The Winter Finale - When Did This Become A Thing?

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For those who have been following my episode reviews of Agents Of SHIELD or The Blacklist, you’ll notice that they have gone rather quiet of late. That’s because like many other US shows (Arrow, The Flash, Hawaii Five-O, Criminal Minds, Sleepy Hollow, The Walking Dead...) Agents Of SHIELD and The Blacklist are on their ’winter finale’ breaks.

It must be an incredibly frustrating experience being a US viewer of US television. A standard 22-episode season starts in September and ends in May. If you've done the maths you’ll have noticed that’s about 30-35 weeks. A show will be on for a couple of weeks, off for one, back on for three more, off for two, back on for five...how can anyone expect good ratings when audiences don’t even know when the episodes are being broadcast?

Perhaps the ’winter finale’ - the last episode before we enter that black hole of TV desolation between December and February - is a way to reduce sporadic viewing. But then again, the mid-season break has been a thing for a while so perhaps it is less a mid-point in the season and more a slightly longer gap than usual.

In days gone by UK channels would get around this by starting US imports from January. That would allow the show to air without interruptions weeks after week, only catching up with the US broadcast around May. But these days spoilers have changed things. If a character is killed in episode seven or eight in the US the chances are UK audiences will know about it by the time the episode is shown over here. Unless you avoid the internet, magazines, even the news for a period of nine months, the twists and turns of a particular television program will be revealed long before we get to experience it as a viewer.
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So how does Sky 1, Atlantic, Fox, Universal and all the rest combat those spoilers? By showing the episodes just days after the US broadcast. It is great from a spoiler-perspective. You are more likely to experience the twists like they were intended unless you go looking for them. But it does come with one massive drawback; we too get to experience the ’winter finale’.

Of course, the question many of us are asking is what the heck is the winter finale and when did this become a thing?

It isn’t anything new. Just like the summer months where we are all supposed to be out on barbeques or going on holidays for eight or nine weeks, networks don’t expect anyone to be watching TV. It’s a rather odd notion in my book. If it is cold and wet and dark outside, all I want to do is snuggle on the sofa and catch on some of my favourite TV shows.

That or the fact that I have two children means I have no life and TV has become my friend...let’s not go there...

So this notion that no one is watching TV in the cold winter months results in show’s taking a break for ’the holidays’. On one hand, it is perfectly reasonable - the cast and crew need some time off too so perhaps the winter months are a chance to enjoy Thanksgiving, Christmas and those trips to Aspen we all hear about in the movies. But on the other hand it creates TV limbo land where audiences thoughts are on what happened before the show went off air.
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You see, the winter finale episode has now become an event. A show won’t just end without notice. It will end on an almighty cliff-hanger that leaves audiences on tenderhooks over Christmas instead of enjoying the festivities. Take Arrow for example, that ended its nine-episode run of season three part one by apparently killing off a major character. Or How To Get Away With Murder - the latest Shonda Rhimes import that built ten episodes worth of story-lines up to the the events mid-season cliff-hanger episode almost like a mini-season.

Is that it? Are we suddenly getting two seasons for the price of one now? Going back to Agents Of SHIELD and The Blacklist for a moment - The former spent ten episodes building up a war between Phil Coulson’s rogue SHIELD unit and Daniel Whitehall’s HYDRA. But by the time the credits rolled, that war seemed over for the most part with the events in the hidden alien city sending the show in a whole new direction. Season two of The Blacklist could be epitomised as the war between Red and Berlin; a war that was resolved by the end of those eight episodes.
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Interestingly TV networks even sell their mid-season finales as season finales. There has been a lot of hype over Scandal’s “There ain’t no finale like a Scandal winter finale.” We haven’t got there yet; season four only started last week, but you can be sure something huge is going to happen somewhere around episode ten.

Split seasons can work if there are enough episodes. Over here in the UK no one agreed that splitting season seven of Doctor Who over two years was a good idea.. But with those larger US 22-episode seasons it might actually be a good thing. You don’t get the narrative slump half way through if the season builds towards something half way through and then finds a new direction for the second half. It really is like having two seasons in one.

As for all those breaks - well I have my SKY planner here in the UK. I can store up multiple shows and watch when I want to watch them, be it binge watching a season over a couple of weeks or dipping in when I feel like. TV is changing and maybe with the advent of Netflix and Amazon Prime, networks don’t worry so much about gaps in their scheduling any more.

Unless of course the show is that good. In which case you’ll have to keep up the pace - sporadic weekly gaps and all.

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