Tube Talk: Broadcast networks offer new take on TV seasons

By Paula Hendrickson
Contributing Writer

You’ve probably noticed that the broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and The CW — have slowly begun adopting the cable approach to programming by introducing new shows with fewer episodes per season. Shorter seasons with a dozen or so episodes allow networks to launch new shows almost any time of the year.

That means the TV “season” as we knew it is pretty much a thing of the past.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still going to be a big, heavily promoted fall season filled with returning favorites and a few new titles. But have you noticed some “fall” premieres start before Labor Day while others start in November? Anything later is considered “mid-season” — which means just about any time of year other than summer or fall.

More and more series now have “mid-season finales” and “mid-season premieres.” Even shorter-run cable series, most notably AMC’s Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead have been broken into micro-seasons that extend the shows’ presence (and stretched the final season of Breaking Bad into one more awards season). While fans might be frustrated that their favorite show stops airing new episodes just as they’re getting caught up in the action, they’re also glad for a shorter wait between “seasons.”

FOX’s Sleepy Hollow and NBC’s Hannibal are just two short-season network shows that were planned as series. Others, like ABC’s Under the Dome and CBS’s ill-fated Hostages were billed as “limited series,” meaning their first short seasons could stand alone, or — as in the case of Under the Dome — continue into another season.

In May, FOX resurrects Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and the 24 franchise in 24: Live Another Day, four years after the series officially ended. That’s similar to British television where there can be multi-year gaps between seasons as producers, writers and cast members work on other projects.

For viewers, the upside to limited series is they’re less likely to be pulled from the schedule if ratings aren’t good. Networks tend to let them run their course. Knowing that may encourage more viewers to sample limited series without fearing they’ll become invested in the story only to have it disappear from the schedule.

Whether a long season is divided in two, or a series produces two shorter seasons per year, the goal is to keep viewer interest high with fresh episodes every week. That can’t be bad. It’s better than confusing viewers by airing repeats between new episodes, especially for more serialized shows like Scandal.

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. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to

From the March 12-18, 2014 print edition

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