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December TV: There’s More than One Oasis in the Desert

December TV: There's More than One Oasis in the Desert

Maybe it’s something you only notice gradually — the lack of conversation surrounding new shows around the office, the uncluttered DVR when you arrive back home. Or maybe it comes as a shock, when you sit down on Sunday night to watch some premium drama, only to discover that there’s nothing on. Either way, as someone who loves TV, you’ve surely noticed that December is a quiet time for the medium. And like any loyal addict, maybe you’ve started to twitch. 

Why The TV Went Away

Why does broadcast television dry up around now? It’s easy to chalk it up to the idea that people get busy during the holidays, consumed with family and holiday functions and travel, and networks plan accordingly. But it has more to do with the increasingly archaic concept of sweeps, an advertiser-aimed ratings-gathering period that pushes broadcast networks to eventize their programming for the days of November not devoted to sports, turkey, parades or dog shows. 

Sweeps have lost some of their relevance — we currently live in a world where AMC’s “The Walking Dead” beats football in the ratings, after all. But that hasn’t stopped networks from focusing their energies on November television, and thus the existence of the December TV Desert. 

Why It’s A Good Thing

One of the benefits to this pattern is the midseason finale — the drive towards a climax that might feel artificial in origin, but actually, one that makes for better TV. As Ben Travers argues today, this new structure not only creates better pacing for shows, but also prepares audiences for a whole new way of approaching television.  

Of course, despite the new energy this structure has brought to television, December is a time period that has its drawbacks — the constant stream of cheesy reality specials and made-for-cable Christmas movies put us in danger of getting cavities, if not brain damage.

But because we live in a new era of television viewing and distribution, a number of players use this downtime to take advantage of the relative lull. For example, cable networks have regularly used these off-cycle periods to launch new shows, and this December is no exception: December 7 brings the premiere of TNT’s “The Librarians,” a light, action-drama spin-off of the network’s successful Noah Wyle-starring films. And next week, Syfy will premiere the event series “Ascension,” starring Tricia Helfer and featuring a premise that hearkens back to the network’s glorious “Battlestar Galactica” days. 

In addition, the digital players have skin in the game. Netflix, which often deliberately times its releases to holiday weekends (“House of Cards” tends to own the days surrounding President’s Day, while “Arrested Development” Season 4 dominated Memorial Day 2013), will be launching its next big bet, the historical drama “Marco Polo,” on December 12. At least one trailer for the show gives it the sexy hard sell, with enough hints of nudity and magic to invoke thoughts of “Game of Thrones.” “Marco” lacks a high-profile cast or creator behind the wheel, but then again, so did “Game of Thrones” when it first premiered. 

Want to see what’s coming for CBS late night? Hulu also has a second season of its BBC co-production “The Wrong Mans,” starring new “Late Late Show” host James Corden, on December 24. And Amazon will be launching its next big comedy series December 23 — “Mozart in the Jungle,” a witty, sexy look at life as a professional classical musician in New York, has some great talent behind and in front of the camera (the show was created by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartman and Paul Weitz, and features Malcolm McDowell, Gael Garcia Bernal, Saffron Burrows, Bernadette Peters and Lola Kirke). The timing on both of these might be perfect for anyone looking for a distraction from pre-or-post-Christmas ennui. 

And It’s Not Just The New Stuff

There’s also something to be said for having a little time to catch up on television you might have missed. Just one example: HBO, as part of this week’s reveal that “The Wire” would be rereleased in HD, announced plans for a marathon of the series beginning December 26. What better time to discover, if you haven’t before, maybe one of the greatest television shows ever made? 

Plus, next week’s Golden Globe nominations may not provide a perfect picture of TV’s major contenders, but if our awards team is right, you’ll have good reason to catch up with potential nominees like “House of Cards” or “Masters of Sex” — acclaimed shows that might have slipped under your radar. 

One thing everyone knows for sure is that it’s not hard to find great TV these days — the hard part is making time to watch it. December, in the long run, might be the greatest gift we fans can receive. 

READ MORE: Why Midseason & Winter Finales Make Shows Better

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