Last month, Geek Speak’s estimable Editor
in Chief, Rachel Hyland, wrote a
passionate diatribe against the increasingly common practice
on network television of airing a certain number of episodes of
our favorite shows and then abruptly taking a lengthy break: the
dreaded “mid-season hiatus.” She variously referred to the
hiatus as “torture,” “a travesty,” “annoying at the best of
times,” “just plain stupid,” and a practice that “sucks ass.”
One might reasonably infer that she doesn’t care for it all that
You know what? I don’t like it either.
A mid-season break is a complete pain in the ass. Everyone knows that. Nobody likes a hiatus, least of all a show’s devoted fans.
Nevertheless, a hiatus is not the end of the world. In some cases, it may even be…not such a bad thing. Herewith, my reasons why a mid-season hiatus, while painful, sometimes has its place in the grand scheme of things.
First, just to put things into context, a few words about why we have hiatuses (hiati?) to begin with. At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious: It would be really nice if a network’s principal objective were to create Art or tell a cracking good story or even entertain the fans. But we all know that this is not the case. Don’t get me wrong -- if those things happen nobody objects, and in fact everybody’s life becomes a whole lot easier. However, everything the network does, they do with the goal of making money. In a very real sense, their bottom line is their bottom line.
Of course, the best way to pull in large sums of money is to post excellent ratings and thereby drive up ad revenue. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is an imperfect paradigm: Ratings are basically a 20th century tool in a 21st century world. The Nielsens have become a little more sophisticated in recent years (they can track DVR usage, for example), but not much. In any case, fewer people are watching their favorite shows as they air; we’re catching them on DVD, or on hulu.com, or in bits and pieces on YouTube, or even – well certainly not any of us, but maybe some of those other people – through various extralegal means. In most of these cases, the viewers are skipping the commercials altogether. (Oh noez!)
In fact, so many people are turning to these new technologies to meet their viewing needs that I’m pretty sure that the networks (no matter what they say) have no idea how many people actually watch their shows each week. I’m also pretty sure that at the end of the day they don’t especially care, since they still have a fairly good read on how many people are watching each show as it airs, when those all-important ads are broadcast.
From an artistic standpoint, then, the system is seriously flawed. Unfortunately, it’s what we have to work with. So with that in mind:
1. A hiatus can give a sinking ship the opportunity to right itself.
There are several people near and dear to my heart (don’t worry, I’m not naming names) whose initial forays into higher education were spectacularly unsuccessful. These individuals arrived on campus anticipating four years of academic glory, but quickly found that tedious activities like going to class and studying for exams cut into their chillaxing, partying, and general hanging-out time to an unacceptable degree. Eventually, their respective Administrations invited them to take a semester or two off to reevaluate their priorities. In short, their academic careers were placed on hiatus.
Was this annoying? Disruptive? A little embarrassing, even? Sure. But look what happened next: most of these people returned to college and suddenly became academic superstars. Dean’s list; advanced degrees; interesting and fulfilling careers. Getting bounced from school was no fun for anyone, but the time off allowed them to retool, to think about what was going wrong, and to strategize about how to make it better.
So it is with some television shows. For example, after four episodes, V’s ratings were dropping like a stone and its quality could have been charitably described as uneven. When it came back, some months later, it was with the fast-paced, exciting “Welcome to the War.” Ratings for that ep were decent, although not spectacular; still, if (as early indications would suggest) the showrunners used the hiatus profitably, word of mouth will almost certainly give V a boost.
Do the networks always take advantage of a hiatus to make improvements to the shows? Shyeah, right. But the hiatus at least gives the illusion of a fighting chance for improvement.
2. A hiatus, properly used, can build buzz.
How do you make something really desirable? Take it away and make it really hard to get. And then put your PR team to work. Look at Lost – they’re not doing a hiatus in this, their final season, but they did make their faithful wait eight long months between seasons. Eight months! And how many magazine covers did the show have? How breathlessly did TV Guide and (in particular) Entertainment Weekly cover the lead-in to the beginning of the new season? By the time “LA X” rolled around back in February, Lost fans had been worked into a fever pitch of anticipation, a level of energy that has sustained us through the season’s ponderous middle stretch.
3. A hiatus creates a vacuum in which new interests can flourish.
A hiatus represents the perfect opportunity for the frustrated geek to branch out. Rachel’s article is full of useful ideas – graphic novels! Compilations! YouTube! FanFic! Or even…dare I suggest it…discover a whole new show. When your show falls off the radar, it makes space for something new… and occasionally, something good. It’s worth noting here that Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Numb3rs, Quantum Leap, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles all originally debuted at midseason.
4. A hiatus can create marketing opportunities that bring needed revenue to the networks.
Remember, fewer people are viewing the commercials, so bushels of ad money are less certain… and somebody has to pay Joseph Fiennes’ salary. That’s why, for example, FlashForward has famously released a DVD of the first half of Season 1. Artistically this is a boneheaded decision, particularly given the fact that the first half of Season 1 of FlashForward could and should be marketed as a surefire cure for insomnia. (Strategy, people!) But newcomers to the show who pick up the DVD in the bargain bin at Target may actually enjoy it – you never know – and might be inspired to watch the second half of the show live. And if enough people do that, FlashForward could hang on for a second season. Yay?
5. A hiatus is better than the alternative.
Close your eyes and just imagine. Firefly isn’t gone forever. It’s just on hiatus!
There. Aren’t you happy now?
The Mid-Season Hiatus: Just Plain Evil
by Rachel Hyland