In the never-ending quest to combat ratings erosion, ABC has decided to swing big, presenting several of its one-hour dramas in split seasons this coming year. I don’t know if it’ll be successful or not, but I think fans will appreciate it.
The idea seemed to begin with Once Upon a Time. Frustrated by falling viewer numbers after off-weeks, a plan was hatched to divide the installments into two “mini-seasons” (or regular-sized seasons for a cable network), and develop Once Upon a Time in Wonderland as a limited-run filler, bridging the gap between the two, thus ensuring nearly-constant Once Upon a Time goodness streaming to our televisions from September through May.
Unfortunately (or possible fortunately), Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was deemed too good to be mere filler, and got its own berth on the fall schedule. But the plan for Once Upon a Time was preserved, as the stories had already begin to be structured with this schedule in mind, and another mid-season show will be tapped to mind the gap.
Once Upon a Time isn’t the only show getting this treatment. It has been announced that fellow popular ABC dramas Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Nashville, and Revenge will follow suit. All of these are serial and mostly soapy, so this will fit better for their story arcs. Fans won’t have to wonder if their favorite show will air a certain week, and momentum can be built for months at a time, rather than constantly being interrupted by reruns.
This is not a new concept. ABC discovered Lost also worked better uninterrupted, splitting one season in two parts, and then doing a reduced number of episodes in one blast for the rest of the show’s run to stay cohesive. FOX also switched 24 to a straight January through May run for the last several years of that show’s life.
Given that this method worked for those two shows, it’s a little surprising it’s taken this long to try it again. Perhaps the networks thought it was something that should only be reserved for special event shows. Whatever the reason, though, doing it so widespread, with series that lots of people watch and engage with, should be a true test to the durability of the concept.
It’s also smart that ABC plans to fill the holes in the middle with new shows. For one, this should give good exposure to freshman series, with fans of established dramas tuning in to their normal time slot and possible willing to consider giving a chance to something fresh. Secondly, new fare is always preferable to reruns, a much-less-relevant idea in the age of DVRs, Hulu, and Netflix.
I don’t see this being adapted across the board, though. Television is not a one-size-fits all medium, as we’ve already seen in this new era of streaming services and internet shorts. There is a lot of room for different experimentation. And procedurals and sitcoms, which don’t typically build tension week-to-week, don’t need something like this to keep them going.
What I wonder is, will this prompt cable to try the same thing? USA already splits sixteen to twenty-episode seasons of many of its shows. And AMC presents The Walking Dead in a pair of eight-episode morsels. If ABC can deliver what basically amounts to two complete cable runs in a single year and keep quality up, AMC, FX, Showtime, HBO, and TNT might feel pressured to do the same.
The key there is quality, though. I absolutely adore Grey’s Anatomy and a couple of the others listed above, but I would not say they are as good as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Newsroom, and a number of other cable offerings. Many believe that writers for the cable shows can deliver a higher bar with the extra time off, and show runners can certainly be more involved in each episode. It doesn’t matter how episodes air if they aren’t up to a certain standard.
Bottom line, there will probably be a place in the future for any kind of television show, running on any schedule, that networks care to make and viewers care to tune in for. The split-season idea is a very good one for these shows, but it won’t solve the larger issues broadcast TV faces, and it won’t help in every case. It’s just heartening to see effort put into an inventive, smart idea. We need more of this.