One of the questions that has been facing network schedulers for a long time is how to distribute their episodes across a TV season. The traditional TV season runs from September to May, 35 weeks in total. Most network shows will only produce 22 episodes to air in that timespan, and others will produce significantly less than that. That means there are a certain number of weeks where the nets don’t have new episodes of the show in that timeslot to air.
The traditional way of handling this is to sprinkle in a couple weeks of repeats at different points in the year. So, there are points (especially in the spring) where there are a couple episodes, a couple repeats, wash, rinse, repeat. However, with the rise of serialized television, which doesn’t repeat well, networks have been trying to find ways to air their shows as consistently as possible. For example, with “Lost” and “24,” ABC and FOX chose to delay them until January in order to air their episodes consecutively.
Though, with some shows, the networks can’t afford to keep them off the schedule for the additional four months. FOX doesn’t want to go eight months without having “Empire” on the air and ABC doesn’t want their TGIT lineup of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” absent for six months. So, they break up the seasons in two parts — one airing in the fall and one airing after a winter break. The issue is the networks’ need to find something to fill in the gap between the two, and some of them didn’t do good job of that this season.
ABC has been trying this type of scheduling for the past couple years, but nonetheless had the most trouble with its midseason replacements. The Alphabet took most of its key dramas like “Scandal” and “Once Upon a Time” off the schedule starting in the end of November, returning in February and March.
To look at some specifics: On Sunday, “Galavant” and a series of repeats replaced “Once Upon a Time” and “Quantico.” “Once” has averaged a 1.6 rating in the 18-49 demographic its 8PM timeslot; “Galavant” averaged a .6, or less than half the rating “Once.” Granted, “Galavant” ’s ratings have come opposite intense competition like “Grease Live!,” the Golden Globes and the AFC Championship Game, but that’s about on par with what “Once” repeats have done in prior years. On Tuesday, ABC replaced “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” with “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” and “Carter” ’s .9 average is about 40% below “S.H.I.E.L.D.” ’s 1.4. It doesn’t help that both “Galavant” and “Carter” are significantly below where they were last year as well.
However, ABC’s problems get worse when looking at their Thursday lineup. The net replaced their TGIT lineup of with reality shows “Beyond the Tank” and “My Diet is Better than Yours” to horrible results. As a point of comparison, on November 19, TGIT averaged 7.94 million viewers and a 2.4 key demo rating across the night. On the night of January 7, ABC’s reality lineup scored 3.04 million viewers and a 0.8 in the demo — a third of the rating TGIT boasts.
FOX had more success with its midseason replacements, but they were more clever with their scheduling than ABC and were able to rely upon stronger names to fill in the gaps. On Mondays, the network took “Gotham” off the air for four months, and replaced it with this little-known reboot called “The X Files,” which has done quite well for FOX (and over a point better than “Gotham” in the key demo). They also replaced “Empire” with new episodes of “American Idol.” “Idol” hasn’t touched the ratings of “Empire,” but it still does twice as well as other shows on FOX’s lineup.
The question now becomes, is there any good way to handle the long breaks necessitated by the television calendar? Like many questions in the TV industry, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. “24” and “Lost” showed serialized dramas did better when aired back-to-back, but that still doesn’t handle what to do in the lengthy breaks between seasons.
This season’s examples show the quality of the midseason replacement ratings depend heavily on what the stopgap is. FOX was smart about using their biggest midseason players as “replacements,” but there won’t be an “X Files” or “Idol” available for every time the networks need something for a couple months. ABC needs to find series which can bring in an audience for the six or eight weeks necessary. It sounds like a simple, but ABC’s failures prove just how complicated solving this problem can be.