AMC announced Tuesday that the final season of Mad Men will be split into two parts: seven episodes will air next spring, as expected; the second half, another seven episodes, will arrive in the spring of 2015.
I should have seen this coming, really, because it’s what they did with Breaking Bad. There was some grumbling when that plan was first detailed, but I would say that it ended up working in the show’s favor, since its trajectory of suspense has been building for years, and holding the final eight episodes until this year only added to the tension. (There are people still breathing into paper bags after the two most recent episodes, trying to regain their composure. And there are still two episodes left, both extended to 75 minutes. How much more can we take? After the series finale airs on the 29th, people are probably going to call in sick to work the next day because they’re still so emotionally exhausted.)
But Mad Men is a very different sort of show. While it has moments of dramatic tension, it doesn’t rely on the kind of suspense Breaking Bad employs. Mad Men’s seasons are carefully crafted for maximum dramatic impact, and while splitting the season in half and making us wait a year for the second half of the final season is unfair to loyal viewers, to my mind it’s a worse offense to upset the structure and balance of the show in this way.
Let’s be clear: this is not a creative decision. This is simply about money. AMC is imposing this split season on show creator Matthew Weiner, his writing team, and the cast. It disappoints me deeply that AMC feels advertising, ratings, and hype are more important than wrapping up the show’s stories in the way that would be most satisfying to viewers. Sure, we will end up getting an extra episode out of this arrangement, and I suppose some will feel that the delay helps ease the sting of saying goodbye to the show, but I’d rather have 13 episodes unspooled over 13 consecutive weeks.
AMC is behaving like a broadcast network, in that they still harbor a delusion that viewers will be on their couches on Sunday nights to watch the show live, in large and increasing numbers. And yes, Breaking Bad‘s ratings have increased this season, thanks in part to viewers catching up through Netflix who were ready to get on board for the final stretch. But “appointment viewing” is not how most people consume their TV shows anymore. Sunday is still the most-watched TV night of the week, in part because it’s loaded with good shows, but as people prepare to return to their work-week routine, they tend to turn off their TVs and go to sleep earlier. Even if someone is choosing to watch a show live, there’s a good possibility there is another show they’re recording at the same time, that they’ll watch later.
In the real world of 2013, the only time I think about when a show airs is if there’s a scheduling conflict with another show I’ve told my DVR to record. I still watch Mad Men on Sunday nights because I don’t want to wait until Monday to know what happened, but I don’t start until 10:30 or so, because I want to be able to skip the commercials. (Sorry to disappoint you, AMC, but maybe if half those commercials weren’t for your own shows, and you didn’t repeat them over and over and over, it might not be as big a nuisance. If it makes you feel any better, I also use AdBlock Plus in my browser.)
Viewing habits and patterns are changing. Plenty of people are foregoing satellite dishes and cable packages, but keeping high-speed internet access so they can watch network shows on Hulu, use Aereo, or download their favorites from iTunes. Netflix is commissioning original series and releasing all the episodes at once, allowing viewers to decide how they want to watch.
Eventually the notion of a broadcast TV schedule, with shows airing at the same time each week, and the concept of a network TV season that stretches from September to May but fills roughly 40% of those weeks with reruns, will seem as archaic as a rotary-dial telephone. By the time we’ve reached that point, Mad Men will be just a memory. And I hope that by then, programming practices rooted in greed will be a thing of the past as well.