Why television shows premiere in September.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 19 2005 6:39 PM

The Reason for the Season

Why do television shows premiere in September?

The new television season begins today, with premiere episodes appearing on almost all of the broadcast networks. Each network has already run a premiere or two during the last few weeks—Fox even trotted out its new show Prison Break at the end of August. So, what's the significance of the first day of the fall season?

Starting today, each night's Nielsen numbers will be factored into the networks' yearly ratings. Each network tries to court advertisers by averaging the highest numbers over the course of the nine-month season, which runs from September to May. That said, television execs can run season premieres whenever they want. Many debut episodes get held until after Jan. 1—the so-called second season. A network might also push a show's premiere to October so it can run more fresh episodes later in the year while competitors are in reruns. Starting a show early—in the late summer, for example—shields it from the fierce competition of September.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate


Television shows have come out on a seasonal schedule for almost as long as there have been televisions. The original networks copied the radio industry, where shows typically aired from September until the following spring, then took the summer off. Both television and radio used a 39-week season and filled in the remaining 13 weeks with replacement shows. (By the 1970s, most summer replacement shows had been replaced with reruns.)

Debuting new content in the fall made sense—and continues to make sense—because fewer people tend to watch TV during the summer. (They could be on vacation or busy watching summer Hollywood blockbusters.) By starting their seasons all at once, the networks also get free publicity; newspapers and magazines generate buzz for new shows with ubiquitous "Fall TV previews."

The way the networks sell advertising also contributes to the seasonal cycle. Next year's schedules are announced at the close of the previous season so advertisers can purchase packages months in advance. This "upfront" system began in the 1960s and persists to this day. (Many consider the upfront an outdated mode of doing business and argue that it should be replaced with a system of continuous sales.)

Though most network shows still premiere at the start of the season, there have been many breaks with tradition in recent years. Cable channels often ignore the "seasons" altogether, premiering their shows over the summer when the networks are in reruns. After successful summer debuts for shows like Big Brother and American Idol, networks have started rolling out many reality shows in the offseason, along with some traditional fare.

Who sets the official dates for the TV season? Nielsen, with the agreement of the major networks. In general, the networks agree to start up on the second or third Monday of September, unless a big event (like 9/11 or the Writers Guild strike of 1988) gets in the way. Before Nielsen took over this role in the 1990s, a reporter at the trade magazine Variety got to make the call.

Explainer thanks Gil Schwartz of CBS and Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.


The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?


“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.


Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 9:19 PM The Phone Call Is Twenty Minutes of Pitch-Perfect, Wrenching Cinema
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.