The latest piece of evidence in the ongoing case against taking shows off the air, doing split seasons, and so on: Fox put Glee and New Girl on hiatus for a few weeks due to baseball, and both shows came back last night with a ratings drop of 19%. This shouldn’t be a major problem for New Girl, which is still a new hit and whose ratings are still some of the best among Fox’s scripted shows. It’s a bigger problem for Glee, because that show’s ratings were already down from last season, and could lose its hit status if its numbers go down further. This would probably happen anyway: shows that hit it big due to their novelty tend to burn out rather quickly. Heroes lasted four seasons, Batman lasted three. If Glee turns out to be a three or four-season show, no one will be very surprised; they’ll just watch American Horror Story, wait for that to burn itself out too, and then wait for Ryan Murphy’s next over-the-top production. (Murphy isn’t the first creator whose shows have an early burnout problem, and shows that start big are very valuable to networks; even if Glee doesn’t last, he’ll be in demand, and he probably should be.) But the hiatus may have sped up the process of decline, taking a chunk out of the viewing audience that it will be hard for a familiar show to get back.
I was tempted to think that major league baseball is hurting Fox more than it helps, but on consideration, that’s probably not true, and this post helps explain why. The World Series is still something a major network wants to get, and it’s hard to argue that the possible extra ratings that a show would get without the hiatus are more important than the actual extra ratings the World Series brings. It scrambles the Fox lineup, but it’s still probably worth it.
Maybe Fox’s best solution was the idea it experimented with for a number of years, of not bringing some of its shows back until November. This isn’t a great option with a new show, but with a returning show, like Glee, it’s possible that the satisfaction of seeing an uninterrupted string of episodes outweighs the frustration of waiting until November: the summer hiatus, no matter how long it is, just isn’t as inherently damaging as a sudden break within the season.
The other question is whether Fox made a mistake in abandoning its plans to show some New Girl episodes after The X Factor, which would have kept New Girl on for a while longer. I don’t know how much this would have helped: the real key for maintaining a show’s momentum, even in the era of DVR and online viewing, is to keep it in the same time slot on the same night. (This probably has an effect on DVR viewing too; there’s a psychological satisfaction in knowing there’s a new episode, even if you haven’t watched it yet.) The new episodes in the unfamiliar time slot could easily have had the same ratings dip, leading to an erosion of interest by the time it came back. As it is, the show’s still a hit, and could become a bigger one. It doesn’t have the Glee problem; Glee is never going to be more popular than it was in season 2. New shows can still find new viewers; once a show has been around for a while, anything that hurts its popularity is usually going to be permanent, which is why hiatuses can be so damaging.