A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away called the 1980s television was simple. You had three networks (eventually four when Fox showed up), and they had basic seasons that started in the fall and ended in the spring. By April, early May at the latest just about every classic show had wrapped up, and America prepared itself for a summer of re-runs, baseball and going to the movies (even hit ’80s shows like Dallas usually went off the air by the second week in April). But thanks to cable in the ’90s, premium cable in the 2000s and Netflix, Hulu and the like, today April is no longer the beginning of the end of television in America. In fact, Sunday, March 31st marks the beginning of the great television transition from episodic to serial t.v. where cable networks roll out new shows and shift demographic focus. Forget March Madness, tonight marks the beginning of the best television season of the year.
There is a huge difference between episodic and serial television shows and this transition in programming really started in the early 2000s when networks realized that just abandoning the summer months to movies and family time was wasting a huge market. If ABC, CBS and NBC weren’t going to do anything substantive over the summer why not grab an audience with risky unexpected shows that may not be able to compete with “Desperate Housewives” or “ER” on a Thursday night in January but could certainly beat out “The Biggest Loser,” “Last Comic Standing” and “Nashville Star” on any night in June? However, it’s not just that cable and premium networks have begun to release shows just when the networks are winding down but there are particular types of shows that start in the spring; these shows are more episodic in nature and that is the biggest change in recent years.
Consider what has occurred in the last 2 weeks (Late March to Early April) on Cable and premium nighttime television:
|Season Finales / Series Finales||
Series Premieres / Season Premieres
|Girls (HBO) March 17th||Game of Thrones (HBO) March 31st|
|House of Lies (Showtime) April 7th||VEEP (HBO) April 14th|
|Spartacus (Starz) April 5th||Mad Men (AMC) April 7th|
|The Walking Dead (AMC) March 31st||Dr. Who (BBCA) March 30th|
|Justified (FX) April 2nd||
Rogue (DirecTV) April 4th
|The Americans (FX) May 1st||Nurse Jackie (Showtime) April 14th|
On the surface, this just looks like a tremendous amount of turnover on major networks in a short period of time but the chart above actually reveals even more about the state of modern television viewers and networks. All of the shows ending are episodic television, meaning that by and large you can jump into those shows whenever you’d like and know the basic plot because episodes are self -contained. Girls is about a bunch of privileged 20-somethings in New York, Justified is a cop drama based in Kentucky and the Walking Dead is about people surviving a world overrun by zombies. These shows, be they good or bad, don’t require a great deal of investment in order to get hooked, no complicated intricate plots to figure out, no need to watch the previous 4 seasons just to understand who is sleeping with who or why. The season premieres however, are much more serial and involved. There is no way you can figure out Game of Thrones by starting with the Season 3 premiere tonight (I can barely follow the show and I’ve watched it since the beginning). Nurse Jackie on Showtime and especially Mad Men on AMC have deep intricate plots and character arcs over previous seasons that make the shows what I like to call “investment” television. You have to invest a few weeks of your life watching the previous seasons of Mad Men or you won’t be able to truly enjoy the show, same with Nurse Jackie and most of the other programs on this list. And despite the fact that these shows are all on different networks the serial nature of the premieres is not an accident.
The spring and summer months are still a time for sports, movies and vacations, and consequently to get active viewers to invest in programs during this time of year there has to be some major payoff or at least loss for not tuning in. If you are a Dr. Who fan, this is the 50th anniversary of the show, since being resurrected 7 years ago the British Sci-Fi series has amazed American fans with long intricate, subtle plots that last several seasons before payoff. If you don’t tune in and keep up with the new season you’ll be lost, and who knows when it will show up on Netflix.
So enjoy tonight’s bevy of television change. Whether you are getting in costume for the explosive season 3 premiere of Game of Thrones on HBO, gripping your couch for the season finale of The Walking Dead on AMC (or in my case toggling between both shows and the Miami Heat/San Antonio Spurs game) know that the networks are doing their best to keep you engaged. In this world of infinite options television is kicking into high gear to keep you engaged for the next few months, the hope is that all the investment will actually be worth your time.
This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com.