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Wasting Away in the Winter Hiatus

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Friday, Jan 11, 2013
As television viewers languished with nothing new to watch over the holidays, it may be time for networks to reconsider their programming schedule.

Recently we were back in that time of year when TV hits a dry spell: the infamous Winter Hiatus, when no new episodes are aired from about mid-December to mid-January. If you’re anything like me, you’re anxious for things to start up again, growing bored out of your mind watching the only things available to you: reruns, holiday specials you’ve seen dozens of times, and drawn-out New Year’s Eve shows. Why must we endure this dearth of good television precisely during that time of year when pretty much everyone has time off?


Television networks have basically always run on the same schedule, with breaks during the summer (an even longer dry spell) and winter months. Traditionally, these times of the year are simply expected to draw fewer viewers. The reasoning here is sound, in that no network wants to air a new episode when people are more likely to be visiting with relatives or traveling than watching TV, but is that really the case anymore?
  
The student population, for example, offers a potentially massive source of viewership over summer and winter breaks, yet it is largely untapped. I have always found it odd that all of the best shows only air while students (and teachers, for that matter) are too busy to watch them. Instead, they are subjected to tacky reality shows over the summer and reruns over the holidays. Of course, students find a way to watch their favorite shows during the school year anyway, but usually not at their first airing, and usually not on TV. Many college students have variable schedules and aren’t able to watch a show at the same time every week. Beyond that, they also usually can’t afford cable, so they instead watch most of their shows online—once they have free time—in the days after they originally air, skewing the current television ratings system (another can of worms that I won’t get into here). But imagine how dedicated college students might be to watching television when they come home for the holidays, with no homework, no studying, and access to their parents’ cable.


Yet it isn’t only the student population that goes untapped this time of year. The great importance of the holiday season in the film industry, for example, is a testament to how times are changing. With such major films opening on Christmas Day as Les Misérables and Django Unchained, which are both doing very well in the box office, it seems that film studios have caught on to something the TV networks haven’t yet: people need something to do with their relatives. Sure, we all love sitting around awkwardly with extended family once dinner and presents are done, but we could use a little shared entertainment, something we all can be familiar with—not just to kill time, but also to provide a talking point for conversation.


And what about once the relatives are gone? With the cold weather, short days, and time off from work, it’s not unlikely that people will want to stay home and curl up on the couch in front of the tube. This is exactly why we all have those classic Christmas movies that are played a gazillion times every year basically memorized. We want to relax and just sit around and watch TV, but these movies are the only thing on TV!


A great example of how powerful TV programming over the holidays can really be comes in the form of one of these classic Christmas movies: It’s a Wonderful Life. When this film was originally released in 1946 it was a box office failure. It was therefore very inexpensive to purchase the rights to the film and put it into television syndication. Needing something cheap to fill up screen time during the holidays—when it is just common sense to not air new shows because of the supposedly small TV audience at this time of the year—networks began to air It’s a Wonderful Life regularly and repeatedly throughout the Christmas season. It quickly became a television staple, as demonstrated by the fact that we’ve all probably seen this film many times. In fact, it is even immediately associated with Christmas, although it isn’t really a Christmas movie, as only one scene actually takes place on Christmas Eve.


The success of It’s a Wonderful Life in the television format as opposed to the cinematic one demonstrates exactly why the long-held belief that people just aren’t watching TV over the holidays needs to be reexamined. While the numbers may be slightly lower than other times of the year, people are still watching, and probably would watch more if they had good reason to. Perhaps the numbers are lower because there just isn’t anything good to watch, so we turn off the TV. If networks started to take the risk of airing new episodes of one of their popular shows or even premiering a new show with lots of potential during the Christmas season, we may start to see real proof that audiences want TV all year round, not just according to the established—and out-of-date—network schedule.


So while traditionally it is believed that television audiences are small during the holiday season, it may be time to rethink that belief. I, for one, would relish the opportunity to watch new, quality television during my time off. While for now we just had to wait patiently for those mid-season premieres to roll around, I certainly hope networks will start to catch on to the great potential these off-season and hiatus periods really have.

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