Why Cliffhanger Endings are Ruining Television

For decades the season finale of just about any television show is guaranteed to be a cliff-hanger.  Why? For the simple reason that television showrunners and writers are not confident that their audience will return when the show does.  They figure the best way to ensure that their existing audience is seated in front of their television is the cliff-hanger.
But here’s a small secret:  viewers hate cliff-hangers.  It presupposes that viewers won’t tune-in but for the cliff-hanger.  When, in reality, fans of a television show are more likely to tune-in regardless of the cliff-hanger.  That is why they are fans – they keep coming back.  Fans by their very nature are dedicated and committed.  They do not need to be toyed with and manipulated.
So in addition to making a viewer’s brain want to explode whenever they see the words “to be continued” or the episode ends without resolution to a major character’s status –cliff-hangers also do not even allow the viewer the small comfort of knowing that their favorite character will be returning; particularly as characters in jeopardy or on the brink of death are the preferred.
However, because this plot device has been utilized ad infinitum for years, fans have become a bit numb and unimpressed with cliff-hangers.  Such a device is more of an annoyance and it insults the very person that the show wishes to keep when the show returns. 

In recent years, cliff-hangers also have another deadly side-effect:  if the show does not return, then fans are literally left hanging to wonder for eternity how things would have worked out.  Before the widespread use of the Internet, it was not even possible to find out what would have happened.  Today, through the use of fan sites, conventions, and Twitter, it is much easier for writers and showrunners to convey to fans the “what would have happened” had the show continued storylines.
But for the vast number of viewers who are not so “plugged in,” they will always wonder.  It is a bone-of-contention — the not knowing what would have come next.  It can rub away at the brain for years – becoming an increasingly sensitive sore spot if anyone were to bring up the show and how it simply stopped and never ended.
While it is not new that some shows do not get sufficient notice to wrap-up or conclude their storylines before receiving notice that their show has been cancelled, it is rather new that some shows are willfully choosing to disregard the writing-on-the-wall.  It has become a standard showrunner’s ostrich-tactic to deny the impending death-knell and protest to the bitter-end that there could be a last minute reprieve.
But such willful blindness to the harsh realities of television is not only ludicrous, it is alienating.  It is simply wrong for a showrunner to disregard the cold, hard truth that their show may get pink-slipped at the end of its season or will not receive the coveted “back nine” episode order – or worse yet, could be pulled off the broadcast schedule at any moment. 
This lack of foresight ultimately divides the fan-base.  There are die-hard fans who will appreciate the last-stand approach and who will stand by the show even if it fails to plan for its end-date.  They will still buy the DVD’s and encourage others to discover the now defunct show.
However, there are also the fans who will be outraged that the show ended without a proper ending — where characters are left disjointed, stuck in jeopardy and without seeing their favorite couples united.  Nothing is more galvanizing than never seeing if a “will-they-or-won’t-they” type couple actually gets together.  The lack of a payoff and/or resolution drives away the very fans that supported the show and stuck with it once it is gone.  They will not buy the DVD’s and they will tell everyone they know that it was not worth watching because it failed to have an ending.
Just like movie-goers do not want to be kicked out of the theater before the movie ends, and book-readers do not want to buy half-a-book, television fans do not want to be left without resolution either.
In the case of such recent shows as LONESTAR and MY GENERATION, they were not even on the broadcast schedule long enough for anyone to fully understand what either show was about, let alone to truly become attached and mourn them when they were suddenly cancelled.  But in the case of several other recent television series, they were around a lot longer and fans became much more attached and invested in the stories and characters.  A few, like CAPRICA and LIFE UNEXPECTED, understand that their end-date is approaching and they make an effort to resolve their bigger storylines and place their characters in settled positions that their fans will appreciate.  Such shows will be remembered fondly for their foresight, sensitivity and appreciation of their fans.
Then there are the shows that play “ostrich” and refuse to acknowledge that the end is coming.  Three good examples are V, THE CAPE and STARGATE UNIVERSE.  Ratings for these series have never been very high and yet ignoring the signs that these shows were in jeopardy, the showrunners deliberately chose to move forward at their leisurely pace as if they had all the time in the world to introduce and resolve their stories. 
Having just watched the season finales (and most likely, the series finales) for V and THE CAPE, such stubbornness feels selfish.  Just because the showrunners/writers did not want to acknowledge, let alone plan for an accelerated end-date, they literally left their viewers hanging.  These are the shows that divide fans and won’t be remembered so fondly.  To not see if Vince Faraday was ever reunited with his family; did Peter Fleming succumb to his alter-ego Chess; did Orwell slowly lose her mind like her father – THE CAPE never answered any of these questions.  It only left fans wondering what-might-have-been.  Likewise with V – it left the entire population of the planet enthralled by Anna’s bliss and vulnerable for occupation; it did not explain Hobbes’ sudden departure and abandonment of his new relationship with Erica; it did not reveal if Tyler was actually dead or would be saved by the advanced medical technology of the Visitors; and the fates of both Lisa and Chad Decker were hanging in the balance.
To conclude either of these shows at such unresolved points is painful and disillusioning.  While THE CAPE only aired 9 episodes and had its final episode reserved for internet viewing and thus may not have had enough time to truly write and film a proper ending, it certainly could have added an epilogue or filmed one more scene showing Vince reunited with his family.  However, in V’s case, the crime is more egregious.  Being in its second season and never being a true ratings-hit, the series could have easily planned an alternate-ending episode.  There was sufficient time and notice to plan for the eventuality that the show does not return for another season.
In addition to V and THE CAPE, there are several more television series that are likely to fall beneath the chopping-block this season and which should plan for an end in case they are cancelled.  Currently, STARGATE UNIVERSE is airing its final 10 episodes.  It has already received its cancellation notice and, while it may not be possible to film an alternate ending to wrap up the series, the show does have time to add perhaps an epilogue explaining what happened to the survivors stuck abroad the alien spaceship Destiny.  Also heading smack towards cancellation is THE EVENT and perhaps FRINGE.  Both have borderline ratings and could easily fall under the television guillotine.
It is time for showrunners and writers to examine the legacy of their shows.  Do they want their legacy to be along the lines of:  “fun show, but it never had an ending – cannot recommend it” or “fun show, cut-short before it’s time, but they at least got to wrap it up – recommend checking it out”?  Television is not just entertainment for the present – it provides entertainment for the future.  Several television series have secured their legacy simply by finding a way to provide closure for their fans.  Two key examples were FIREFLY and PUSHING DAISIES.  By hell-or-high-water those shows found a way to provide satisfying endings for their fans and they are remembered not only with fondness – but with fanatical fervor as new fans are recruited each year.  There is something to be said for legacy – if only each show would take such care with their stories and characters, then they too could enter the hallowed halls of welcomed acclaim.
It is time for television to stop following the churn-and-burn philosophy as if it did not matter how a television show is remembered, and adopt an contingency plan.  An exit strategy only demonstrates an appreciation of the established fans.  So it is time to abolish cliff-hangers.  Such cheap tricks are unwanted, unnecessary and are ruining television.

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

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  • http://www.themoustache.co.cc Sourabh Shetty

    ‘Tis true, I would definitely tune-in season after season regardless of whether the previous season ended on a cliffhanger. In fact, I would be happier if a show wrapped up that season’s storyline rather than make us wait for the next. The break between two seasons is long, and I fill that time watching the summer shows, catching up with current shows I’ve missed episodes of, or watching shows I’ve missed in the past, like Buffy and Rome.
    Over time I care less and less about the shows that I’m not watching then, and when September comes, and the shows pop up again on tv blogs and forums, I know I feel more content looking at the names of shows that had a satisfactory season finale rather than one that ended on a not-too-awesome cliffhanger.

    While I normally do consider low-rated shows ending on a cliffhanger irresponsible, I’d like to excuse V, as for a show that could possibly not return, it had to do something spectacular, and it did. A quick resolution of the whole alien problem by the finale would be too convenient, and the show would be forgotten as another barely-passable sci-fi series, a la FlashForward. This finale does for V what the Epitaph episodes did for Dollhouse, at least for me (When I first watched Dollhouse, I was not familiar with Joss Whedon’s work, and I watched Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Firefly, Buffy and Angel all later).

  • Ekiza

    I will here and now baptise this as the “Scheherezade Syndrome”.

    A TV Show/Showrunner that will leave the story in a cliff-hanger when the day breaks (the season finale) in the hope that the king will not decapitate (cancel) her and will let her live another day so that night (next season) she continues with her story.

    Sadly, not all show-runners are as skilled as Scheherezade (some shows really suck) and not all TV executives are as keen to good stories (firefly, the 4400, …) as the persian king was.

  • http://noreruns.net Kyle Nolan

    AMEN–I totally agree. I have not watched The Cape finale, but I was extremely upset when I heard V was purposely ignoring the writing on the wall and going with a cliffhanger. It gets me upset when shows have ample time and warning to give a proper ending and they just ignore it. Some shows don’t get that luxury, and those that get the chance should welcome it for the sake if their fans!
    The worst case of this cliffhanger cancellation I can think if was Surface–that was a horrible series ender. I’m not sure if they had time to fix it, but I don’t recall the ratings being very good, so they must have had some idea they wouldn’t be back. Even if you don’t use it, wavering shows should at least record some extra material to allow the show to wrap up in case it is not picked up–even if this is used as an extra on the DVD/BD or in an extended cut of the finale. It is so annoying when you are left hanging!

  • bws

    The Dollhouse final episodes absolutely wrapped up the season and series. “V” did not come close. However, V didn’t necessarily have to wrap it all up unless they knew FOR SURE they were being canceled. A different way to wrap for them would be to give the humans a leg up on the aliens. For instance, they could have taken down a ship somehow or exposed the lizards to a wider population. They went with a negative cliffhanger instead of a positive one. That was the problem.

  • http://blog.jtenos.com/ Joe Enos

    I’d agree with you when you know for sure that you’re being cancelled, but shows like V just might come back. And with a great season finale, everyone’s talking about it, to the point where the show just might come back specifically because of the cliffhanger.

    The second season of Chuck was not doing well in the ratings, and it took an enormous fan campaign to show people that the show was worth saving. If it wasn’t for the awesome cliffhanger ending to that season, people may not have been as interested, and maybe the campaign wouldn’t have been big enough to save the show.

    I would just hate to see a show provide an ending when it doesn’t need to – this just gives the network an excuse to not renew. If you throw out a hail mary pass, you might just catch it.

  • bws

    Abolishing cliffhangers will not solve television ratings or make the vocal 5% of television fans happy. We always have something to complain about, I assure you. A cliffhanger episode can be as good or better than any non-cliffhanger episode – it’s all about execution. The problem today is that finale episodes are too stock and simple. Many shows wrap up season stories but may not wrap up series stories. That’s not bad. For example, shows like “Dexter” and “Desperate Housewives” tend to wrap up season long arcs while keeping enough through-lines to bring people back. And if we’re being honest, the shows that are criticized for having cliffhanger problems tend to fall somewhere in the science fiction spectrum.

    The fact is that television is a business. If a showrunner gives the studio an easy out with a tidily wrapped up finale, that show will get axed. So they hedge their bets and write themselves into a corner and hope for a renewal. Then they’ll use the off-season to figure a way out of the situation they created. That’s what I love about “Weeds” finales – they end with a crazy sequence that makes you ask, “How in the world are they going to get out of this mess next year?”

    I watch a lot more television today than I did five years ago but I find myself less angry about cancellations and cliffhangers because there is ALWAYS something around the corner to watch. With cable and pay networks, the number of quality television shows (despite all the reality junk) is higher than it has ever been.

  • Abby

    Agree. Still angry over the cliffhanger in the 90′s for the show Christy. Fortunately I read the book and knew who she ended up with. But it would taken all of 5 minutes screentime they could have filmed in the event of cancellation, to give the series a resolution.

  • kevin

    i might be wrong, but weren’t all the episodes of V already completed by the time it started airing? or at least written? as for cliffhangers in general, i think they’re for the general audience that only tends to watch every so often, in order to entice them to watch more often; not for the fans that are there every week. i always tend to enjoy them.

  • Tjuliannev

    so so so true

  • Claudia

    I find open-endings and cliffhangers wonderful. And yes, the better the cliffhanger the more I want to see the show the following season and if the show ends on a cliffhanger, even BETTER!!! Then it sparks your imagination on what could have happend next instead of a lame, boring happy end. Go watch Disney flicks, they don’t end on cliffhangers! You call it satisfying, I find it boring when everything ends need and proper. Best example: Lost. Instead of doing something suprising or ending in an ambigious way, worthy of all the previous great seasons, they chose to satisfy ‘happy end’ fans like you and wasted a finale which could have been epic on having a good bye scene for every single character!!

  • Claudia

    I find open-endings and cliffhangers wonderful. And yes, the better the cliffhanger the more I want to see the show the following season and if the show ends on a cliffhanger, even BETTER!!! Then it sparks your imagination on what could have happend next instead of a lame, boring happy end. Go watch Disney flicks, they don’t end on cliffhangers! You call it satisfying, I find it boring when everything ends need and proper. Best example: Lost. Instead of doing something suprising or ending in an ambigious way, worthy of all the previous great seasons, they chose to satisfy ‘happy end’ fans like you and wasted a finale which could have been epic on having a good bye scene for every single character!!

  • Liz

    I don’t mind cliff-hangers per say. But it drives me crazy when a season ends on a cliff-hanger, but literally EVERYTHING is resolved in the first 5 minutes of the first episode in the next season. Smallville was almost always like this. Drove me crazy.

    I much prefer that there is some kind of resolution, but then a little teaser scene to let us know that something bad is coming to town, or something is not as it seems.

    Those kinds of cliff-hangers are awesome!!

  • CanuckTVFan

    Interesting article. I agree with the basic premise that too many shows rely on cliffhangers as season-ending gimmicks, or as a “they couldn’t dare cancel me after this finale”-type of posturing with the network. And I agree that too many cliffhangers can turn viewers off, especially for shows that are on the bubble of cancellation. A sentiment I hear too often among fans of TV these days is “I don’t want to invest in show x unless I think it’s going to survive.” I think this is partly because too many shows have simply vanished with no final resolution for the story or characters. The people who love TV have been hurt too many times.

    What I disagree on is the idea that showrunners somehow owe the fans a wrap up. For starters, creating a season finale that can also serve as a series finale can be disasterous in the event a show beats the odds and gets renewed. But more importantly, TV shows are not works of art created purely for our enjoyment; they are BUSINESSES. Shows are created to drive ratings to sell commercials (or cable subscriptions, as the case may be) to make money. “Low rated” is really a euphemism for “money losing”. To expect producers of these shows to pour extra money into a money losing venture so they can shoot an alternate ending just in case the axe falls is, I think, asking too much. Could you imagine a hardware store that is going under deciding to spend a few thousand extra dollars to put on a farewell BBQ for its customers? Of course not. When a business is going down, you need to cut your losses and move on. It’s the same with TV shows.

    Having said all that, I think that cliffhangers really make a bad situation worse for fans of a show. Just because you aren’t giving them a finale doesn’t mean you have to give them a cliffhanger. There is a middle ground (See the finales of seasons 1-3 of Friday Night Lights for perfect examples). It seems like producers of shows believe that ending a season in a nice, tidy way can actually make it easier for a network to decide to cancel a bubble show. Whether that’s true or not, only a network executive could tell you. But, as long as showrunners believe it to be true, I don’t think you’ll see them change their behaviour anytime soon.

  • Cpearson

    I’ve said it many times to people, the producers should get it in the contract that if a series is cancelled they have the option to do a 2hour final to wrap things up. Soooo many could have used this.

    Terminator: the Sarah Connor chronicles
    Firefly (okay got movie but…)
    Fast forward
    Add to list …

  • IceBeam

    Well most of the people making TV do it to make money, its a job – they don’t really care about what people think about their show, and they rarely wish to listen to fans – dismissing them as a little minority of strange people. Its a pity

  • Sanen85

    I think his point was that even though Dollhouse was near death at the time of their season one finale, they banged out an amazing episode that likely was responsible for their 2nd season.

    I believe this is what they were going for at V. Although, it’s still frustrating for fans.

  • Sanen85

    T:SCC is the worst. I am still pissed about that cliffhanger. I absolutely loved the show, but I can’t recommend it at all. When I worked at BB, I would tell people not to bother getting sucked in if they can’t handle cliffhangers.

  • http://www.thetvaddict.com/ The TV Addict

    Agreed! It still hurts that we’ll never see what happened next on T:TSCC. That and MODELS INC. a super cheestacular Aaron Spelling sudser ended their first and only season with a sniper aimed at a very crowded wedding party!

  • Ekiza

    Is Outcasts cancelled?

    I havent’t started watching it yet, but I was hoping it was good.

    Shall I bother watching it? Or is it not worth the trouble and the cliffhanger is disappointing?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GFJAGTPLIEAEYXNEHZPNE55GQM Julie

    I truly despise cliffhangers because its true, I wouldn’t want to watch the show anymore if it got canceled without a resolved ending to the series.

  • Sdraper50

    i hate it when good no great tv shows get cancelled on a cliff hanger its so annoying your waiting for the next season premire and you wait and wait then nothing stop doing that cause if you keep doin that then what you think will happen if you come out with another show that leaves fans with another cliff hanger they wont want to watch the next show you decide to make cause they’re gonna think you just going to cancel it after the first season i know tv costs money but you should give the show a chance to make a comeback if your having a bad season then make a better season finale so the fans will want to see the next season because lets face it tv shows in the past 5 to 6 years have not lasted long shows like Hawthorne , The Hard Times of RJ Berger Lincoln Heights and thats just to name a few now look at shows in the past like Friends That ’70s Show Buffy the vampire slayer King of Queens and According to Jim make shows last and as good as those and you will make your fans happy so please if anybody important reads this do your fans a favor and bring back some good FREAKIN TV SHOWS!!!!!!!!!!

  • April Galarza

    Absolutely brilliant article! I keep getting drawn in to wonderful new shows on Netflix ( I could literally name a dozen off the top of my head) that are cancelled with jagged cliffhangers in their wake. I almost want a spoiler warning at the beginning of the first episode, “Dear viewer, you might not want to get invested in these characters, their plight, or relationships because we are just going to give up and cancel the show leaving you with burning questions and the TV version of blue balls…” After hearing about the cancellation of the Witches of East End, I realized that all the “Bring Back” petitions are never really going to make a difference. It’s time to end this abhorrent practice!

  • April Galarza

    I agree, 2 hour wrap-up shows/epilogues written into contract cancellation clauses would be an excellent solution to this epidemic!

  • April Galarza

    Ms. Vogt I would love to see a reprisal article on this topic, since it has been 4 years since this article was written and I think this problem has only gotten worse. Thank you very much!

  • Shane McCausland

    I agree, cliff hangers are the absolute biggest kick in the nards to the fans for a TV show to do. Each season should be complete in and of itself.