Winter is coming.
The connotation attached to the above phrase is that of gloom and doom thanks to “Game of Thrones,” but viewers would be unwise to think negatively when applying it to the television season. Sure, December has always been a barren wasteland for the medium, but even that is changing (as Liz Shannon Miller pointed out already). Things are looking up for TV during this initial onslaught of chilled temperatures, and a big reason why is because of the so-called midseason finale.
What’s a Midseason Finale?
First, a midseason finale is the last episode of a traditional, weekly-airing television season before it goes on hiatus for a month or more. It may be called a winter finale or even a fall finale, but they all mean the same thing: Your show won’t be back on the air for a while. Traditionally, the term “midseason finale” applies to shows taking time off in order to benefit the company’s bottom line. By cutting a season in two, a network can take its high-rated series and spread out its earnings from one quarter to two so it doesn’t appear to have any weak spots throughout the year.
According to our most reliable source on such matters, midseason finales became popular during the 2000s — “The Walking Dead,” for example, has used midseason finales for years because it’s AMC’s highest-rated show. “Winter” finales, however, are relatively more recent. The term has been applied more and more often over the past few years, as its definition is more widely applicable to traditional broadcast schedules. It helps marketing teams put a positive spin on bad news (no new shows for a while) while successfully denoting when a show will begin taking its holiday break.
Why Winter Finales are Good for Everyone
No one wants to be without their favorite show. Even during the busy holiday schedule most Americans put themselves through (in the end, you control how much travel and shopping you do, even if you can’t control the weather), most people would make sure to set aside an hour for their favorite program. But would you be able to set aside two hours for your favorite show? Five hours for all your shows? Ten hours for everything you watch?
“Okay, fine. I get your point, but I can just binge-watch anything that I don’t have time for right away,” you, the Internet-savvy reader might say, and you’d be right. You could reserve some time on Christmas Day to sit down with your new clothes, sipping tea out of your new holiday mug your Aunt Bea got for you, while you watch four hours of “Scandal”—but do you know you’ll finish all four episodes before your precious-but-unaware Aunt Bea stops by for Christmas Dinner and spoils the twist in Episode 3?
There’s a reason some shows are more valuable to advertisers, thus producing the heavily-marketed winter finales: we want to watch those shows live. No one wants to have “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Gotham” or “The Walking Dead” spoiled for them because they didn’t have time to sit down and watch the night it first aired. The holidays make this sort of appointment-viewing even more difficult than it already is, so consider the winter finale an early Christmas present from the networks. Time is money for both them and you, after all.
What Makes It “Good”
More importantly than scheduling, though, is content. What many critics of the winter finale boom overlook is that these much-hyped episodes are improving what typically hinders most traditional TV: Pacing. While quick to point out how television has changed and audiences are more accustomed to watch what they want when they want to, they ignore the reason why binge-watching has become so popular. People want to get to the good stuff.
Whatever-generation-we’re-currently-labeling-our-youth is afflicted by one burden and provided one gift: They have a short attention span, but demand the best from everything they watch, listen to, or even read (though the latter is a rarity). They may have a different definition for the word “best” than anyone else—theirs tends to mean “most exciting”—but if it’s not there, neither are they. Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, they don’t have the patience to sit around and wait for things to happen. Things must happen now.
Winter finales pick up that pacing. Writers know they have to include not one finale every season but two, even if the winter finale isn’t quite on par with the season finale in terms of dramatic happenings. Still, look at what we’ve gotten so far in 2014. We found out who the killer was on “How to Get Away With Murder.” We saw the steep repercussions for Jim Gordon’s righteous crusade on “Gotham.” Another fan favorite was offed on “The Walking Dead” and “Scandal” left us with Olivia’s fate literally in the wind.
How They’re Preparing Us for the Future of TV
Still, even if a winter finale underperforms, it forces the writers to speed up plot developments they could otherwise stretch throughout the season. That hook-up you’ve been waiting 11 weeks to see happen? You’ll see it in the winter finale, not 10 episodes later in the last episode of the season. That character you’ve been hoping bites the bullet? Dead in the winter finale. That secret identity you’ve been waiting to have revealed? Winter. Finale.
This quicker pacing not only reaps benefits for viewers watching weekly, but for the many fans who will discover the show at their own pace while bingeing. If they’ve got 22 hour-long episodes in front of them—a daunting figure for even the most hardcore TV fan—they’re going to have a much easier time wading through the nearly 16 hours of content if there’s a shocking twist halfway through. It will be even easier for them if the arc established in the pilot isn’t stretched past its limits and is instead completed by season’s end if not earlier, allowing (read: forcing) the writers to come up with new ideas for next season instead of treading water with old ones (think “The Killing” or “How I Met Your Mother”).
Netflix has already adopted this practice when it comes to its shows. You can see it in almost every original series on the docket, from “House of Cards” (think Season 2’s surprising threesome) to “BoJack Horseman.” The animated entry may not seem like a show in need of a twist, but that’s exactly what it got in Episode 7 when the somewhat conventional comedy went to a darker, deeper place than ever before. The abrupt change arguably saved the show, and while “BoJack” was only 12 episodes, it’s seventh lands squarely in “midseason” territory.
There’s one more thing the youth of our country is adept at, and that’s spotting marketing gimmicks. Admittedly, they’ve got a keen eye for them and usually know better than to give in all too easily. Yet not all marketing is bad. Some is rather helpful, like a trailer for a movie you forgot was coming out this week or an advertisement for a sale on something you actually need (like movies). Some marketing, though, can be downright progressive. The idea for a midseason finale may not have originated from a place aiming for creative inspiration, but it’s taken us there nevertheless. So give in, embrace big business this one time, and settle in for better TV, happily ever after.