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Why April has become the home of prestige TV

Blame the Emmys.

Veep is just one of many shows hitting TV this April.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

April is a beastly month for new television, across almost every network.

Start, simply, with HBO’s returning series, like Veep (April 16), The Leftovers (April 16), and Silicon Valley (April 23). Or with some other major returning crime — or crime-adjacent — dramas, like Better Call Saul (April 10), Fargo (April 19), and Bosch (April 21).

Beyond those, there are plenty more major returning series, including some with more of a “cult favorite” bent, like iZombie (April 4), Archer (April 5), and Doctor Who (April 15). And if you’re a reality fan, it took forever, but perpetual Emmy nominee/winner The Amazing Race is (finally) back April 21. Remarkably, I haven’t listed every critically acclaimed series returning in April, because we could be here all day.

But wait.

There’s still more.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 airs its first new season of episodes in almost 20 years on April 14. Prison Break returns after nearly 10 years on April 4. The Get Down returns after, uh, a few months to finish out its first season on April 7.

That has to be it, right?


There are so many debuts, too, and they’re all for shows you should be at least vaguely excited about. Like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is so good I’m having trouble thinking about anything else (it drops April 26). And lots of people are eagerly anticipating Starz’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods (April 30). Hey, maybe you’re fascinated by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner? Amazon is releasing a 13-part documentary about him, American Playboy, on April 13. And AMC has an adaptation of Philipp Meyer’s acclaimed Western novel The Son coming out on April 8.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of shows that will already be airing at that time, like The Americans (returning March 7 on FX) and Feud (which debuted March 5 on FX). The Walking Dead concludes its seventh season on April 4. Switched at Birth ends its run forever on April 11.

The long and short of it: April television, if you are even a halfway dedicated TV fan, is about to devour your life whole. But why? To answer that question, we have to look ahead to September.

The Emmy Awards are one big reason there’s so much TV in April

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale is coming in April, too.

Television is increasingly splitting into four different “seasons,” which roughly mirror the actual seasons we all live with as citizens of the planet Earth. The traditional fall TV season begins in September, ending in November or early December. After a quick gap for the holidays, the winter TV season begins in January, and then the spring TV season begins in April. There’s a much shorter summer TV season that launches between mid-June and mid-July.

Yes, every single month of the year brings the release of at least one show — Netflix, in particular, is moving toward launching a high-profile project every weekend — but most shows debut in one of the four months listed above.

And of those four months, April has emerged as the most desirable home for TV’s most premier shows. Why are networks so dedicated to it, at the expense of just about everything else?

The answer is simple: the Emmys. If you want to qualify for the 2017 Emmy Awards, to be held September 17, you need to unspool half your season before May 31 (the absolute cutoff for Emmy qualification) and make sure the whole season will have aired by the time Emmy nomination ballots are due in late June.

Thus, April is rapidly becoming TV’s “prestige season,” similar to how Oscar hopefuls tend to hit movie theaters in October, November, and December, ahead of nomination ballots being due in January. Unless you’re Netflix or Amazon — which release entire seasons in one go — you’ll likely need to debut in April to get the whole season out there in accordance with the Emmys’ eligibility rules.

Examples of this strategy abound. Reigning comedy series champ Veep, by debuting on April 16, ensures it will air seven of its 10 episodes by the May 31 cutoff date for airing half a season (unless it takes off Memorial Day weekend, and even then, it will have aired six). Emmy favorite Fargo will have aired seven of 10 episodes by May 31 as well, while American Gods will have aired five of eight episodes (or six of eight if Starz airs the first two episodes as a two-hour premiere — a common practice).

The exception, of course, is Netflix, which is rolling out two of its big Emmy hopefuls — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and House of Cards — in May, because it releases its series all at once and, thus, doesn’t need to worry about how many weeks it has before the cutoff date. In particular, it’s launching House of Cards on May 30, very nearly the last day of eligibility.

Time will tell if this approach proves effective, especially for the newbies. But if it seems like all your favorite shows are returning in April each year, well, there’s a reason, and it’s shiny and gold, with pointy wings.

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