When did this "mid-season finale" split thing start?

A few years ago during fall I was watching South Park’s new season. I’m not a huge watcher of SP because I didn’t have Comedy Central when it started and I never grew into it, but if I catch it on TV I’ll sit through it. I remembered that I had watched a few episodes in a row, then around November or December it started advertising its “finale”. I was like WTF, this early? Aren’t seasons supposed to last through April or May?

Before that, I had never really experienced or heard of the “mid-season finale”, where a show would go consecutive weeks from its fall premier in Sep/Oct to around Dec, then go on reruns until spring. I’ve always experienced it where shows start with a month or so of new shows, then a couple reruns, then another run of new shows, then reruns, all the way from Sep to like May. But now so many shows I watch have these stupid mid-season finales that really takes me out of my enjoyment, because if I miss an episode, I’d have to wait like 3 months for it to repeat, and if I catch every episode, I have to take a break for 3 months until new episode start.

I don’t ever remember this in the shows I used to watch, not in hourly dramas, not in half hour sitcoms, not in cartoons. When did this crappy trend start??

It’s been happening for at least a decade.

Feels to me like it started with the “basic cable” shows (e.g. Monk, like Skywatcher points out).

Never really sure why, but I’m going to guess it was probably someone stumbled upon because of production difficulties, someone was trying to make lemonade out of a bad situation and poof! It caught on.

Granted, network shows have been doing minor cliff-hangers before long hiatuses (e.g. winter break) for a while, but calling them a “mid season” finale seems to have only started a few years ago and picked up a significant amount of steam since.

I’m sure the fact that we’re seeing a lot more shows with a much stronger continuity is helping. There’s no real OMG!! value to a MSF with a standard sit-com, but for something like a Lost or Battlestar Galactica or such, you can make a lot more hay out of it.

Well, the first time I noticed this sort of thing was way back with ST:TNG. Bunch of new episodes, then repeats. But if you’re asking when the term came into being, I really don’t know.

On cable, maybe. Regular network TV has only been calling it a “mid-season finale” for a handful of years. Of course, they’ve always broke around Christmas (or at least as long as I’ve been watching TV anyway), it’s just that it’s worked out well enough for cable that they’re realized they can call the last episode before the break that too.

My speculation would be it’s a result of the changing ways in which networks buy shows. It used to be the networks would make a relatively strong commitment to a show - a series would generally be broadcast for a year and then, if its ratings were low, it wouldn’t be renewed for a second season. Nowadays, shows get cancelled and taken off the air after only a few weeks. Networks order the production of more shows then they can broadcast in anticipation of cancelling some of them along the way.

In such a situation, producing a full season of episodes is an unsound financial risk. It makes more sense to produce just enough episodes to get your show on the air and test the responses to it. Then, if the ratings are good, you can produce more episodes. But the downside of this new reality is that shows often run out of available episodes to broadcast before the season is done and have to take a hiatus while they catch up on production.

Marvel are doing an interesting thing this year, by having a short eight episode show called Agent Carter, set 50 years earlier and about the character from Captain America (played by Hayley Atwell) and her involvement in the formation of SHIELD, and it will broadcast during Agents of SHIELD’s mid-season hiatus. This also gives production on Agents of SHIELD a chance to catch up without having to stretch out the repeats.

If this catches on (as everything else Marvel is doing seems to) small spin-off shows or potential pilots may become common during these hiatus periods.

TV series have been having a mid-season break since at least the 1980s. Can’t find a cite (will keep looking), but I know that I read how it changed - networks used to run original episodes of series every week from September on until late Spring (usually May.) Then execs did some research and realized that no matter how popular a series, there was always a drop-off in the ratings in mid-December on until the end of January. (Everybody is going out to parties, or doing holiday stuff and not bothering to watch TV.) So there was no real reason to spend money producing new episodes when they could just rerun an old one and get the same ratings.

The mid-season cliff-hanger is a fairly new development. But that seems like a logical outcropping of increasingly serialized dramas. When your show is built around keeping people invested in “what’s going to happen NEXT??”, you certainly don’t want to give the audience any reason to think “Ehhh, maybe I’ll just quit with this show.” So from a production POV, it only makes sense to end things in the fall with a major WTF moment, so the audience will DEFINITELY want to see the fall-out.

It’s an attempt to rebrand something they’ve kind of done for a long, long time.

Traditionally, network seasons begin in fall. Network shows produce, at most, 24 episodes in a year (and usually fewer). There are 52 weeks in a year. That means 28+ weeks where there won’t be a new show. They want to have new episodes in November, February, and May for sweeps (because even though sweeps is mostly dead, they’re not entirely dead and sweeps does does still have some relevance toward advertising revenues).

What networks used to do is to air new episodes between September to late November/early December then go into reruns until late January-mid March and then go into reruns again and then air the final episodes of the season in April & May. There would be a final new episode of the year at around this time. It didn’t have a special name, but if you watched every week, you’d stop seeing new episodes post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas. 10+ years ago, people would watch reruns of their favorite show during its time slot. Today, between the heavy serialization of many shows, DVRs & time shifting, and streaming of new shows online, among other reasons, for the most part people don’t. If it’s a rerun, they change the channel, watch netflix, etc. So, instead of showing reruns, to make money in that time slot, the network needs to turn off the show and put something else on the air. They could do it without fanfare - or they could advertise the hell out of the last-new-show of the year and try to get every pair of eyes they possibly can (and consequently, every boost in advertising rates they possibly can) out of the “Mid-Season Finale” before moving the show from the schedule until mid-to-late January.

In the early days of television, successful shows might be ordered in blocks of 13, sometimes three in a year for a grand total of 39 weeks (with 13 weeks of summer reruns).

Judging from lists of episodes from popular series, it appears this changed as a result of rising production costs (and probably other factors as well) sometime in the mid-60s. For example:

Perry Mason fell from 39 episodes per season in 1957–58 to 30 by the end of its run in 1966.

Twilight Zone hovered around 36 between 1959 and 1964, except for its truncated 1963 season, when episodes (18 of them) were an hour long.

The Beverly Hillbillies fell from 36 episodes in 1962–63 to 24 by 1971.

Gilligan’s Island went from 36 in 1964–65 to 30 by 1967.

***Hogan’s Heroes *** went from 32 episodes in 1965–66 to 24 by 1971.

Green Acres went from 32 episodes in 1965–66 to 26 by 1971.

ST:TOS fell from 29 episodes in 1966–67 to 24 by 1969.

Mission: Impossible started out with 28 episodes in 1966–67 and fell to 22 by 1973.

Hawaii Five-O started out with 24 episodes in 1968–69 and finished its run with 19 in 1980.