History lesson: Birth of the midseason
Now an institution, it was a risky ploy 40 years ago
By Ed Robertson medialife.com
Forty years ago this month, CBS introduced a daring new programming strategy: the midseason, or what's known by many today as the second season. Originally borne out of desperation, it was a concept that would dramatically change television. The second season most immediately served to give struggling networks a chance to salvage their lineups. But its impact was broader. It also served to introduce the modern nine-month, September-to-May television season.
In keeping with the second-season tradition, the networks this month are unveiling a host of new series, including â€œCommittedâ€ and â€œMediumâ€ on NBC, â€œNumbersâ€ on CBS, â€œJonny Zeroâ€ and â€œPoint Pleasantâ€ on Fox, and a number of short-run reality series. We are seeing a lot of the heavy promotion we've come to expect with the midseason, most notably Fox's hyping of the coming new season of â€œAmerican Idol.â€
Yet looking back, the advent of the second season was a modest notion. It was 1964 and CBS was N0. 1, but it was facing its first challenge in years. CBS president Jim Aubrey was worried. New ABC shows such as â€œBewitchedâ€ and â€œThe Addams Familyâ€ were siphoning away viewers from many established CBS favorites. Worse, most of its new shows were failing to catch on.
Desperate, Aubrey decided to completely revamp the CBS schedule going into January, changing the timeslots of 11 series. Aubrey's move was a risky one. While occasional tinkering was not uncommonâ€”â€œRawhideâ€ was a midseason replacement when it premiered on CBS in 1959â€”no network had ever attempted such wholesale changes to its schedule in the middle of a television season.
Aubreyâ€™s gamble paid off. CBSâ€™s second-half numbers were good enough to hold off ABC, and the network finished again at No. 1. But it wasn't enough to save Aubrey's job. He was fired at the end of the season.
Nonetheless, an important precedent had been set in network programming. One year later, another desperate network would implement Aubreyâ€™s strategy, carrying it a step further. Ironically, that network was ABC. Despite its strong new lineup, ABC found itself struggling in a distant third because of two words: in color.
While the vast majority of TV households had black and white sets, sales of color TV sets had increased 77 percent during the 1964-'65 season. Color was quickly taking over. NBC and CBS were quick to recognize the trend. ABC was not.
â€œIn the fall of 1965, NBC became the first nearly all-color network with only two of its shows, 'I Dream of Jeannie' and 'Convoy,' in black and white,â€ note pop culture historians Harry Castleman and Wally Podrazik in "Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television."
â€œAt the same time, CBS reached the 50 percent color mark in its schedule. ABC lagged behind both and felt the pinch as the ratings for the fall 1965 premieres came in.â€
Hoping to catch up, ABC took the concept of the midseason overhaul to the next level. While Aubrey simply moved old shows into new time slots, ABC introduced a brand-new lineup of color shows, including a splashy, irreverent and brilliantly executed series based on the Batman comic books.
â€œBatman,â€ in fact, became the lynchpin of what ABC called the â€œsecond season.â€ The network launched a massive publicity campaign to hype the premiere of the show in January 1966. While not all of ABCâ€™s midseason shows took off, â€œBatmanâ€ became an immediate hit. The success of â€œBatmanâ€ spawned the network tradition of using January as a month of television events, from epic miniseries (â€œRootsâ€) to primetime Super Bowl telecasts and high-profile series premieres (â€œThe A-Team,â€ â€œThe Wonder Years,â€ â€œSurvivor: All Starsâ€).
The second season also added three months to the traditional television year. Before 1965, most network series aired first-run episodes from September through February and reruns from March through August. The networks then announced their lineups for the upcoming fall season at the end of February.
That changed, however, with the onset of midseason premieres. February was considered much too soon to account for shows that started their runs in January. Consequently, the network upfronts (as theyâ€™re known today) were pushed back until May. So was the end of the TV season.
Forty years later, the September-May television season is still around. Yet the importance of January has been greatly diminished. Though still used to launch new series, in recent years it has mostly been relegated to winter reruns. This is so for a number of reasons.
The networks usually hold back on running event programming, as well as first-run episodes of top-rated shows, until February so as to air them as part of sweeps. Even this yearâ€™s Super Bowl will be broadcast on the first Sunday of the February sweeps.
But more important, the notion of fixed seasons has been on the wane. The idea of the 12-month TV season means that September and January are now competing with all the other months when it comes to when new shows will roll out. It's now less about a season than a strategy that works for an individual network or show, the calendar be damned.
So when we watch this January's new shows, be mindful of that history. Also be aware that we will see less and less hoopla next year and the year after, as this tradition of television fades.