Jack Bauer is more than just one of television’s most iconic action heroes; he’s also the driving force behind a show that changed the game for television scheduling. Prior to 24, broadcast networks operated on a standard model of 22 episodes per season with strategically placed re-runs between September and May to allow new viewers to latch on to a program (in addition to filling out the holiday breaks). But it was in the show’s fourth season that FOX had a brilliant idea.
Because of 24’s heavily serialized structure, it was hard for new viewers to stay focused in the standard model. It became difficult to remember whose allegiance was with who, who was frenemies with who and who wanted to kill Jack that week. Because of this (along with strong DVD sales) the decision was made to air all 24 episodes of the show’s fourth season in one large chunk between January and May. Through this decision, the “non-stop season” was born.
24 would go on to benefit from this change with an increase in viewership retention from week-to-weekand 4 more seasons on the air. It would take a few more years (and a push from basic cable) for the big 4 to fully catch on to the idea that viewers wanted more new episodes and less re-runs. But eventually they did and now try to schedule as many new episodes together as they can.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005)
There’s no arguing there have been adult oriented cartoons over the years.South Park, The Simpsons, Futurama, Archer, all these shows are designed for mature audiences. But before 2005 kids’ cartoons were meant to be just that, for kids. They didn’t delve into complex stories or theme heavy ideas. They weren’t meant to be anything more than fun, flashy colors in between cereal commercials. Avatar: The Last Airbender changed all that.
The Last Airbender dives into themes about power, corruption and politics. It’s an adult show disguised as a kids’ cartoon, and thanks to the watchful eyes of social media, the rest of the world eventually caught on. Through this series, Nickelodeon learned that parents (and single adults) aren’t just sitting down and half-paying attention to their programs with their children. They learned that if you give adults something to engage with on their level, they will engage just like their younger counter-parts.
The slate of programming that followed out of the kids’ realm learned from this lesson. Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, Phineas and Ferb and Nickelodeon’s Avatar follow-up The Legend of Korra blur the lines between kids and adults and now, networks like Disney XD, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network are able to gain viewership in a demo they didn’t think they had a stake in, and that’s better for everyone.
Breaking Bad (2008)
By the end of its run, the AMC drama cemented itself not only one of the best television series of all time, but also one of the most successful. While displaying modest ratings in its first 5 years on the air, the final season ofBreaking Bad proved to be unstoppable, scoring a huge 10.3 million viewersin the series finale.
One of the most prominent theories to the show’s success has to do withBreaking Bad’s popularity among Netflix NFLX -0.76% users. Because of the final season announcement, viewers raced to catch up with the culturally defining series before its end last October. What Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece has proven is that betting on the long game isn’t such a bad strategy for hard-sell shows.
Other networks such as FX have seen similar viewership upticks with shows like Sons of Anarchy which continues to increase in ratings with every new season. Breaking Bad proved that given enough time audiences will eventually come around to more risky programs, sometimes through less traditional means, and that means they have a fighting chance in the long run.
Television viewing habits change as fast as the methods by which to watch the medium. These habit changes are unpredictable, but they cannot be ignored. It is because of these shows and many more like them that networks have changed the way they do business and how they classify a success, that much is certain.
What shows do you think changed the way networks think about their audience?