Is it time to rethink the TV ‘season’ concept?

With Battlestar Galactica returning to finish up its fourth and final season soon, I’ve been thinking again about the concept of a television “season” and what it means. This is mostly an academic question, as it ultimately doesn’t have any huge significance, but it’s something that I’ve been pondering lately.

BSG might just have the most protracted ending in the history of television, with the obvious exception of The Sopranos. In March 2007, when BSG season three ended and it was announced that season four would be the final season, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where we would be heading into 2009 and the show still wasn’t over. Think about it: When Battlestar airs its final episode, presumably in late March, it will have been two full years since the previous “season” ended.

Of course, part of that might have been the writers strike. But most of it was Sci Fi wanting to hold onto a critically lauded asset as long as it possibly could, and have blocks of episodes sitting around to air when it thought made the most sense for the network, advantageously speaking.

All of that is fine and good — I’m not slamming it, even though BSG‘s fans have had to be mighty patient in watching their show’s ending unfold. But it does make me wonder how on earth this can be considered a single “season,” with half of it airing in 2008, and the other half in 2009, nearly a full year apart, and with hiatuses existing not simply in the air dates, but also built into the production schedule of the show itself.

The other thing I look at when wondering about this is the DVD box sets. BSG will be releasing “season 4.0” on DVD in January before “season 4.5” starts up. Again, given the long layoff between the seasons, this makes sense for the network. But I would argue that at this point all pretenses should be dropped and season four should just be a 10-episode block of its own with its own DVD set, and what they’re calling “season 4.5” should just be called “season five.” Why not? Especially when you look at the story structure of the show: “Revelations,” the season 4.0 finale, had the structure and impact of a season finale. Why not just call it the season four finale and be done with it, and pick up the next batch of shows as the next season? Why is every BSG season (except the first) conceived as two acts?

The Sopranos did the same thing with its final season. It aired season six in two blocks — of 12 and nine episodes — and then released two separate DVD sets. At that point, why not just call them seasons six and seven? Why should I have seven DVD sets for six seasons of The Sopranos? And why should I have six DVD sets for four seasons of Battlestar?

With the way cable series orders go, with 10 or 12 or 13 episodes being the typical norm, BSG could easily have justified calling its 20- or 21-episode fourth season two separate seasons. I point to the just-finished The Shield as proof of just that: It took its 21-episode fifth season and then, realizing it would hold the second half for a year, simply renamed that second half of season five as season six. And then it finished everything off with a seventh season.

Is this even worth as many words as I’ve devoted to it? Probably not. But I’m thinking that the way cable series work — with fewer episodes per season and longer layoffs between seasons — why cling to this notion that a season must be a set number of episodes under some original plan? Certainly in BSG‘s case, which isn’t fooling anybody in the way these episodes are scheduled and aired, why not just rename the episode blocks? Then you can say your show went for at least as many seasons as actual episode blocks your audience had to wait for.

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18 comments on this post

Greg
Saturday, November 29, 2008, 12:00 pm (UTC -6)

What you say makes sense, but it does certainly depend on what is considered to be a ‘season’. For a show like Sopranos, The Shield, or The Wire, a season typically consists of a clear beginning, middle and end, with a little (or plenty) of room left for future storytelling. All three of those shows did that idea of a season-as-a-single-story very well (with the obvious exceptions of this structure being Sopranos season 6 and Shield 5 – 7). From a storytelling perspective, it makes sense to have seasons as they seem to form chapters in a novel (or novels in a series, acts in a play, etc).

With Battlestar, however, I don’t see a lot of internal structuring within the seasons themselves. Certainly the series itself is structured, but I think from season-to-season it doesn’t necessarily follow the Sopranos model. There are no real bookends at all, I find (with the New Caprica story being an exception), and the show just seems to go where it goes. There’s nothing wrong with that, I don’t think. Battlestar’s its own creature and I think writers should be able to do what they see best for their show without having to follow models (although I’d argue that season 3’s writing was sloppy and unfocused in several spots).

In the end it really just is an academic question, as you said. The airing and network problems of today will likely not have as much impact what it comes to posterity, which is how the majority of people will end up seeing this show. It’s airing now, yes, but the DVDs have an eternity to be watched.

Dimitris Kiminas
Sunday, November 30, 2008, 2:13 am (UTC -6)

Well, others certainly had the same thoughts that you do: in the UK the Region 2 DVD has been officially labeled “Season 4”, and the last 10 episodes will be labeled “season 5”.

Go to http://www.amazon.co.uk and you’ll find “Battlestar Galactica: Season 4” up for sale: If you read the comments there, the fans are complaining that the box-set is mislabeled season 4, when it is only half of season four!! (Well, you can’t please everybody! ๐Ÿ™‚ )

Random Man
Sunday, November 30, 2008, 1:22 pm (UTC -6)

Good points, with I completely agree. It would make things easier if they either A) ran the whole season in a single chunk, or B) simply labelled each distantly spaced grouping of episodes as a separate season.

On the DVD issue: it does seem to make story sense to simply label the disparate halves of season 4 as seasons 4 and 5 โ€“ the first half ended on what amounts to a season ending cliffhanger. But the cynical side of me says that the potential DVD revenue is really responsible for how each network divides up the seasons. For example, SciFi/Universal/NBC charges a suggested retail price of $59.98 for Season 3, and $49.98 for the first half of season 4. Theyโ€™ll probably charge the same amount for the second half of season 4. As a result, they stand to make more by dividing each season up into as many parts as they can.

It kind of stinks.

Jamie
Sunday, November 30, 2008, 8:41 pm (UTC -6)

The concept of a season is so skewed now because of the writers strike and ratings wars which take higher priority in the studio’s mindframe than any silly concept of story structure.

I think the entire idea should be scrapped, especially for serial shows like BSG, Sopranos. Instead DVDs should be grouped by storytelling bookends, or acts. A prime example of this would be Babylon 5 that, although stuck to a seasonal structure, nevertheless gave each season a predetermined outline that worked as a ‘chapter’. Each was given its own title, as opposed the mundane ‘Season 1, 2 etc.’.

When it comes for stand alone shows like The Simpsons or simple sitcoms however, the arbitrary ‘season’ grouping works, simply as a way to bundle them all together.

Hmm. Good article, enjoyed reading it and it got me thinking on the issue too.

Brendan
Sunday, November 30, 2008, 9:50 pm (UTC -6)

Think of it as a way to accommodate your review timeframe ๐Ÿ™‚

Destructor
Monday, December 1, 2008, 11:30 pm (UTC -6)

Hi Jammer,

I’d love to hear your final thoughts on ‘The Sheild’, now that it has wrapped.

Stef
Tuesday, December 2, 2008, 5:50 am (UTC -6)

Does part of the problem lay with the crazy way the shows are made in the US? They make 12 episodes, and if that works out well, they make another 12, for a total of 24, with a huge gap in the middle, and then call it a season. That is seriously odd.

Remember the first season of 24? They made 12 episodes initially (thus destroying the concept of 24) and the storyline was wrapped up in the first 12 hours. Then the second half of the season was a new storyline with a new set of bad guys. And they still maintain this is a continuation?

What annoys me the most about this structure is the way that when you get to that episode 12 (or 11 if they are doing a 22 show season), it is kind of like the final episode because they don’t know if the show is every returning. Sometimes this is mini-cliffhangers, sometimes it is “We’re all friends now, we all love each other, what a happy ending!!!”

And of course, the 12 episode half-season format means the DVD prices for 6.1 of CSI: New Hampshire or whatever, are super high over here in the UK.

Dimitris Kiminas
Tuesday, December 2, 2008, 6:08 am (UTC -6)

@ Jamie

Yes, BABYLON 5 was always ahead of its time:

SEASON 1: SIGNS & PORTENTS
SEASON 2: THE COMING OF SHADOWS
SEASON 3: POINT OF ON RETURN
SEASON 4: NO SURRENDER, NO RETREAT
SEASON 5: THE WHEEL OF FIRE

I hope Jamahl will find the time to watch it sometime.

Dan
Tuesday, December 2, 2008, 9:00 am (UTC -6)

You crazy Yanks. ;o)

Never got the whole season split thing. But then in the UK most series only get between 6 and 12 episodes anyway.
We usually get stuff later from the US so get to watch it uninterupted, CSI for example. There will be a split with Heroes however as we get that a week afterwards. Not so bad on that front as it is split into volumes.

Lou
Wednesday, December 3, 2008, 11:15 am (UTC -6)

It’s ironic that SF is cancelling BSG because of no ratings growth, which is at least partially attributable to the way they schedule the series. My interest is so low that I have not yet watched the last two episodes of Season 4.0 yet.

Another example of cable scheduling idiocy is Entourage. They just finished “Season 5” consisting of 13 episodes, a grand total of 6.5 hours of programming. Now they are gone unitl who knows when again.

Brad
Wednesday, December 3, 2008, 8:39 pm (UTC -6)

My only issue is how much more they ask us to pay for seasons 2 and 4 over 1 and 3. If the price for the 4.0 box set were $30 (or less!), I wouldn’t mind at all. However, I dislike being so blatantly milked.

Stef
Friday, December 5, 2008, 5:13 am (UTC -6)

@ Lou: BSG has been cancelled? I thought they had just written the end of it rather then being cancelled?

Jamahl Epsicokhan
Friday, December 5, 2008, 4:31 pm (UTC -6)

BSG was not canceled. According to Ron Moore, he himself made the call to end the show after talking with the network. The ratings for BSG were in a fairly constant slide, and there was a question as to how long Sci Fi wanted it to cultivate it, and maybe that factored into Moore’s decision, but that’s not the same thing as “canceled.”

Weiss
Monday, December 8, 2008, 1:20 pm (UTC -6)

This is also the case with the latest season of Nip Tuck.

I just don’t care what they call the seasons anymore…

John R
Saturday, January 31, 2009, 4:59 am (UTC -6)

I agree that season labelling seems to be more irrelevant than ever. Especially if you take into account the US / UK divide.

Over here – it’s not uncommon to have show seasons completely screwed up for DVD releases (Family Guy, anyone?). This BSG hiatus has definitely been a complete season break – even regarding the story line.

The problem ultimately comes down to the fact that US shows have a nasty habit of putting hiatuses(?) into seasons that simply shouldn’t be there. By constantly breaking up the flow of a season and putting reruns in their place, viewers inevitably lose interest.

When a show breaks up for 3 weeks on TV – I think that it’s a lot to ask for the casual viewer to religiously watch the programme. Especially when you only took the time in the week because you started to enjoy it.

Just seems crazy to me.

Johnny Cosmo
Tuesday, February 3, 2009, 4:11 pm (UTC -6)

I’d hate to see all my favorite TV shows have their finales stretch over such an extended period of time while I had to endure long absences, but I do agree in principle that the conventional season is less relevant. Already we have series premiering during the summer and one only has to look at The Guild or Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog to see that we will happily consume quality programming whenever it is launched.

Matt
Monday, February 9, 2009, 7:42 am (UTC -6)

I agree, i know it probably makes sense from a marketing perspective, but i think it upsets a bunch of viewers, i mean they are blackmailed to watch bad programming in order to wait for their favorite shows to come on.

BSGChris
Thursday, January 19, 2017, 10:18 pm (UTC -6)

The reason for this strange “season” concept is rather mundane: costs. Under most contracts between studios and unions, a new season means a pay rise for everyone involved. By creating convoluted “seasons” the networks get two seasons for the salaries of one, hence the counting of “Razor” as episodes 1 and 2 of “season 4” and two clearly separate 10-episode seasons. It was the same with Breaking Bad’s final “season”, which was clearly marketed as two seasons on DVD and Blu-ray (“season 5” and “the final season”).

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