Television’s Christmas vacation has been canceled.
The month of December used to be consigned to reruns, hoary holiday specials, movies and classic TV marathons. Network execs were loathe to launch any major priorities in the month because of the conventional wisdom that potential viewers were too distracted by holiday-related pursuits.
But a quick look at the premiere schedule for the final four weeks of the year underscores how busy the frame has become for new and returning series premieres.
NBC has its highest-profile new comedy of the season, the Eva Longoria starrer “Telenovela,” getting a showcase preview with two episodes airing Dec. 7 behind the penultimate episode of “The Voice’s” winter season. “Superstore,” the America Ferrera-Ben Feldman workplace comedy that has generated solid advance buzz, opens for business with two episodes airing on Nov. 30, also behind “The Voice.”
“Superstore” and “Telenovela” will settle into their regular Monday 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. time slots on Jan. 4. But with freshman drama “Blindspot” taking a breather until February following its Nov. 23 episode, NBC didn’t want to waste the power of a “Voice” lead-in as the competition winds down to the Dec. 14-15 finale. So the 10-11 p.m. showcase of two episodes from high-priority comedies made sense.
Moreover, Thanksgiving Day amounts to a burst of viewer circulation for NBC with the drawing power of its Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and National Dog Show telecasts, not to mention its NFL games. It’s too big of a promotional platform to pass up, hence the “Superstore” and “Telenovela” sneaks.
Syfy, A&E, Bravo and Netflix also have significant premieres scheduled in December. Amazon will light up the 10 episodes of “Transparent’s” second season on Dec. 11 — a gift to fans who have waited more than a year to reconnect with the Pfeffermans since the show’s full first season launched in September 2014.
Dave Howe, president of NBCUniversal’s Syfy and Chiller cablers, said a December launch has the advantage of offering “a clearer marketing and scheduling runway since most fall shows have ended their run” by early December, he said.
In the era of too much TV — or “peak TV” to accentuate the positive — few networks have the luxury of staking out the perfect time to launch each and every show. Any corner of the calendar that is not already chock full of premieres is seen as an opening to hopefully command a little extra attention for a show. A&E Network launches new episodes of the Poppy Montgomery drama “Unforgettable,” the show it rescued from cancellation by CBS, on Nov. 27. Bravo’s 13th edition of “Top Chef” bows Dec. 2, marking the show’s first December premiere since 2010. Another big Bravo priority, season two of scripted comedy “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” opens Dec. 1.
The stepped-up activity in December also reflects the migration of viewing to on-demand platforms. The new mantra is to get the title out there in the ether and let people find it. That’s the reasoning behind We TV’s decision to launch its new Eli Roth-directed supernatural thriller “South of Hell” on Nov. 27. All seven episodes of the drama starring Mena Suvari as a Savannah, Ga.-based demon hunter will air as a marathon starting at 6 p.m.. The hopes is that the stunt will generate some heat among genre fans and drive viewers to VOD and authenticated streaming platforms thereafter. We TV has been promoting the unorthodox premiere as a “Black Friday Binge” opportunity.
We TV’s cheeky campaign reflects another reason why December is longer viewed as a TV graveyard. For the most devoted TV fans, holiday downtime from work or school means more time for binging series. In the spirit of the season for family gatherings, Netflix will drop six episodes of the new animated series “F is For Family” from comedian Bill Burr on Dec. 18.
Syfy has a long history of taking advantage of the lighter competition in December to make noise with originals. That strategy started in 2002 with the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries “Taken” and continued the following year with the initial four-hour “Battlestar Galactica” miniseries that begat the series redo in 2005. Last December, Syfy unleashed the drama “Ascension.” This year brings the one-two punch of the miniseries rendition of Arthur C. Clarke’s literary classic “Childhood’s End,” running six hours over three nights starting Dec. 14, followed by the premiere of space opera series “The Expanse,” which has a 10-episode first season.
Starting the linear run of “Expanse” on Dec. 14 is designed in part “to create catch-up opportunities over the holidays that will help us build loyalty and momentum into 2016,” according to Syfy’s Howe. To that end, the first episode of “Expanse” went up on VOD and streaming platforms Nov. 23 in an effort to build tune-in interest for subsequent episodes.
“The challenge for series beyond the premiere window is to drive viewing across every platform, feeding catch-up and binge viewing as much as possible to hook viewers through the first few episodes and get them bonded with the characters and story,” Howe said.
The expectation that viewers will be more plugged in to TV in December than in years past is reflected in the fact that networks are investing more in one-off specials for the month. NBC has led the charge the past three years with its elaborate live musical presentations, this year featuring “The Wiz Live” on Dec. 3. Fox is bringing out its biggest guns, “Empire’s” Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, for the Dec. 9 “Terrence and Taraji’s White Hot Holidays” musical special. CBS is mounting a starry salute to the Chairman of the Board with its “Sinatra 100: An All-Star Grammy Concert” on Dec. 6.
But even with such a feast for viewers to choose from, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned song-and-dance holiday special to warm the heart when the weather outside is frightful (in some parts). Netflix contributes a slightly demented entry on Dec. 4 with “A Very Murray Christmas,” featuring Bill Murray out front and Sofia Coppola at the helm, with assists from Amy Poehler, George Clooney, Chris Rock, Paul Shaffer, Miley Cyrus, Maya Rudolph and more. By all rights, this should be TV to roast chestnuts by.