Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It’s October, and I’ve been watching promos for The Michael Richards Show for so long, I figured it was already cancelled. But no. We won’t get our first glimpse of the program until Oct. 24. Such is the havoc wreaked on the traditional fall TV season by a summer Olympics that did not take place in the summer.

The seasonal rhythms of the TV year are out of whack. Baseball playoffs are going head-to-head with the debuts of network shows, which in turn are woven around the presidential debates. Meantime, cable and the Webs have been debuting new “fall” shows since August. The premieres and debuts will continue well into the November sweeps.

The El Niño effect of an autumnal summer Olympics only highlights the fact that the “new fall season” has gone the way of Detroit’s annual marketing orgy of new-model cars. The marketing model now is a year-round stream of new product. Indeed, the notion of a TV season that begins in the fall and ends in the spring is a fiction that exists in the minds and media buying habits of the advertising industry alone. It bears little relation to how the multichannel TV universe is either programmed or watched.

At one time, “mid-season replacements” were considered second-string programs not good enough for all-important September. Today, January debuts are reserved for shows the network programmers hold in special regard.

The summer has been transformed from the season in which no one watches TV into the time of year a network’s “regular” season fortunes are made. And reruns, the bane of the tube’s dog days, long ago leached into the rest of the year.

At the same time, viewers have been trained by cable and upstart networks to expect TV novelties all year round. Plus, fractured audiences tend to create their own premiere weeks.

For some viewers, the season begins with the first new episode of Will & Grace. For others, it starts when The Sopranos returns to HBO, while for zillions more, the games begin with Survivor II in January.

These days, the regular season is whenever new episodes of your favorite shows are airing—which could be any time of year.

One could argue that even in the days of the Big Three, it was a little stupid to throw all the new programming against the wall for a few short weeks in the fall. There was just too much product competing for attention.

Yet if “premiere week” was sometimes bad for the survival of individual TV shows, it was good for television as a cultural force. TV serves many functions in our society; one is that it’s the way we mark our days. TV is the author of the calendar that shapes our year. It echoes the landmarks of the natural seasons, marks religious and civic holidays and creates holy days of its own: the Super Bowl, the Olympics (whatever ratings it gets) and the Oscars.

Premiere week was one of those holidays, a post-Labor Day event celebrated at metaphorical watercoolers all over the land. As the days darken in the fall, we would settle in by the electronic hearth to see the programs that would sustain us in the coming months of dark and cold. Vacation was over, and the new year had begun.

All that’s changed. Instead of following seasonal rhythms, television offers its audience a continuous churn of new products and retreads.

Its calendar echoes nature’s less and less. The seasons still go in cycles, but the culture unceasingly hums 24/7. Competitive pressures make this inevitable.

But something gets lost in the process.

Television is losing its connection to our diurnal calendar, too, thanks to program-your-own-network PVRs such as TiVo and Replay. What happens to the institution of television once it no longer dictates where we are at 8 p.m. or marks the evening we stay home to catch the comedy lineup?

This is not a new question. Ten years ago, when media executives began grappling with the mega-channel, interactive TV universe to come, one of the incalculables was television that could be consumed out of time. It is still incalculable, but far more imminent.

Meanwhile, say a little prayer for the demise of the seasonal ritual of premiere week. It is a victim of the eternal present of the new television calendar, a vanished holiday of an institution that needs all the holidays it can get.