Risk vs. Reward: How a Midseason Premiere Can Help
With the holidays out of the way and new episodes of TV starting back up again, it’s time for the networks to start their second round of premieres. The first is of course in the fall, when Premiere Week means a fresh start to all of the returning series and highly anticipated launches for the new kids in town. After the frenzy of new programming, the networks play the waiting game, while some shows succeed, some peter out, and others fail to find an audience. (New) TV practically stops for the last few weeks of December and the beginning of January, and then it’s midseason, and time to try again.
Every year, many series are held for midseason; some because they’re complicated and the network isn’t sure audiences will find them, some because the network isn’t as confident of their quality, and some because they don’t fit nicely on the schedule. Sometimes a network has an embarrassment of riches and, though they believe in a show, they don’t have any timeslots for it to go into. Other times, the network worries a smaller show may get lost when up against all the returning favorites and flashier new premieres. Then there’s the hopefully infrequent case of a network knowing a show isn’t great, but needing so much programming for one reason or another (fallout from the most recent writers’ strike comes to mind) that they order it up anyways and hold it to midseason, hoping they won’t have to rely too heavily upon it.
There is always the risk, when a show is held for midseason, that it won’t make it to air. Should the fall premieres hit, there will be little space on the schedule and networks will always go with a modest success over the potential for failure from a new series. Episodes may get burned off during the summer, get a brief “trial” run, or not air at all. If they do make it to air, however, being a midseason replacement can be quite a boon. Some of the most acclaimed series in television history started as midseason replacements, from All in the Family to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as did several of the most popular and acclaimed series on the air now, from Parks and Rec to Grey’s Anatomy.
Starting midseason gives creators and showrunners more time. More time to write, more time to produce, more time to test (which, admittedly, isn’t always a good thing). Given the already difficult production schedule for television (the turn-around for an episode is usually a week), and the increased chance of problems popping up while working out the kinks for a new show, not having as strict of a deadline can be just what the doctor ordered. This season, for example, Awake, an NBC series held for midseason, was considered by most critics to be one of the most promising and interesting pilots of the bunch. However, problems arose during production and the creators asked for some time to work out and refine the complex mythology/premise of the series. Had it premiered in the fall, this would mean going off the air for an unknown period of time while viewership drifted away, not necessarily to return when the show did. When it makes it to air (as NBC execs claim it will), we’ll see just how much the extra time helped, but its midseason slot certainly hasn’t hurt.
Another advantage is that midseason series often have smaller season one episode orders. For a show still finding itself (most series take at least a season to find their voice), this shorter run can function as a type of workshopping, allowing creators to see what works and what doesn’t without overly committing. The first season of Parks and Rec gave us a very different Leslie Knope than the rest of the series. The PTB at the series hadn’t quite found her voice, or the tone of the series, but they were able to see this and adjust between seasons, and because the first season was so short (only 6 episodes), it wasn’t as jarring a tonal shift as if they’d had a full 22 episode run. Similarly, Happy Endings initially focused heavily on their Left-at-the-Altar premise, by far the weakest element of the show, but they made a similar tonal adjustment between seasons, making the earlier misstep a blip on the radar.
Midseason series also often benefit from lowered expectations. They get brought in when other series fail, at least ratings-wise in the network’s eyes, and due to this, are more able to survive with ratings that may not have flown in the fall. While each show has a particular magic number for success, based on its cost and timeslot, if a midseason show gets higher ratings than the show it replaced, it’s probably going to be fine. Depending on the network’s situation, they may also have a higher chance of renewal with mediocre ratings. Networks rarely renew series they’ve yanked and replaced- that gives the midseason shows less competition. Also, if the network’s in trouble or has aging series with no new hits, a struggling midseason series may get picked up just so the schedule has some continuity between years. Only a small percentage of pilots ordered make it to air and very few of those successfully find an audience- networks are loathe to be too reliant on new series, allowing some bubble series, or midseason replacements who are still working to find their audience, to make it through.
Finally, there is less competition at midseason. Yes, there is usually less promotion than in the fall, and midseason series premiere against already established shows, which can be a challenge, but compared to Fall Premiere Week’s multi-network Viewer Grab, it’s not hard to separate oneself or attract viewers who’ve lost interest in the shows they tried out in the fall. For shows with a more complicated premise or individual tone, at midseason they can be a breath of fresh air while in the fall they’d be too demanding or otherwise lost in the shuffle. This appears to be the tack taken with Alcatraz, Touch, and Awake, three (semi-) serialized genre dramas premiering at midseason.
Many of the series with midseason premieres won’t succeed. Many have already premiered with less than stellar reviews (listen to the latest episode of Sound on Sight’s TV podcast, The Televerse, to hear about the first batch of disappointments). However, for the few with potential, with a good premise or a talented cast and crew, it can be a great place to start.