Networks Rethink Midseason Hiatus Plans After Last Year’s Ratings Collapse

Can shorter breaks and big cliff-hangers stave off audience erosion?

In recent years, networks thought they had found the solution to a TV audience that no longer tolerated repeats, especially for nonprocedural series. They began scheduling their serialized dramas in two chunks, allowing for a pair of uninterrupted runs, broken up with a lengthy hiatus of around three months.

But last season, that strategy unraveled. Nearly every returning drama suffered big ratings declines after the midseason break. On ABC, How to Get Away With Murder's return plummeted 20 percent in the 18-49 demo, while the network's Quantico and NBC's Blindspot also took big hits. In fact, most shows failed to match their midseason finale numbers at any point in the season's second half.

"The broadcast networks are scratching their heads because they've seen stuff like [AMC's] The Walking Dead and, in the past, [USA's] Burn Notice and Suits return exactly the same as when they left, and they have trouble doing that," said Sam Armando, lead investment director at Mediavest | Spark. "The rules appear to be a little bit different for them."

So the networks are revising their midseason hiatus plans. "We've been trying to shrink it a little bit because you don't want to be too far out of the viewers' eyes for too long," said Andy Kubitz, evp, program planning and scheduling at ABC Entertainment.

Last year, ABC kept eight dramas off the air for 11 weeks or more; this season, only five of its dramas will have extended breaks, and many of those will be shorter than last year's. Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away With Murder go on hiatus after Thursday's episodes, but they'll be back in nine weeks, on Jan. 19—three weeks earlier than last year's break. They'll be joined by Scandal, which delayed its premiere until January to work around Kerry Washington's maternity leave.

NBC kept Blindspot off the air for a 14-week stretch last season but is giving that drama, as well as its fall freshman hit This Is Us, a much shorter hiatus this year to stave off audience erosion. (Blindspot's demo average in the second half of last season was 38 percent below its first-half average.)

Networks are hoping that dramatic midseason finales will entice audiences to return next year. The hiatus "really works for shows that have a great hook, like The Walking Dead. We try to build some sort of cliffhanger when we have our winter finales, but some resonate a little bit more with audiences than others," said Kubitz, who noted that two years ago on Scandal, when Washington's Olivia Pope was kidnapped in the midseason finale, "its return was higher than the season premiere was. It's trying to get the creative right, to really resonate so people will [come back]."

But given how viewer habits have permanently shifted, networks don't expect to abandon their hiatuses. "The alternative is the old-fashioned preemptions and repeats, and let's remember how frustrating that was to the audience," said Gary Newman, co-CEO and co-chairman of Fox Networks Group. "And I don't think we want to live in a world where every season is only 10 to 13 episodes because that's how many you can do and have a relatively consistent delivery [without a hiatus]. There's no perfect answer, so we're going to still continue to do that."

This story first appeared in the November 14, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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