On Friday, Happy Endings, ABC’s warm, wonderful sitcom that’s a cross between the chosen-family dynamic of Friends and the anarchic pop culture analysis of Community, debuted in a new timeslot to just 3 million viewers, and a 0.9 rating in the valuable 18-49 demographic. Two days later, The Walking Dead, AMC’s violent zombie drama, finished its third season with 12.4 million viewers, 8.4 million of them between the ages of 18 and 49. These two disparate bits of data could be evidence for a lot of different ideas: the general ascendence of cable over broadcast networks, for example, or the American viewing public’s appetite for violent media. But I want to use it to point out something different, and something that I think plays a larger role than is generally acknowledged in the failure of some broadcast shows and the success of turning many cable shows into must-see TV: unpredictable broadcast television scheduling has made it impossible to turn any single television show into a predictable viewing event.
When Happy Endings debuted in 2011, its first episode aired at 9:31 PM even though the show would normally be airing at 10PM. After the third episode, ABC began doubling up the episodes, airing one at 10PM and another at 10:30. In the second season, the show moved to 9:30 PM. In its third, Happy Endings aired first on Tuesdays at 9 PM, then on Sundays with Don’t Trust The B—- In Apt. 23, and now on the Wednesday time slot that’s done so poorly. While in the show’s first season, episodes 1-12 ran on consecutive weeks without a break in between, there was a three-month gap between the 12th episode, which aired on May 25, and the thirteenth, which aired on August 24. In the second season, the episodes ran in consecutive weeks with a break for Thanksgiving until December, when ABC aired one episode, then took the show off the air until January. And in this third season, the show went off the air for two months, between January 29 and March 29. In between the shifts of time slot and the gaps in between episodes, it makes sense that Happy Endings would get whittled down to a core group of viewers who were committed enough to follow it from day to day and from month to month: who else could possibly be expected to chase the show across the calendar for years at a time?
Scheduling changes like this are due to a number of factors, among them high rates of show failure and the excessive length of the traditional broadcast season. Happy Endings moved to Sundays to replace the cancelled 666 Park Avenue, and networks often shuffle shows around to plug holes on their schedules that emerge as new shows fail to attract audiences and are removed form the calendar. And no show on network can both be aired every week and fill out a season that’s eight months long when the standard broadcast network order is for around 22 episodes of a program. This mismatch ought to create opportunities for networks to pair up existing shows with miniseries, shorter-run series with expensive stars like The Following, for which Fox promised Kevin Bacon he’d only have to do 15 episodes a year, or launches of new shows towards the end of the year, as was the strategy for another ABC show, Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, which has grown into a genuine hit in its second—but first full-length—season. But in reality, it frequently makes for lumpy seasons with long breaks. Parks and Recreation may be the show on network television to which I am most emotionally attached but now, if I didn’t feel a professional obligation to watch it in a timely fashion (something I do on Hulu the morning after rather than the night of), I’d let the episodes pile up on my DVR until I could have the pleasure of a long, luxuriant evening with it, rather than risk disappointment by clearing my Thursdays only to find that the show isn’t on.
In addition to quality, the ability to air violence and sex on television, and the advantage of having to produce fewer episodes and as a result, to write less filler, this is the great advantage that prestige cable television has over network television: it’s reliably on when it’s supposed to be on. When a season or half-season of The Walking Dead begins, it’s there every week at the same time until the run of episodes is over. Ditto with Game of Thrones. Ditto with Homeland. Ditto with Mad Men. Ditto with Breaking Bad. It is actually possible to make a ritual out of watching these shows, either alone, or with friends, with matching 1960s cocktails or Westeros-inspired lemon cakes, because they air with ritual regularity. You don’t need to guess when these shows are on, or risk being disappointed that they aren’t on, or plan a single night when you do all of your television viewing because it’s just more efficient to watch what’s turned out to be there, rather than trying to build your social schedule around something that is actively resisting your efforts to consistently enjoy it. The cable dramas are probably the shows that could most actively mess with viewers’ schedules, in part because their serialized, often cliffhanger-oriented storytelling leaves fans ravenous for the next episode, and because they’ve successfully marketed themselves as significant cultural events that demand to be discussed the next day, whenever the next day is. But the cable networks have wisely paired these advantages with simple predictability.
This is even more true with outlets like Netflix, which don’t just give you episodes at regular intervals—they give you all the episodes at once and let you make your own viewing schedule. As a critic, I have my cranky doubts about what this will do to collective viewing culture. But it’s an entirely reasonable response not just to the rise of binge watching, but to a broadcast scheduling culture that isn’t giving viewers any of what they want when they’d be very happy to lend their eyeballs to shows that need them.
Maybe networks will respond to this conundrum in any number of ways. They could pair long seasons with shorter ones. They could, as ABC has done with shows like Switched At Birth and Melissa & Joey, order significantly more episodes per season, something that would both let them air episodes regularly and in their time slots for longer periods of time, and would also help them get to the syndication threshhold of 100 episodes more quickly. Or, most conservatively, they could try to be patient with both new and existing shows that are struggling out of the gate at the beginning of the season, giving viewers time to both find shows and then to get used to watching them in a timeslot. Whatever they decide, though, the broadcast networks will be making changes at a time when their basic model has been, if not completely broken, executed more faithfully by its competitors than by broadcast television itself. You can’t tell viewers that your television programming is must-see and then give us nothing to see.