Network TV Will Try Every Primetime Trick to Fend Off a Couch Potato Binge

From new "limited-run" event shows (and old ones like 24) to existing but evolving hits like How I Met Your Mother, the dinosaurs of the lower channels are disrupting their own programming models at upfronts this week to fight back against Netflix and Co.

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We are very much in the age of binge-watching, when Sunday afternoon series catchup sessions seem more deliberate than disruptive, more intrinsic than lazy. The task of watching 22 episodes of a show over the course of a television season (with commercials!) seems positively prehistoric compared to streaming services and DVR. Especially when everyone's talk about Netflix's 15 new episodes of Arrested Development, which will be released simultaneously two Sundays from now, and which you can watch in any order you please. But the major TV networks have also spent this week releasing their new plans during upfront presentations, and it turns out the dinosaurs of the lower channels are disrupting their own programming models: Indeed, from new "limited-run" event shows (and old ones like 24) to existing but evolving hits like How I Met Your Mother, the big boys are already fighting back against not-so-little Netflix.

In an effort to at least seem like they're thinking out of the box, network executives are filling their upcoming seasons, as a new feature in Variety explains, "with specials that are a little more so, as well as short-run series that have a 'watch-now-or-miss-them-forever' kind of quality." The bigwigs are also, in at least two cases, tinkering with shows to play out almost as if in real time. Perfect, you know, for DVR-ing and watching at a later date.

The Limited-Run Series

The limited-run series—a purposefully short-lived show with a definitive end point, and no promise of return necessary—is officially a thing. At their upfront on Monday, Fox highlighted a variety of what they are calling "event series" that are either set to air or in development. The biggest, of course, is the reboot of 24, which will find the original writers coming back to revive Jack Bauer for 12 episodes. (He will sleep, maybe, but things will actually move faster than they did in the original series run.) Next year Fox will premiere M. Night Shyamalan's Wayward Pines, which the network is calling an "intense, mind-bending thriller" about a town starring Matt Dillon as a secret service agent. (And then Matt Dillon can go back to making movies.) Meanwhile, Fox also plans to reboot PBS' Cosmos with Seth MacFarlane executive producing. (Before Seth MacFarlane goes back to doing everything else he does, like ruining the Oscars.) ABC is experimenting with the idea of the limited-run series with Betrayal, which looks like it could be standard soap-opera-y fare, and Resurrection, about a boy comeback to life after being long dead. Even CBS—boring old CBS—is getting in on the action: Two dramas, Hostages and Intelligence, are being aired as limited-runs on Monday night with the latter eventually replacing the former in the schedule. See, the limited run can be cool and useful to programming strategy at the same time!

And it makes sense: try to rope in addicted viewers with a new kind of appointment television, but constrain the appointments for shorter attention spans. It's making TV essentially on the high-end cable model, but for network television. It's not really Netflix-style all-you-can TV, but it is HBO-style sit-down-and-it'll-be-good TV, where networks can hype a series for a short amount of time and then leave it be. Game of Thrones, you will remember, is the most expensive series on television—but it only hits you 10 episodes at a time, and every Sunday night.

Playing With Time

Once again, 24 was the ultimate model for this: time-sensitive TV. Two shows in the upcoming season, one old and one new, are going to try to do pull off real-time narratives... with comedy. Earlier on Wednesday we learned that How I Met Your Mother (which introduced the mother in its season finale) will, in its ninth and final season, take place over just one wedding weekend, according to TVLine's Matt Webb Mitovich. That's a big leap for a sitcom like HIMYM, which has been crawling along for eight seasons now.  (But has been known to have flashbacks and forwards.) Meanwhile, the first season of ABC's Mixology will take place all in just one night, in one bar, with a bunch of singles trying to hook up. It's not quite the new Arrested Development series, what with its intersecting story lines, but it does try to subvert the typical sitcom model. We've never been big HIMYM fans, so we can't speak to whether or not the time frame will thrive. Apparently not, according to Vulture, and it doesn't seem wise to mess with something after such a long time. Mixology, meanwhile, does not look promising, but that has less to do with timeframes and more to do with the generally lame dialogue.

(Click here for complete upfront coverage from The Atlantic Wire. Up on Thursday: The CW....)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.