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Did ABC’s Split-Season Approach Help ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ‘Scandal’ and ‘Once Upon a Time’?

By Brett Gold – Mar 13, 2014 at 12:25PM

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ABC's new approach to keep viewers happy and rerun-free for longer was a big risk, but early returns are positive.

ABC (a subsidiary of Disney (DIS 0.91%)) has tried very hard over the past few years to fix a problem common with any broadcast network business model. It involves scheduling a 22-episode drama series in a season that runs much longer than 22 weeks. This year, executives tried a new approach ... and at least on the surface, it looks to have worked.

A flawed model

(Credit: ABC)

Traditionally, the major broadcasters program "on-season" lineups from September to May before taking a break during the summer. A typical series had about 22 episodes a season, leaving a large window where the network airs reruns or plugs the hole with temporary alternative programming.

With a comedy it doesn't really matter -- the majority aren't serialized and audiences have less of a problem with the "start-stop" approach to viewing. With a drama series, though, fans hate being left in the lurch for weeks at a time. They get restless and then annoyed when they can't remember when the next new episode is on.

The old business model was basically to ignore the problem because audiences had few alternatives. Then came the rise of cable, premium cable, home entertainment, and streaming options, all of which forced the networks to adapt or lose viewers.

The first real solution that actually was proven to work came from Fox, which in 2005 made the then radical decision to delay network staple 24 until January. The move gave executives two big cards to play -- they could promote the show's return as a marquee event to help kick off the new year while also allowing the network to run the entire show uninterrupted for the entire rest of the season. For the final five seasons of 24, the drama would "start the clock" in the winter versus the fall. ABC eventually followed suit with Lost and saw similar success.

The 'two-batch' solution
The problem with that is that you still have to program the full season -- you can't just bench all of your top-tier shows until midseason. Last fall ABC told its advertisers that it had a better answer. Starting last September, the network decided on the "two-batch" method where its top shows like Grey's AnatomyScandal, and Once Upon a Time would run uninterrupted from September to December. The shows would then not return until late February/early March, when they would once again run uninterrupted through May.

The question then became whether audiences would come back after such a long stretch. There was also concern about whether the network could sustain itself during the gap with alternative short-term programs. The answer to that last question was easy: no. In fact, ABC's midseason slate turned in to a nightmare with new show after new show hitting new lows. That made the return of its established shows even more important.

Two weeks ago, the first two of those established shows (Grey's and Scandal) made their big returns to find audiences ready and waiting. Grey's surged 15% in the 18-49 demo since its last new episode, and Scandal increased by 6%. Last Sunday night, Once Upon a Time returned as well and saw a similar bounce, this time by 21%. Granted, both Grey's and Scandal came back to Earth in week two (and Once likely will also), but the point is that the gimmick of a "fall finale" cliffhanger was successful enough to initially get audiences to return in force. Once the audiences come back, it is then on the series instead of the network to drive repeat viewing.

Reviving a network

(Credit: ABC)

The twist to all this though is that while the those three shows took a long hiatus, ABC also gave Revenge a brief vacation as well and scheduled its return to coincide with Once's return, along with the debut of its latest midseason replacement, Resurrection. The thinking was that audiences would be so excited to have both established shows back that they'd stick around for the rookie one as well. It was a halo effect of sorts.

It worked! Resurrection completely revived the lineup and netted 13.5 million viewers and pulled a 3.6 in the all-important 18-49 demo. The series became the top-rated midseason drama premiere of the last two years overall, and the second most-watched drama debut of the 2013-14 season. In addition, it pulled the highest numbers in that timeslot for ABC since January 2010 and the highest in the demo since January 2011.

It was also impressive as it went head-to-head with the debut of Fox's Cosmos, the finale of HBO's True Detective, and the debut of a new episode of AMC's The Walking Dead. No matter what type of second-week slump the series hits next week, the odds of it falling off so dramatically that executives would cancel it are slim to none.

Overall, the experiment was a success. ABC's new business model could ultimately be a game-changer. The network had a rough go of it so far this midseason and this was a much needed win that resonates across not just the network, but its parent company, Disney. Expect the effects of this to be studied by across the board.

In the meantime, leave a comment and join the conversation. Do you like ABC's new approach? Did you watch Resurrection? Will check it out again this week? Let us know

Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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