time slots, once their initial 4 or 5 show run is completed, provided the ratings are high enough.
2. Every series would be limited to a standard season order of 13 episodes. If a show is dramatically exceeding ratings expectations, it could be extended to 17 episodes, to run across one of the "dead zones".
3. New shows would be extensively developed before hitting the air. Due to this fact, it would be in each network's interest to give each show it picks up a 39 episode initial order. If the show is a disaster, it can obviously be pulled at any time, but the idea is that shows wouldn't hit air, unless everyone feels it can last at least the 39 episodes (a three season run under the new model I am proposing). Each network needs to have a vested interest in making every show it airs run more than one season, and should give the makers of the show an extensive leash to find an audience. This can only happen if there isn't a ridiculous amount of pressure on the show to over perform quickly.
4. The best thing about this model is that it will encourage the makers of the show to come up with their very best work, as there are going to be 9 less episodes per year, on average. The goal would be to have the writers still hard at work, during their production down time, to create all of the scripts for the initial 39 episode order. This way, ideas can be jettisoned, and added while the show is not in production. This gives the audience the best possible chance of consistently great programming.
If a network executive reads this, he or she may find it extremely laughable, but I am willing to bet there is at least one good idea in here, that every network should try to exploit. Every new show is cheaper than a long established show. Every new show is harder to produce than a long established show, due to the learning of curve of getting it right. While long established shows are easier to produce, due to the familiarity of making them, they are more costly due to the rising talent costs. So many more resources would be freed up if every series was reduced to 13 episodes. It would also help many of these older shows remain consistently at the top of their game, as opposed to getting as stale as many of them have.
No matter how this post is received, I am one hundred percent convinced that the traditional scripted TV season is obsolete. It's time to move to something better. These days, new shows aren't given enough of a chance to find their footing, there's too much reality TV, and networks hold on to shows that are dying way too long. Making any of the changes I've suggested, in my opinion, will dramatically freshen the scripted TV landscape. I guess it's only a matter of time before we find out if any of this ever happens. For your sake, and mine, I hope it does. Thanks for reading.