The Risky Hit-Show Hiatus

 Illustration: Kagan McLeod

Get ready to set your DVRs, people. It's summer, and you know what that means: the return of Mad Men!

What? Oh, right. It's not coming back this summer. It's coming back in the spring of 2012. Unless there are delays. Then it might launch that summer. Write that down.

Of course, if it's June, it must mean it's time for the last six episodes of Men of a Certain Age on TNT. You remember the first six, right? They aired six months ago. No? Well, maybe we should clear up any further confusion about series going on hiatus by visiting the respective websites of each channel or network and finding out definitively when your favorites are starting. Or ending. Or pausing.

Don't waste your time. Spreading information on the Internet would be too helpful to loyal viewers. And much too easy. Most networks like to keep you in the dark as if the Internet wasn't even invented, convinced you'll just sit around until your favorites magically appear.

That's why, in the wake of the Mad Men negotiations that pushed the series back a year, fans were upset. With AMC. With Matthew Weiner. With the show itself -- the show they love. Viewers don't understand the idea of a hiatus. What they want is consistency.

There is a fundamental disconnect between series creators/networks/cable channels and viewers. You'd think the divide would creep in and close through the decades, particularly in the information age, but it really hasn't. The home viewer doesn't know why a hiatus of any sort takes so long. When they find out the awful truth -- their favorite show will take forever to return -- they're disappointed. Angry, even.

In one sense, modern viewers are spoiled. They have so many choices that there is no clock in their head about off-seasons. That's because there is no television season anymore. Forget September to May. Viewers do not delineate between a broadcast-network season and a summer cable season. And for good reason: Cable hasn't played by the old rules for years. Television is year-round; nobody turns the lights out in May and back on again in September.

That's antiquated. In our on-demand, buy-it-on-iTunes, stream-it-from-Netflix world, the idea of waiting even a few weeks seems like old-school torture.

This ADD viewing culture no doubt plays directly into reduced ratings across the spectrum. If Grey's Anatomy or House is not on, then something bright and shiny is being unwrapped on cable. Something new will be on. And if you leave us too long, we will forget you, having discovered new gems.

Does this mean Mad Men fans -- already a pretty lean lot, according to Nielsen -- will tire of waiting and fail (or forget) to come back to AMC when the series returns? No. Mad Men might be a franchise series for AMC, but it's still a cult hit. And people in a cult return, no matter how long you make them wait.

The Sopranos premiered its Season 1 in January 1999. Season 2 came out in January 2000. Season 3 came out in March 2001, just a couple of months off schedule. Complaints? Of course.

But they didn't last long as Sopranos delivered one of its greatest seasons in the entire run, culminating with the near-legendary "Pine Barrens" episode May 6, "Amour Fou" on May 13 and "Army of One" on May 20. Status as one of the all-time greats assured, guess what happened next? Sixteen empty, Sopranos-less months. Fans became irritated. They bitched and moaned about HBO and cursed creator David Chase. But they came back.

Mad Men fans also will come back. They talk a good game of being annoyed, but AMC isn't going anywhere on the channel lineup, and nobody's paying extra for it. And the love for Draper knows no bounds. Once the hype starts -- and it always starts -- they will return. Because Mad Men, like The Sopranos before it, is pretty much a lock for first-ballot Hall of Fame when it comes to television legacy. Its a non-issue.           

Except for, say, pretty much every series falling below Hall of Fame status. Forget Mad Men; the television industry has a much more worrisome hiatus problem. What of the shows that disappear for weeks without explanation and return -- shockingly! -- to enormous declines? What about the outrage over a series falling off the radar for three weeks, only to return to its normal slot for a week then disappear for another three?

Nobody in the industry hears that outrage -- or, at the least, does anything about it. And people wonder why television is bleeding viewers at such a rapid rate. People are not going to come back to The Event, V or any number of other shows that vanish inexplicably then return a few weeks later.

Those shows could only wish they had the fan loyalty Mad Men has. (And it's one thing to regroup a few million fans for a cable show, quite another to round up 10 million less-loyal viewers for your average network hit.)

Struggling series do not resuscitate themselves after an unexplained absence. They die. But year after year, season after season, the networks (primarily) and cable channels don't learn this simple lesson: Don't play the shell game with viewers.           

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