What’s the deal with “fall finales” this year? I don’t really recall this ever being an event before this year. Do you think it’s because of the general 13 upfront episodes which may or may not be followed by the back 9? Perhaps it’s more because they’re worried that when they take a break, they’ll lose some viewers, so they’re writing to have more of a cliffhanger/finale right before the break.
I think a lot of it is just that “fall finale” is a nice euphemism for “going on hiatus.” Network scheduling has become more erratic, with more mid-season debuts and shows that get bumped for months at a time (particularly, but not only, on the two networks that don’t have a 10 o’clock time slot: Fox and NBC). Glee, whose “fall finale” is tonight, is going to get yanked from the schedule because Fox has no place to put it for a while. Also, they probably think it will help the show more in the long run if they can put it after American Idol (something I’m not sure about, but we’ll see), and they can’t schedule it there until April. Calling the thirteenth episode a “fall finale” sounds much better than “ladies and gentlemen, the clown singing show has been put on hiatus for retooling,” and brings a barrage of publicity to the show that it would not get otherwise. The plan in both cases is simply to show all the episodes they’ve got, let it disappear for a while, and hope that viewers will return when it comes back. But the “fall finale” buildup theoretically increases the chance that it will stick in people’s minds and that they’ll remember it through the long Glee-free months. Same goes for the related tactic of putting the early episodes out on DVD before the entire season is over.
Also, like many things on the broadcast networks, this may show the influence of cable. Split seasons are far more common on cable. Sometimes you have two seasons being billed as one, like The Sopranos season 6: it was long enough for two full cable seasons, was split into two parts that aired a year apart, and was released on DVD in two separate volumes, but was nevertheless considered one extra-length season. Other times you have a regular-length season split in two: South Park does 14 episodes a season, but it’s split into two seven-episode runs at different times of the year, and for all intents and purposes viewers see these runs as separate seasons. Networks have embraced the idea that you can order batches of episodes, schedule them months or a full year apart, and still bill them as a single season.
Whatever the reasons, it’s hard to believe that not very long ago, the concept of even a season finale didn’t really exist for most shows, and the last episode of the average show’s season would occur with little buildup or fanfare (and it would often be an episode that wasn’t good enough to run during sweeps).