Broadcast television (or cable broadcast,too) breaks up its programming into weeks. A typical season runs, on average, 22-24 episodes (13-16 for cable) and is peppered through fall, winter, and finishing in the spring.(Some shows run during the summer months these days, but that's another ball of wax.) Between September and May there are approximately 40 weeks. That means about half of them, especially during the Holiday season, are either filled with reruns or filler material. There are months, typically the so-called sweeps (November, February, and May) that will have consecutive weeks with new episodes running.
Some series handle the herky jerky break up and stutter stops better than others. Sit coms, for instance, that thrive on stand alone storylines with a loose one tying the show together handle this well. Any viewer can jump in and know what's going on, figure out who these people are, and have no problems. Police Procedurals are much the same breed. Each week is a single case, handled within the hour time frame provided. Whether a viewer sits down in September, January, April, or finishing in May, the likelihood that the viewer will be lost is fairly minimal. A few storylines carrying through the season might confuse or blow over their heads, but won't detract too much overall.
But a serialized show built upon any form of mytharc be it sci fi, fantasy, or other tend to have a difficult time picking up new viewers throughout a season. There are too many plots, character back stories, threads that weave and intersect into a pattern one must follow from week to week to week, even if they do a so called "stand alone" case. Series like the X-Files, The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, and Fringe, for instance, all thrive on this type of storytelling. Prime Time Soaps such as Dallas, Knots Landing, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, and Ringer follow this pattern as well. It has its merits, getting a viewer to invest much deeper into a character's storyline and the plot. Each episode builds upon the next, until at last when the season is completed and the story is fulfilled.
This is where serialized shows are hurt by the current broadcast model. It is a disjointed and discombobulated way of viewing the story. Each episode provides a necessary puzzle piece, a key, or a detail that may or may not be clear at the time of the initial airing. Speculation becomes sport, and while it is highly entertaining and a way to pass the time while waiting for a program's return, it can also dilute the actual story being told as people fill in gaps, plug in ideas, and twist the pieces provided at any given point on the journey to fit their preferred trajectory. This often can lead to some disappointment in some. This is the only medium that truly breaks up story in this manner. A movie is a completed piece. A novel is a single story told between its covers. No other story telling medium endures such a flux and break up of its segments. Only prime time television experiences this fragmentation. Daytime soaps run almost daily, and therefore are spared this type of experience.
Some of the pieces might seem to mean one thing at the time they aired, yet turn out to be completely different upon season end. What hurts the serialized is that this particular piece may have aired, in say an episode 8 or 9, which aired in November or early December, and so this detail may have been forgotten or changed in the viewer's mind by May. Another problem for the stop and go broadcast method is how many weeks can occur between aired episodes. The Holiday Season, usually from Thanksgiving until after New Years, is often the biggest culprit, but networks also tend to make sure as many episodes air in the Sweeps window as possible. March or April may see one or two episodes aired so more air in February and May. Weeks can turn into a couple of months where little to nothing fresh is aired.
Reruns also play a role in the disjointed viewing of a typical broadcast season. Things start to be aired out of sequence. A new episode, instead of blending into the next story line/element retreads backwards to a previous episode. Episode 12 may air as a fresh and new and the next week episode 4 might be selected for rerun. Many may choose to skip a rerun and see nothing of a particular program that week, but if they decide to rewatch the selected episode it can color the gap between new and unaired. It can be argued that reruns allow the viewer to keep earlier episodes in the season fresh in mind, but it can also warp and twist things about the story as the correct sequence is broken.
Unlike scripted television with its scheduled breaks, reality programming such as American Idol also show how the current model is broken. Love it or hate it, reality programming such as this tend to air an entire season with little to no breaks. American Idol will start in January and run week to week to week to week until it finishes in May. There may be a scheduling shift to allow for breaking news, or in American Idol's case, the State of the Union. What this does, however, is allow an audience to build. 30 million viewers becomes possible, in some ways, because there is no stutter stop to the season.
While 25-30 million viewers sounds like a lot (and it is), keep in mind that the last census counted 330+ million Americans. This brings up the other problem the current broadcast model faces. Unlike in decades past, there are more and more options than ever before. Gone are the days where the big 3 (now 4) dominated the screen and the odds of the Nielsen ratings system being accurate. With, on average 100 channels being the expanded basic cable package, and 900+ in digital, coupled with the viewing options available through Netflx/Hulu, and other internet methods, the notion that broadcast ratings reflect the truth is misleading. Count in the notion of DVRs and it gets even muddier. The idea that one MUST sit down and watch a particular program at a particular day and time is becoming antique. There are so many ways to catch up and watch it after airing that many may choose to wait. The ratings do not catch up nor reflect the true number of people watching therefore, skewing any and all data that they collect.
And yet, this hurts serialized television more than ever before. More shows are canceled now than in the past as ratings appear to shrink and numbers are calculated based upon archaic data. This makes storytelling all the harder for the serialized program.
So then, if this is the issue for the serialized, how does one see the story the way it may have been intended?
Thanks to the prevalence of DVDs, on demand options, and the internet, it is easy for a viewer to select a single program and marathon it in massive chunks. As each season may run 22-24 episodes (1/2 or 1 hour increments, without commercials 22 minutes or 42 minutes) it's easy to blow through one in a single weekend.
There is no twiddling of thumbs, scrutinizing between episodes, speculating on what may happen next. This viewer simply needs to hit "Next Episode" and see where the next one goes. The pattern remains in tact, the pieces are laid out in full for the viewer from start to finish in rapid succession. Whatever the pay off is, they will receive it quickly. Each story thread is within easy grasp and unfolds naturally without the starts and stops of the broadcast programmer.
So then, what does this mean? Obviously for a serialized (or any show for that matter) to stay on the air long enough to tell its story it needs one key ingredient: viewers that are calculated as ratings. Without it, the broadcast programmers will cancel it. It's a catch 22, so to speak. On one hand, they are telling a story that is best seen in its entirety in one viewing, and yet to do that they need viewers to watch in the disjointed method provided.
Does this mean that the broadcast model needs to change? Definitely. Gone are the days when everyone could or would watch the same program all at the same time. Even specialty events such as the Olympics suffer from the current fractured model. Would it be better, perhaps, to have a show do all of its scripting and filming before it airs a single episode? Possibly. It would be easier to air the entire show, then, in a week to week basis still but closer to the American Idol model. Little to no breaks would allow the story to build what it often lacks in the current model: momentum. As a season progresses, it becomes apparent for all programs that they lose some of their building momentum that is later regained on a binge watch.
I know I've experienced this from experience. I started watching Supernatural in season 6. Because I had all of the first five seasons and half of 6 in my grasp to watch at will in rapid succession, I wasn't able to dwell on storylines, plots, or character development too long in any given season. I got the pay off immediately, and I feel that it colored my viewing in ways that fans that have been with the program far longer didn't see. Some of their frustration (then and now) made some sense to me, but I observed it detached because I didn't feel (and still don't) the same feelings.
So, is this part of the problem for all serialized programs? Are they or are they not only airing under an archaic and obsolete model matched with an archaic and obsolete ratings model? Is there a new model waiting to replace the current one? Or will we see the continued fracturing of television in the near future? How will that shape the programs of the future?
Far Away Eyes