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.
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 (Many consider the upfront an outdated mode of doing business and argue that it should be replaced with a system of continuous sales.)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.