HeldenFiles: Another TV season ends, sort of

By Rich Heldenfels Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Extinct is a mystery thriller starring Academy Award-winner Halle Berry as �Molly Woods, a female astronaut trying to reconnect with her family after returning from a year in outer space. Her mystifying experiences in space lead to events that will ultimately change the course of human history. (Dale Robinette/CBS)

The 2013-14 television season is over, with CBS winning in viewers and NBC taking the crown in the advertiser-loved age group of 18 to 49 years old.

But for viewers, and ever more for the networks, the TV season never really ends. Not anymore. The official ending was just a hiccup before new shows start.

The TV season is an ancient construct based on the idea that viewers do most of their watching from the fall to the spring. A standard TV season ran 39 weeks, and shows made enough episodes for each week, then devoted the summer to reruns.

But as the cost of making a TV show grew, studios and networks steadily reduced the number of episodes they made each season. A traditional broadcast-network show can now have roughly 22 to 24 episodes over a full season, although that number varies considerably.

Meanwhile, the idea of summer reruns has steadily faded over the last 30 years, ever since cable networks realized that summer was a good time to put on their original shows. The broadcasters saw their audiences go to cable and, in many cases, never come back.

At first, the broadcasters’ response was to put on inexpensive reality shows — both American Idol and Survivor began as summer series, in 2002 and 2000 respectively — to keep their investment low. While reality shows still have a summer home — witness America’s Got Talent (returning Tuesday), So You Think You Can Dance (Wednesday) and Big Brother (June 25) — networks discovered that many viewers preferred scripted fare, and not just shows that were cheaply cast and made.

So now networks put new shows on during the summer, and sometimes find hits that way. The Canadian-made police drama Rookie Blue begins its fifth season on ABC on June 19, and CBS’s summer 2013 hit Under the Dome will begin its second season on June 30. Oscar winner (and former Clevelander) Halle Berry will be a summer star for CBS when her new series Extant premieres on July 9.

Beyond the summer situation, reruns are in bad favor generally, since cable will counterprogram even during the regular season — and the availability of previously aired shows on-demand and online make them less attractive over-the-air fare.

So we see short-run series put on when shows take a break during the regular seasons. Only those fill-in shows often don’t work — and then I get the letters wondering why The Assets or Killer Women vanished. (Answer: Not enough viewers.)

Cable, for that matter, is not a fan of repeats of its original series (while replaying broadcast shows constantly); such shows as Major Crimes (returning June 9) or Longmire (June 2) come and go as new episodes are available, while Mad Men will use a split-season approach, ending the first half of its final season this Sunday before returning with the second half in 2015.

At the same time, in broadcast, even expected successes are not always designed to run a full season, preferring shorter runs for narrative reasons or to attract big stars who would not commit to a 22-episode year. (See Berry, above.) This, too, can have mixed results.

Fox was very successful with Sleepy Hollow, its 13-episode first season allowing for tight plotting and plenty of thrills without much filler. (As much as I am looking forward to the second season, its reported expansion to 18 episodes may therefore work against it dramatically.) Hostages and Intelligence, two CBS series with abbreviated runs, did not fare well and won’t be back — although that may also be a sign of audience resistance to serialized thrillers, since NBC’s Crisis and Believe were also canceled, and Fox’s 24: Live Another Day has underwhelmed.

More recently, the competitive landscape has become larger with online services like Netflix putting on original shows. Binge viewing, something people used to do by loading up episodes on their DVRs or waiting for cable marathons, is now something to be expected when Netflix puts an entire season of Orange Is the New Black online at once (as it will do with the second season on June 6). It basically urges fans to forget everything else for a weekend of episode watching, while also allowing people to spread out their viewing — at the expense of the cable and broadcast fare being ignored in favor of Orange.

Competition keeps the TV schedule in flux, on broadcast certainly but also on cable. A&E dropped Those Who Kill after two episodes and ratings declines; it resurfaced later on Lifetime Movie Network. Viewers search constantly for their favorite shows, or wonder if and when they will return. Indeed, it can be months before they realize that a show is gone for good. So we are left scouring network websites for return dates, or flipping through the TV channels in the hope that something else good can be found.

Speaking of which … The latest “2 Guys Talkin’” online in Ohio.com Videos has Malcolm X Abram and I discussing cancelled TV shows from the past season. And while you are there, you can also find Lynne Sherwin and I wrapping up the season of Dancing With the Stars.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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