Why do shows take mid-season hiatuses?
December 5, 2012 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Why do shows like Walking Dead do these mid-season hiatuses? I'm searching for a reason other than people sitting in a room twirling their mustaches saying "They love it, so they'll come back. Make them wait!"
posted by archimago to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
From my understanding, ratings plummet around the holidays, so rather than try and keep people interested, they just skip the whole season.

Alternatively I've also heard that it allows the networks to stretch less episodes across a longer time period, allowing them to spend less to maintain big-name shows.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:00 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine who is a producer on one of those shows says it's done as a shitty cost-saving measure. Basically, the channel gets two seasons without having to give the actors, writers, and everyone else the usual seasonal pay increase.
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:03 PM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

^ that's specific to cable channels that do the "BSG Season 3.5" thing
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:05 PM on December 5, 2012

I think there are really two reasons, each depending on whether it is a major network or a cable channel. Blue_beetle has covered both reasons, already, with the first being mostly for networks (who are doing this more and more) and the second being more common for cable channels.
posted by asnider at 3:18 PM on December 5, 2012

The holiday hiatus has been around since there were only 3 networks, as I recall. Tis the season for reruns, because after the October-November (Fall) Sweeps period, in which ratings are gathered and Very Special Episodes are aired, including cliff-hangers, the show goes into reruns, gathering new revenue as the ad-rates have gone up (hopefully) while the content is in stasis and viewership drops while people go shopping, visit friends and so on.

Then, like the red-breasted robin, Winter Sweeps must come along, and shows decide whether to start early in mid-January and run a hard schedule so they climax during Winter Sweeps, or else start late, spread it all out, and try to span the time between Winter and Spring Sweeps.

Following Spring sweeps, the shows get seasonal replacements or else go back into reruns as viewers view other things, like sports, unschooled children, members of the attractive sex baring skin, exotic foreign locations away from TVs, etc. Summer Sweeps passes unremarked.

Then as September approaches, it's time for build up again for Fall Sweeps, so there must be hype! New shows! Returning shows! Novelty! And people check out the execrable new shows long enough to get counted by Nielsen, and then the weather turns cold and so dark, and people huddle together by the light of the tube for a while, but who cares, it's early in the season and the ad rates were set by the premieres.

Also, it gives the cable channels an excuse to sell half a season's worth of DVDs in the spring, just before the second half starts. Never underestimate the importance of cash-flow.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:27 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

There aren't seasonal pay increases--people get WGA, SAG, DGA base rates plus whatever their agents can negotiate. The production schedule is such that the network needs to have so many shows in the can, in post production and shooting, every week. It's not like they make 1 episode a week, and then start the next from scratch.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:32 PM on December 5, 2012

I think it's pretty standard for at least the writers and actors to get a bump between seasons.
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:39 PM on December 5, 2012

I think it also gives the networks a chance to test new shows out because every season, they will release a couple new shows that run only for that duration. If it goes well, they keep it on for a full season the following year, if not, they can it.
posted by cyml at 3:46 PM on December 5, 2012

it allows the networks to stretch less episodes across a longer time period, allowing them to spend less to maintain big-name shows.

Here's how this works. Cable networks typically order thirteen episodes per season of a series, rather than the 22-26 that a Big Four network would order. It used to be -- and in some cases it still is -- that they would show the thirteen episodes over the same timeframe that the Big Four would show their series, but the season didn't last as long, or there were more reruns, or whatever. In fact, cable networks originally weren't organized around the Season format in the same way the Big Four were, so it didn't really matter. You got your original scripted TV, you aired it whenever, there was no room for complaint.

Now there's less of a distinction between the way the Big Four airs shows and the way cable airs shows. Except the number of episodes ordered hasn't changed. So cable networks have a choice. They can either air all thirteen episodes right in a row with no break and have a short season, or they can stretch out the thirteen episodes to cover a more traditional Big Four style season. For shows where the holidays happen in the middle of their season, the obvious choice is to have a hiatus at that time, since fewer people are watching due to other social obligations.

Another factor might be other programming that typically comes on around the holidays. So for example whichever cable network owns White Christmas and It's A Wonderful Life is going to want to air those at some point, and there are going to be college Bowl games, and obviously you don't want to air anything important on an actual holiday. And then if you're a cable network that airs other types of programming, there might be seasonal stuff related to that. Blah blah blah until your timeslots for the month of December are pretty much full, anyway. Why pre-empt three weeks of The Walking Dead and then flush that fourth week down the toilet ratings-wise, when you could just make a Hiatus of it?

In terms of pay increases, that's really not germane to this at all, because taking a hiatus from mid November into January doesn't mean the beginning of a new season*. There are some people who do get a pay increase (usually below the line non-union crew, for example yours truly), but even if that were a factor -- which it's not, because we make pennies compared to the principal cast, directors, writers, producers, etc -- the mid-season hiatus doesn't have anything to do with that. You shoot a series back to back, not as it airs. A thirteen episode order of a one hour series takes about 20 weeks to shoot. Regardless of how many weeks it takes for all thirteen episodes to air. You get paid according to your rate for the season that you're shooting, not whatever is airing.

*I work in TV and still do not understand that "Season 3.5" garbage, and hope never to need to.
posted by Sara C. at 5:19 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Cable shows I've worked on have had mid-season hiatuses (hiati?) because the network will order, say, 10 episodes and then wait for the numbers for the first two or three before ordering an additional 10 or whatever. Since the first 10 episodes will usually be all but finished by the time the first 2 air, the amount of time it takes to prep, shoot, and post another 10 takes longer than the 8 or so weeks of content that exist in the pipeline. Presto hiatus!
posted by justjess at 6:09 PM on December 5, 2012

But I think that covers why the production goes on hiatus, not why the show takes a break. The shooting schedule and the airing schedule have nothing to do with each other, barring a situation like the writers' strike.
posted by Sara C. at 6:27 PM on December 5, 2012

However, it is no longer uncommon for even a short season to be stretched across a period longer than a year, sometimes by skewing the start of the "season".

As an example I was looking at earlier this evening, Ugly Americans (Comedy Central) had a fourteen episode first season, 03/2010-11/2010, and a seventeen episode second season, ten of which were aired 06/2011-09/2011, then seven more in 03/2012-04/2012. So the thing is, if you're spreading out a seventeen episode season over a period of eleven months, people will naturally expect there to be a break before the next season. Now figure out when that might be... Point is, the "seasons" no longer correspond to the calendar in any obvious manner. Season two part two starts two years after season one. Season three part one will start probably two or more years after season two part one.
posted by jgreco at 1:02 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

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