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Tube Talk: Seasonal affective disorder

May 12, 2010

By Paula Hendrickson
Contributing Writer

Major networks used to have their regular TV season along with mid-season replacement shows and summer re-runs. At some point, those repeats were replaced by game shows and reality shows, even before cable networks began exploiting the archaic system of their broadcast counterparts.

Popular cable series like TNT’s The Closer, USA’s Monk and Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica (the latter series both ended their runs last year) garnered such solid ratings that those networks found ways to keep new episodes on the air throughout the year. While Battlestar Galactica grew into half-seasons, the USA and TNT shows that performed so well in summer months tested year-round viability by branching out with holiday episodes.

The Closer’s annual Christmas episodes expanded to anywhere from three to five episodes airing at some point during the winter. Before long, Monk and other USA series like Psych and Burn Notice were airing in “half seasons,” and—like The Closer—held their own against the big four networks’ first-run shows.

Other SyFy series, like Eureka, have tried half-seasons, too. Apparently, mini-seasons can even confuse the network programmers. The episode descriptions for a recent Eureka marathon described two very different episodes as the show’s “season three finale.” One was the mid-season finale while the other was the actual season finale. (Season four of Eureka returns in July.)

Burn Notice is the show that’s confused me the most with its mini-seasons. It got to the point a year or so ago that I gave up trying to figure out which season it was. Part of that could be that its first full season was just 12 episodes while seasons two and three grew to 16 episodes a piece, with a four- or five-month hiatus between the first and second parts of those seasons.

If you’ve been missing the exploits of Michael, Fiona, Sam and Madeline since Burn Notice’s third full season ended March 4—the first “half” aired from June 4 through Aug. 6, and its second portion returned Jan. 21—have no fear. Season four debuts June 3. The Closer returns to TNT in July.

It really gets confusing trying to decipher which season is which. It’s not just about networks spreading episodes of their hit shows throughout the year. There’s a business motive behind it, too: half-season DVD sales. Seeing a smaller price tag might lure shoppers, but I don’t understand why someone would buy a half-season of any show.

Perhaps the half-season issue bothers me more than the average viewer, since I need to keep track of how long some shows have been around. Last month, I kept hearing and reading recaps of Glee’s “first season” leading up to the “new season.” It’s all the same first season!

For most viewers, what season it is doesn’t matter as long as there are new episodes of their old favorites to enjoy. The challenge is remembering when the new “seasons” of some of your favorite shows start.

Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Send in your suggestions to tubetalking-paula@yahoo.com.

From the May 12-18, 2010 issue

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