There have been two things annoying me over the past week. The first is the performance of my fantasy baseball team, where I'm about a couple days away from having my pitching staff massacred Steinbrenner-style. I'll spare you the details – I could seriously write three or four posts per day devoted to my fantasy baseball and football exploits, but my total readership would plummet from five to two.
The other item driving me bonkers is a bit more universal: reruns upon reruns upon reruns. Even more infuriating is ABC's practice of promoting "new episodes" of "Lost", "Desperate Housewives", and "Grey's Anatomy" that are just a bunch of clips of previous shows (I wouldn't need to "catch-up" on what the people on the "Lost" island have been doing if you'd show a new show more often than once a freakin' month). All of this is predicated upon the idiotic time-worn belief of television executives that the American public only wants to watch new TV episodes during November, February, and May.
The aforementioned months are "sweeps" months, which are when Nielsen conducts its most thorough measurements of who is watching television (note: July is also considered a sweeps month, but networks rarely air new episodes of its hit shows during that time). The TV networks then rely on this information to set new advertising rates for its programs. As a result, the networks hold back a disproportionate amount of their new and best shows for those three periods a year while the rest of the time is hit or miss (you also know it's sweeps month when your local news has a "special investigation" into how the latest popular toy/kitchen gadget/something in your home/something in your car/something in fast-food restaurants kills babies).
The one over-the-air network that has mercifully stepped out of this ridiculous cycle (several cable networks such as MTV and FX have already been doing this for years) is Fox. Viewers receive five straight months of shows such as "24" and "American Idol" without interruption. Not surprisingly, Fox, which once upon a time was the butt of countless UHF jokes, will almost certainly end up winning the coveted age 18-49 category in the ratings by the end of May (advertisers care about this number much more than overall total ratings because of the group's spending power).
Like many things in life, Fox's move wasn't born out of brilliance but rather necessity. Fox airs Major League Baseball's postseason every year in October, which means it needs to shelve new episodes of shows that would normally be aired during that time. This caused a huge number of problems in the first years that Fox had baseball since the game conflicts came only a couple of weeks after the networks started their traditional fall television season. In order to adapt, Fox went to the equivalent of a multiple season format, where the network airs a block of programs from the beginning of summer through the end of September, have a different schedule for October through December, and then a third slate of programs from January through May.
What initially was a disruption from baseball that was difficult to recover from for the rest of the year turned into the catalyst for Fox's ratings success. The network stumbled upon something that should have been obvious but no one else had bothered to consider: people enjoy watching new episodes of their favorite shows every week without stopping as opposed to having a season stretch out for nine months. This is especially true of dramas that have rolling storylines and plots. One of my favorite shows is "Lost", yet it is maddening when I have to wait a month to get a resolution to a cliffhanger. "24", on the other hand, rolls on straight through from January through May without impediment, which, for me, heightens the anticipation and intensity for each subsequent episode.
Judging by the way the ratings have gone the past couple of years, the public seems to agree with me. It would behoove the other networks to follow Fox's lead and break out of a television season cycle that should have been abandoned a long time ago. People are a lot smarter than considering a bunch of clips to be a "new" episode.
Additional Article of Note:
A New Yorker article on sweeps from 2003 goes into how the sunken costs of the current Nielsen system and the interests of affiliates are severe roadblocks to getting the sweeps cycle changed.