FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Time-slots and Seasons

We’re on the verge of the fall television season. This is the time we’re supposed to get interested in the new slate of shows rolling out… I’ve already explained that there’s not a lot to love this year. But why do there need to be television seasons at all?

The idea of the television season goes back to the 1950s, when families went away for the summer, leaving hot cities (and un-air-conditioned homes) behind and heading toward cooler climes. Farmers were still a big part of the economy too, and they spent a lot of the summer outside naturally. Winter was when people settled in front of the TV, and fall was the time they got introduced to new things… a new school year, new cars and most importantly for us, new TV shows.

Only thing is… this isn’t the 1950s. The world’s a very different place. We have the internet, cell phones, year-round schools, air conditioning, and fewer of us than ever work on farms. So why do we still have TV seasons?

As a matter of fact, we really don’t. Cable and streaming providers never have taken to the concept of seasons, instead releasing shows one by one when they’re ready, so they can really get the attention they deserve. It’s just the broadcast networks that seem to frontload viewers with programming in September and October, and that programming is increasingly worse than cable and streaming alternatives.

Not only that, it’s the broadcast networks that still hew slavishly to the idea of “time slot.” Time slot, the time when a program airs, is one of the least important concepts in a world filled with DVRs and streaming. There are a few reality shows and sports programs we watch live, but nearly everything else is watched on “our time.” Yet, the old-school networks still cling to the idea that they need to worry about whether a show belongs at 8:00 or 8:30, and whether or not it airs at the same time as a proven hit on another network.

Time slots and seasons need to just go. It’s time for broadcast networks to realize that people don’t watch TV that way any more, and if they have any hope of attracting Millennials they have to start acting like the cable networks. Air shows at multiple times of day and stop worrying about what the other guys are airing. When a show is ready, release it to people.

The only reason I can see for the networks’ shortsightedness is that they are tied to the idea of “pilot season” and “upfronts” and they need to have an organized way to get advertisers to see what’s coming up. So, they manufacture an environment where ad agencies can pick and choose between programs that will all be canceled in a month. What’s the point?

I’ve written many times about how broadcasters need to smarten up and accept today’s realities, or they’ll be extinct by 2020. I still stand by that, and I really hope they’re working hard to make sure that won’t happen.