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Hiatuses: A Once Upon a Time Rant

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I realize I’m not the first entertainment journalist (or viewer) to ascend the metaphorical soapbox and rant the too-long and too-frequent hiatuses that plague network television. But here goes.

Back in the Jurassic era when I was a kid, television series ran from September through May with few breaks. Sure, pre-emptions would happen for awards shows, holiday specials, major sporting events and breaking news. Reruns would air all summer and then during the winter holiday season, spring break and other times when attention was less likely on the tube.

Over time, the television seasons have gotten shorter and shorter, which in and of itself is not a bad thing (as both British and cable series have shown). But what has gotten progressively worse over the years is the seemingly endless stop-start of network television series. And the stuttering pace of networks series, especially series with complex and emotional narrative and character arcs, is both annoying to the audience and detrimental to the show’s overall success.

Case in Point: Once Upon a Time

Last night, ABC aired a Once Upon a Time special called “The Price of Magic.” Series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis used the hour to explain the central narrative and character arcs, presumably to remind fans (especially those not plugged into the Internet fandom) of where the series is headed as it resumes new episodes next week (with “Lacy,” an episode that finally gets back to the Rumplestiltskin-Belle story!).

Once has been plagued since early December by a series fits and starts: more than a month off from December 2-January 6, then three consecutive episodes, followed by two weeks off, then another two episodes, followed by two off, then four on, and four off. Feels a little like Morse Code! No wonder the network aired a special dedicated to bringing viewers up back up to speed!

If the series were a procedural with stand alone episodes, each self-contained, then I think it wouldn’t be so disruptive. But this on-again off-again rhythm is deadly to a serial like Once Upon a Time, and the viewing numbers have reflected that. The series is still a hit, but how many have sworn off watching new episodes, contenting themselves to wait until they can watch the episodes with a natural narrative flow?

What’s the answer with only 22 episodes to span the 37 weeks of a classic primetime network season? The 15 weeks have to go somewhere. Perhaps the answer (and I am not the first to suggest it) is to follow other models and present two 11-episode half-seasons, each with its own arc and a cliffhanger that would keep everyone talking at water coolers real and virtual until the next season premiere. It’s pretty effective in May, so why not in December? And perhaps, for next season, that’s part of the motivation behind the new Kitsis and Horowitz project/spinoff in Wonderland.

We’ll be talking more about hiatus anxiety on tonight’s Let’s Talk TV Live as well as preview next week’s Once Upon a Time episode “Lacy.”

Once Upon a Time premieres with new episodes next Sunday night on ABC.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    I agree. Too many breaks confuse viewers and lead to lower ratings from lack of interest.

  • Gerry

    Barbara, I agree so much. The constant breaks in the schedule really hurt the story of serial shows. Supernatural has had a better schedule this year than last because it started in October, so the fall run was pretty smooth. But we’re just coming off another two week hiatus next week.

    This model just isn’t working for network TV. I like the two 11 episode seasons suggestion. One break is a lot easier to keep track of.

    • Well, it does look like ABC is being wiser next season. The episodes will be broken up into two 11-episode arcs or season-ettes : )