As Deadline pointed out on Tuesday, broadcast networks suffered the lowest same-day Premiere Monday ratings in history. NBC’s supposed ratings juggernaut The Voice hit a season premiere low in same day numbers, down double digits from 2018’s fall premiere. 9-1-1's ability to maintain its 2018 premiere's debut ratings on FOX this year — rather than improve upon them — is considered a success story. The same celebratory narrative goes for 9-1-1’s lead-out series, Prodigal Son, keeping roughly half of the Ryan Murphy show’s audience during its series premiere (9-1-1 had 7.1 million viewers; Prodigal had 4.18 million). In the past, that would have set off warning bells at the network.
A week that used to be the most exciting period in television now feels like a shrug at best. Maybe that’s because fall TV is increasingly difficult to define — and separate from the rest of the packed television year.
Once upon a time, Premiere Week — traditionally the fourth week of September — was the time to own a television. TV seasons basically coincided with the school year. Shows would wrap in the spring, leaving viewers in a desert of reruns for the summer. That’s why big cliffhangers like watching Ross (David Schwimmer) call his bride “Rachel” (when her name was definitely Emily) at the end of 1998’s Friends season 4 hit so hard. You would have nothing else to think about over the summer but what the terrible aftermath of Ross’ slip-up would be. In one of the early uses of the internet building on television, The Simpsons turned its “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” cliffhanger (modeled after Dallas’ “Who Shot J.R?”) into a contest that lasted all summer in 1995.
Finally, during one blessed week in mid-to-late September, everything you loved would return to your television screen, and all of your questions would be answered. After almost four months of waiting, you learned that Ross and Emily (Helen Baxendale) still got married, even after The Rachel Thing. Maggie Simpson accidentally shot Mr. Burns in a struggle over a lollipop (that’ll teach him not to steal candy from a baby). It’s a four-month-long breath holding and release practice that goes as far back is 1950, when Nielsen ratings first began.
There is no more real reason to hold your breath. You may have spent this past summer wondering how Grey’s Anatomy would resolve its multiple Grey Sloan cliffhangers or whether Eleanor (Kristen Bell) would be able to save mankind’s eternal destiny on The Good Place, but these questions didn’t take up permanent residence in your listless summertime brain.
There is absolutely no time to have a listless summertime brain.
Television no longer sticks to the fall-to-spring schedule, nor does it even pretend to. Streaming sites like Netflix are part of the blame. Two of the biggest premieres of the year — Orange Is The New Black’s finale run and the return of Stranger Things — bookended July, a month that used to be a TV dead zone. Netflix’s blockbuster teen show 13 Reasons Why debuted in late August, less than a month after Orange’s final season. In between those four weeks, fellow streamer Hulu aired the season 3 finale of its signature show, The Handmaid’s Tale.
While Netflix does have one big debut arriving during what would traditionally be September premiere week, Ryan Murphy’s inaugural Netflix series The Politician, it’s saving it’s heaviest “fall” hitter for mid-November. It’s then, on November 17, that Emmys favorite The Crown will return after nearly two full years. Olivia Colman will be filling the shoes of Queen Elizabeth after scooping up an Oscar in 2019 for playing a different queen (Queen Anne) in The Favourite. That same week, Disney will unveil its massive streaming service Disney+ — premiering buzzy Star Wars series The Mandalorian in the process — and Hulu will bow its big late-2019 comedy bet, Margot Robbie-produced Dollface.
Back when Fall TV was a Thing, this same time marked the end of sweeps, a period when networks pumped up their storylines with stunt casting, crossovers, and Shocking Twists to ensure stellar Nielsen ratings for ad-buying negotiations in the future. Now it’s a streaming Hunger Games for your eye balls.
It’s not only digital spaces that have decided every week is a big week for television. HBO launched its fall season early, kicking off The Deuce on September 9. FX followed suit with a September 18 premiere for American Horror Story, a series that has premiered weeks before or after Premiere Week for its entire nine-season run. On Becoming A God In Central Florida, one of Showtime’s grabbiest new shows of the year, was already halfway through its first season by the time AHS:1984 commenced.
Even broadcast networks aren’t immune to year-round event TV. While FOX’s The O.C., which premiered in August 2003, initially stood out as a relatively cheap late summer experiment, networks are now happy to put their fan-favorite content on whenever people will watch — no matter the time of year. ABC premiered The Bachelorette, the second part of its flagship Bachelor Nation cycle, in the middle of May 2019. FOX debuted its long-awaited Beverly Hills, 90210 reboot in August. Looking ahead, viewers are already hotly awaiting the return of ABC’s smash hit The Bachelor in January 2020.
Midseason — the hazy period from December to February — is no longer a dumping ground for forgettable excess content. When Variety asked television execs which of their upcoming series is bound to become a “sleeper hit,” many cited their midseason replacements. Showtime entertainment co-president Jana Winograde picked Lilly Wachowski-written-and-produced comedy Work in Progress, which debuts in December. NBC entertainment co-chairman George Cheeks cited midseason drama Council of Dads, which has the tear-jerking vibes of This Is Us. FOX’s entertainment CEO Charlie Collier was most looking forward to his network hosting the Super Bowl in February 2020.