Just What is a Television “Season” Anyway?

By  · Published on September 24th, 2013

Mad Men Split Season

This past week, AMC announced that it will split Mad Men’s seventh and final season into two 7-episode increments to air in 2014 and 2015, similarly to the way that Breaking Bad has been careening to its much anticipated yet seemingly breathless finale. On the one hand, this represents a business move that exists anywhere between shrewd and shameless, but one that is unlikely to anger fans who would be happy to follow Don and Roger well into the disco era, even if they’re ultimately only getting one extra episode as a result of the wait.

But the decision has convincingly been perceived as an act of desperation on behalf of a network whose two brand-making critical darlings of original programming will soon see their end, with no surefire successor to take their place (perhaps Low Winter Sun should create a crossover story with The Killing). But what I find most striking about this decision is the fact that, perhaps more so than any recent quality cable show, Mad Men has done of great deal of work to identify itself through – and, in the process, help to define – what a television season means in the age of binge-viewing. By separating each season by discrete gaps in the historical procession of time, Mad Men has overtly defined each of its seasons as characterized through changes in its characters’ associations, lives, relationships, locations, business affiliations, etc. So, will each “part” of Mad Men’s final season take place in a separate year?

More importantly, does this mean that, in the supposed golden age of cable drama, we’re returning to a notion of the “season” as an antiquated, purely contractual term, rather than an important organizational principle for our experience of a long-term story?

While scripted American television programming has always been divided into seasons (1950s sitcoms, for instance, had in excess of thirty episodes per season between summer breaks), because television was almost never been packaged and distributed for everyday commercial use for the majority of its existence, the notion of a television “season” was largely a trade term used to describe a show’s longevity, the order of episodes, and to denote the terms for greenlighting and contracts. Seasons, in other words, have rarely been conceptual tools for an audience’s experience of a long-running program.

While television programs became commercially available during the 1980s on VHS (usually in “best-of” packaged forms, but also as full-seasons for the rare devotees), it’s hard to say exactly when a television’s season became a regular evaluative term used in popular vernacular. My money would be somewhere between Happy Days, whose final seasons inspired the term “jump the shark”; Miami Vice, a show whose story arcs were fastidiously tracked by fans; and, of course, Twin Peaks, whose short life-span and deflating mid-second-season-reveal inevitably created first v. second season verbal fisticuffs amongst its unprecedented cult following.

When television shows were introduced on DVD in full-season form in the late ’90s and early 2000s (a more workable contrast from rows upon rows of VHS tapes), the television season thus developed a standard market value that turned it into a prime category for media consumption. That combined with DVR, Internet fanbases, and “complex” (yet aimless) TV narratives made for a framework through which viewers began to watch television programs largely in terms of seasons in place of individual episodes. The notion that we (assuming “we” are non-industry folk) widely think of television in terms of seasons is basically old enough to drive a car right now.

While that doesn’t seem like much in face of a form of media that has operated commercially for over sixty years, the effect has been significant: with the advent of the season as a dominant category for regular television consumption, programs became separated from their broadcast contexts. “Television” became no longer an ephemeral signal through space, but a collection of packages owned in physical or digital form. This is something that Nielsen is literally just now figuring out.

This is why AMC’s decision to air Mad Men as a divided final season is more significant than an example of a network whose future reputation conspicuously being evaluated. The foregrounding of the “season” helped define American television viewing in the 21st century. Engage with a friend in a conversation about Breaking Bad, Homeland, Dexter, The Walking Dead, or True Blood, and the term inevitably comes up as a site of contention, competition, and correspondence around the water cooler. It’s the way you know what not to spoil. And let’s not forget, a person’s favorite season of The Wire can tell you a lot about them, especially if you’re on a first date. (Here’s a tip: if you want to make an impression, say the second, partly because it’s provocative but mainly because it’s the right answer.)

Sure, the logic of splitting up seasons is something of a result of the de-centering of television away from television. As exemplified by Netflix, a TV season is now hardly more than a designated block of time. And nearly a decade ago, HBO first popularized this practice by splitting up the final seasons of Sex and the City and The Sopranos, respectively. This process blatantly pushes DVD sales, assists in negotiating with streaming venues, and builds a show’s audience if it’s popular enough to warrant the split. It also probably creates the most long-term benefit for networks from cast and production contracts and shooting schedules. And it’s the exact type of thinking that’s informed nearly every recent final entry in a beserkly-successful franchise adaptation of a long-running book series, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games. But as television already operates in a serial format, and seasons are no longer bound to the calendar year, perhaps such divisions are more natural.

Yet at the same time, this splitting of seasons threatens to return the notion of the notion of the “TV season” to its largely contractual definition and away from its use as an accessible, shared point of reference for engagement with and evaluation of the show.

The ritual value of television has been so thoroughly structured through correspondence centered on the season that networks’ attempts to capitalize on final seasons potentially threaten the coherence that enabled the modern phenomenon of obsessive TV viewing in the first place. “Seasons” are the units by which we’ve tracked the evolution of Walter White from Mr. Kotter to Scarface.

And Mad Men, whose seasonal division has explicitly organized the show’s content and its ambitious timeline, has in a more demonstrable fashion been both an essential product of this overall process and an important perpetuator of it. If Season 7, Part 1 takes place in 1969 and Season 7, Part 2 takes place in 1970, then these two airings will be, in effect, “separate seasons” in terms of the ways we will experience them, talk about them, and consume them as an audience, even if they’re the “same season” in AMC’s contractual and trade terms.

Will this disjointed approach to the season drastically alter the way we talk about TV? We’ll adapt, no doubt, but it’s worth noting that perhaps networks are the last to realize that the “season” has become a term that’s no longer exclusive to television’s production side.

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