Guest Commentary: Embarking on another season of discontent

Sep 23, 2002  •  Post A Comment

To everything, turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn
And a time for every network under heaven
With apologies to Pete Seeger and the Byrds (not to mention the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, where the verses first appeared about 2,500 years ago), it is time for the season. The new season. The new TV season.
When I was a kid and my TV universe consisted of Channels 2, 4, 7, 9, 11 and 13 and such long-gone classics as “Colonel Bleep” in the morning, “Gigantor” during the day and “My Mother the Car” at night-the new season always arrived the second or third week of September. We would know exactly when it started upon our visit to Bohack’s-the long-gone New York supermarket chain-where resting comfortably at the checkout would be the telephone-book-size Fall Preview edition of TV Guide.
Of course, this was before TV reporting and criticism became the art form it is today, but when TV Guide hit the racks after a summer of reruns it was time to take TV seriously again. It was the start of The Season.
Turn, turn, turn …
Now the TV seasons seem to begin when anyone damn well pleases to start them. For all intents and purposes this year, the season started Sept. 12, when The WB debuted “Family Affair.” Ironically, it’s an update of the sitcom from the aforementioned six-channel TV universe. The more things change … well, you get the drift.
The natural order
OK, so the season has started. In one fall preview I read that “George Lopez” on ABC is returning for its second season. Really? Wasn’t it a midseason replacement last March and ran for a total of four episodes? How is this its second season? Over at NBC “Crossing Jordan” is also listed as a sophomore series. Makes sense. Began last September. Ran 22 episodes. Had a summer of reruns. And now is back in fall for a second season. That is the natural order of TV seasons.
Even the capo di tutti capi of prime time, “The Sopranos,” either has a math problem or the folks at HBO need to re-acquaint themselves with a dictionary. The crime-family drama has never run more than 13 episodes. Years ago a full season of TV was 39 episodes. More recently it shrank to 26 episodes. Now because of rising budgets a full season is 22 episodes. By either measurement, 13 episodes does not make a full season. (It also begs the question, shouldn’t a half-season be 11 episodes now instead of 13?) And just what are we supposed to call those four- and six-episode series? A quarter of a season?
These numbers, of course, only apply to broadcast network television. Somehow it has become accepted that on cable 13 episodes is a full season and the season can start, well, whenever. “The Sopranos” started its first two “seasons” in January and its third “season” in March. This year it premiered Sept. 15. At least this year you have to give “The Sopranos” credit for at least starting its new “season” when there really is a new TV season. Still, on the flip side, we had not seen an original episode of Tony, Carmela and company in 16 months. Imagine if “Law & Order” tried that scam.
Turn, turn, turn …
The clock can’t be turned back to the six-channel, 39-episode halcyon days. But hey, can we at least use the language properly?
Here are Webster’s definitions of season: “period of the year characterized by or associated with a particular activity or phenomenon.” There are also some animal references about migrating and mating, which we don’t need to reprint in a family newspaper, as well as some weather references. The other definition, though, is: a period marked by special activity in some field (the theatrical season, the hunting season).
All 30 Major League Baseball teams play the same season, from April to October. The Boston Red Sox don’t play any games in mid-December against a team from Japan and say it is their new season.
Everyone who is part of the Metropolitan Opera begins and ends the season at the same time. You don’t have one or two members going off and performing “La Boheme” outside Lincoln Center and calling it a season.
In TV there is only one season. The fall season. There isn’t a “new” season in March or April or July. Sure, there are replacement shows that come, but they mostly go after a handful of episodes. (Remember any of these short-timers? ABC’s “Wonderland,” CBS’ “Big Apple,” NBC’s “Crisis Center,” UPN’s “Social Studies” or Fox’s “The Lone Gunmen”?) On cable, programs such as HBO’s “The Wire” (June), USA’s “Monk” (July) or Comedy Central’s “Primetime Glick” (February) premiere whenever. And again, play for 13 episodes: a half-season.
Cable series come in cycles
Now I know these cable series premiere usually when the broadcast networks are in midseason or summer rerun mode. Fair enough. But for these programs it is a new cycle, not a new season. Let’s call it that. It may not sound that great in the on-air promos-Hey, get ready for the new cycle of cable’s newest hit, “The Programmers,” the dramatic behind-the-scenes look at network television. Les Moonves guest stars in the premiere episode as skullduggery hits a network promotion department, which refuses to change its on-air promotional campaign-but at least it is truth in advertising.
Don’t like “cycle”? Fine. Call it a “new year.”
Actually, “year” may be the way television is heading anyway if you read the Sept. 9 edition of Electronic Media, with NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Zucker publicly resurrecting the 39- and 52-week seasons. Certainly this is not a new idea. I remember Barry Diller, when he was running Fox, proclaiming his network was going to produce 36 or 39 episodes of its scripted series, but it never really came to fruition. When Les Moonves first took over CBS, he was a quick proponent of year-round original television. That concept begat “Survivor.”
A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing
Look at all those themes. Love. Hate. Peace.
Boy, if I didn’t know better I would think Pete Seeger was writing about the one place you can find those themes at the same time: the start of the television season.
Turn, turn, turn …
Brian Donlon is VP and general manager of iVillage Television. A former TV writer for USA Today, he has spent various seasons working in television at CNBC, Lifetime and CBS.