Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Next Small Thing

This week, we've had news that ABC's creatively troubled remake of V will premiere with four episodes in November, then stay off the air until the 2010 Winter Olympics are over, in March.

Then NBC announced that Day One, originally slated as a 13-episode mid-season replacement, will run instead as a four-hour miniseries. The interesting part to me is that NBC based its decision on the notion that while they could effectively advertise Day One as event television, it would be a harder, prohibitively expensive, sell as a series.

Which got me thinking... is this the beginning of a new phenomenon in television: the sweeps month micro-season?

The longtime model of a 35-week season, with reruns scattered amongst 22 new episodes, has become increasingly uncommon for dramas. Partly it's due to increasing serialization of shows, which makes reruns potentially confusing for the more casual audience. We've become used in recent years to shorter blocks of all-new episodes, as with Lost and 24.

At the same time, networks have become more reluctant to commit to seasons of 22 episodes, increasingly preferring figures like 13, 16, or 17, even with successful series (as, again, with Lost). Partly, this ties into the serialization and seasons without reruns. Sweeps periods come in November, February, and May, making 17 (or occasionally 18) the number of weekly episodes needed to have a season premiere at the beginning of one sweeps period, and the season finale at the end of the next.

So why not take this maximization of sweeps months one step further, and, as it were, cut out the middlemonths? Imagine a series which premieres as a big November event with four episodes. If that goes well, it comes back with another four-episode event in February, and a final block of four in May.

Obviously, a network couldn't do a series like 24 that way (besides that they'd have to rename it 12), but I can easily picture a series model with four-episode plot arcs with a beginning and end unto themselves, but picking up from, and springboarding into, other arcs. Sort of a season along the plotting lines of a film trilogy (or, perhaps more to the point, a Star Wars trilogy, inasmuch as the aim would be to get renewed for another trilogy).

Or possibly I'm dreaming, and it's just the models of V and Day One which will catch on. The advantage to the V model of 13 episodes, shown in blocks of four and nine, is that if the first four do well, the network can air the remaining nine starting in late March, with the big season finale at the end of the May sweeps. If it doesn't, the network can start the second block in early March, and have it done before May sweeps.

The advantage to the Day One model (or, after its true originator, the Battlestar Galactica model) is that the network has only committed to four hours. If they don't do well, that's the end, at no additional cost.

With either model, the network could use the 17- or 18-episode sweeps-to-sweeps model for the series the next year.

Still, I keep thinking about the "event series" of sweeps-month micro-seasons. What network could resist the idea of, essentially, three premieres and three finales per season, all on sweeps weeks?

In any case, it looks like, when it comes to premiering a series, networks are looking to do more with less.

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