A funny thing happens this time of year on television: ratings go down. With primetime shows wrapping up for the season and on hiatus until Fall, one would think that TV viewers would be flocking to the TV’s and making sure to savor every last bit of their favorite shows. But this is just not the case. In fact, it is as if viewers are experiencing fatigue or burn-out. Ratings begin slipping sometime between January and March and then steadily sink through early May. Then a rare blip occurs in the ratings when the finales air as record numbers of viewers typically tune-in for that final episode. But for a television programmer and TV showrunner, Spring time is a ratings nightmare. It is also known as “show killer season”; and for shows on the bubble, the sagging viewership can pop the bubble and result in cancellation.
As the typical television series only runs 22-24 episodes each Fall through Spring season, it is a challenge for a programmer to determine how to best space out the episodes so that they are sprinkled throughout the long 8-9 month time period. When you only have the equivalent of 5-6 months of episodes, they have to be spread out carefully or there are periods of short hiatus (typically 6-8 weeks from mid-December to late January or early February) and then another 3-4 week hiatus either in March or April. The benefit of these breaks is two-fold: it allows television shows a chance to catch-up – since it takes a good 8-10 days to film most episodes and they are running behind by Christmas — and it also allows program schedulers timeslots in which they can air holiday specials and other stand-alone shows.
But, for viewers, gaps and hiatuses are confusing — they break our concentration or love-affair with a show. Shows like THE EVENT and V are heavily serialized and it requires quite a bit of concentration to remember where these shows last left off and what they were about. Then there are shows like RAISING HOPE and COUGAR TOWN, which lure viewers with their funny antics and engaging characters, but find a hard time luring back their fans after extended breaks. Even shows like CHUCK, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, NIKITA and HELLCATS have found themselves challenged to woo back their viewers who act like the first bloom of love has fallen to the wayside and they merely shrug at the idea of falling back in love again.
For whatever reason, fans are fickle. They do not see a show on the schedule and they just assume it may never be coming back, or they do not want to make the effort to figure out when a show may be returning. If a show is not on, it’s just gone. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as the saying goes. Alas, another popular saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” never holds up with television viewers. If a show they have been watching is missing or gone for a period of time, they simply check out another show. This presents a whole new set of problems, as viewers sample or switch allegiance to other shows.
So in order to combat viewer-fatigue, confused fans, and viewers who tend to jump-ship at the slightest provocation, some television programmers got smart and figured out that they needed to make sure that some shows run straight through – no gaps on the schedule. It is for this very reason that shows like LOST and 24 decided to return in January rather than Fall and run straight through May. It was the best way to secure their audience and ensure that viewers did not have any reason to not stick around. In fact, it helps build momentum by scheduling a show in such a way that viewers feel compelled to tune in each week to find out what happens next. It is a strategy that even reality competition shows have employed with great success. Imagine if DANCING WITH THE STARS, SURVIVOR or AMERICAN IDOL were spread out over 9 months instead of running 3-4 months straight through? There is absolutely no way their audience would come back. In fact, that is the secret of their success: momentum.
It is also a programming model that works very successfully for cable television. HBO, Showtime, Starz, FX, TNT, USA Network, A&E and AMC all perfectly know that gaps are a death-knell for any show. So they have found ways to carve out chunks of time on the programming schedule so that their shows run straight through. Their shows may run any time of the year (such as, from April 1st – June 1st, or August 1st – November 1st), but they have discovered that consecutive continuity is vital. Once a viewer has tuned in to a show, you need to guarantee that it will be back within a week’s time, or the viewer quickly fades away and finds some other show in which to devote their time.
And no amount of advertising will necessarily lure back viewers. They see the print advertisements in TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly; they watch the funny clips on You Tube and at various entertainment sites online; and they passively watch the television commercials interspersed amongst other shows – all which are intended to entice viewers and remind them that a show will be back from a 1 week, 2 week, 3 week or even 3 month hiatus. So advertising rarely works.
What the average television viewer is looking for is commitment. Just like shows want committed viewers, viewers want committed shows – shows which are there for their fans week-after-week. Viewers and fans do not want “bad boyfriends” – those that only call when they are in town. Being wined-and-dined 2 out of 4 weeks a month is not a committed relationship. It is a series of bootie-calls and one-night stands. Blunt as the analogy may be, it is true. Viewers want a “boyfriend” who is there every Friday night. They want to know that they have a regular date night. The sporadic scheduling of some television shows is eerily reminiscent of behavior that most of us will not tolerate in our personal lives and relationships, so we tend not to tolerate it with our TV shows either.
Whether it be a Summer fling, a holiday romance, or a relationship that will stand the test of time over years, viewers want to feel like their shows are as committed and available to them as viewers are committing their time and making themselves available. Time is a precious commodity in any person’s life. It is time for TV shows to stop acting like they can come and go as they please. Viewers are not looking for a casual relationship, they are looking for commitment. So TV shows need to step-up and be just as committed in return. It is time for them to put some energy and effort into the mutually beneficial television show/television viewer relationship. Focus on momentum and consistency. Treat the fans with a little respect and we’ll be there for you too!
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).