The recent development of a Once Upon a Time spinoff, Once: Wonderland, has struck a thought for me. Network TV is dealing with a few issues: summer scripted shows struggle with the ‘summer ghetto’ preconception that summer shows are predestined to fail, despite cable seeing success in those months; meanwhile, 22-episode seasons of shows, despite occasionally struggling to be relevant for that entire run, are struggling to retain viewers for the full season thanks to regular hiatuses.
What if there were a smart way to extend good shows, remove in-season hiatuses and strengthen the summer season so that it could potentially become a viable concept?
Now you’re listening.
Shows are having trouble retaining their audiences, with month-long gaps 2 or 3 times a season forcing promising shows to shed frustrated viewers at regular turns. It’s impossible to ask these shows to produce an episode for every in-season week, as that would kill the showrunner, writing team and production crew dead. But the current status quo is seriously damaging shows like Revenge and Once Upon a Time. They need a way to avoid their audience from abandoning the timeslot.
Folks have regularly propositioned having two shows share a timeslot through the regular season, to kill the need for hiatuses. The problem is, it’s hard enough to launch one show successfully, let alone two; meanwhile, the ‘midseason gap’ show has to fight to not be viewed as filler. But what if these ‘filler’ shows were able to utilise the fanbase of the other show without overtaxing the creative team of said show?
This Once spinoff could do that. Having the parent show go on hiatus for 2-3 months one time during the season, during which time the audience could keep watching this other show, in the same time slot and set in the same universe, could prevent shedding viewers. After all, it would feel like the same show, even if the writing teams and production crews aren’t intertwined. A couple of character crossovers or thematic connections per season would help keep them connected enough that viewers would want to watch both every week.
How many shows could pull this off? Well, for example, Once Upon a Time is presenting a possibility. The Vampire Diaries is offering a similar potential with spinoff The Originals. The Good Wife could easily centre a connected show around the political machinations of Eli Gold, which are often entertaining but frustrating distractions currently. The Supernatural universe has so many great concepts that, with its current set-up, it can’t really do more with, like the fabric of the hunter community or the point of view of being a supernatural beastie. The closest they’ve come is adding series regulars to represent those communities, which has never really stuck. Arrow will be adding plenty of costumed vigilantes over the years, plenty of whom could anchor their own shows.
Not only could this model solve the hiatus problem, but I believe another: The ‘Summer Season Ghetto’, where projects of iffy quality and/or de facto cancelled shows go to die.
There’s a view that summer shows are the walking dead. And I don’t mean The Walking Dead, the bona fide cable hit that regularly beats network shows in the key demo; I mean zombiefied shows that were killed the moment they were scheduled in the summer. I don’t think these ratings are a natural extension of the summer TV malaise; after all, cable shows regularly kick ass during the summer season. I think the audience has learned, after a long, long period of priming, that no network puts its heavy hitters in the summer. Even moving shows to summer rarely works for the networks, as that’s viewed as putting a show to pasture.
How to fix it? Simple. Connect the seasons. How can it be a ghetto if it’s the back half of a 22-episode season, half of which got prime play during the season proper?
This would prevent the in-season spinoffs, on the air for 2-3 months to prevent parent show fatigue, taking twice as long to hit syndication. Rather, like the parent show, they would take March-May off midseason and come back to run through the summer, like their parent shows. Effectively, with two 22-episode seasons, we’d have connected shows running 44/52 weeks a year. Much better than the current set-up.
I don’t know that this would work for every show. But once 5 or 6 of these shows are up and running and a proven success, the summer would be de-ghettoised and original stuff could run in the season without utterly bombing in the ratings.
It would be an expensive fix… but the networks need one. And Once and Vampire Diaries could be great pilot projects to launch this idea off. Makes you think, doesn’t it?