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.