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Why your favorite TV shows are off the air for so long between seasons

There were 414 days between seasons of Better Call Saul, 486 between seasons of Atlanta, and 505 between seasons of Westworld.

Better Call Saul, Atlanta, Westworld
Better Call Saul, Atlanta, and Westworld all took a long time between seasons.
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.

Between the end of Better Call Saul’s third season on June 19, 2017, and the beginning of its fourth season on Monday, August 6, 2018, 414 days passed. That’s nearly 100 more days than the 316 that elapsed between its first season in 2015 and the second in 2016.

But also, that’s nothing. The gap between season one and season two of Atlanta was 486 days. The gap between the first two seasons of Westworld was 505 days. If Stranger Things season three debuts on May 24, 2019 — just in time to qualify for the 2019 Emmys, as I suspect it will — 575 days will have passed since season two debuted. And if Game of Thrones’ final season premieres on April 14, 2019 — again, as I suspect it will, for Emmy reasons — a staggering 596 days will have passed between seasons. (Though for both Stranger Things and Game of Thrones, no official premiere dates have been announced, so the gaps could be smaller ... or even larger.)

Things didn’t use to be this way. Occasionally, there were long gaps between two seasons of a show — especially on cable, where shows typically air fewer episodes per season — but they were usually the result of some sort of behind-the-scenes tension. Mad Men, for instance, spent 526 days off the air between seasons four and five, as AMC and creator Matt Weiner negotiated a new contract.

And 553 days went by between the sixth season of 24 and the special movie 24: Redemption (designed as a prelude to season seven), but that was due to the 2007–’08 writers strike, which halted the show’s production for months,

But for most of TV history, these long gaps were incredibly rare. Only The Sopranos purposely stayed off the air for extended periods of time, taking breaks of 484 days between seasons three and four, 456 days between seasons four and five, and 645 days between seasons five and six. But as always with The Sopranos, it proved to be an exception that underscored how most other shows on TV played by the rules.

In 2018, however, these prolonged stretches between seasons increasingly seem like a matter of course for major shows. We still don’t know when Mr. Robot’s fourth season will air, and its third season ended in December 2017. HBO has teased that Westworld’s third season might not air until 2020. Big Little Lies will almost certainly take nearly two years between season one and two — though it at least has the excuse of originally being planned as a standalone miniseries. And rumors of long delays have swirled around several other series, including reigning Emmy champion The Handmaid’s Tale.

So what’s going on here? Why has it become so much more common for shows to go on hiatus for a full year or more? After talking with several industry insiders, it’s become clear to me that the answers to those questions lie in the intersection of three TV trends that are coming together to create longer and longer delays.

1) Episode orders are getting shorter

Game of Thrones characters standing on a beach.
Game of Thrones’ seventh season was three episodes shorter than its previous six had been.

One reason that more and more time goes by between TV seasons is that the seasons themselves are getting shorter. For example, the first six seasons of Game of Thrones were only 10 episodes long — but they were still longer than season seven, which ran for only seven episodes. And season seven was still longer than the upcoming season eight, which will have only six episodes to its name.

It’s basic math: Though the gap between Game of Thrones seasons seven and eight would be long no matter what, it would be 21 days shorter if there had been 10 episodes in season seven instead of only seven.

The most obvious way to explain this is to look at the broadcast networks, which still mostly make series that air 18 episodes or more every season and rarely have gaps that exceed 200 days. Sometimes they don’t even exceed 120 days — a.k.a. the fairly standard summer hiatus between a show’s season finale in May and its season premiere in September.

When you’ve got to fit between 18 and 22 episodes into a single season, you simply don’t have much room for big gaps, outside of unusual situations like the one that befell 24 in the 2000s.

But if you’re making seasons that run between eight and 13 episodes, it becomes much easier for the gap between seasons to widen if there’s even a slight delay in production, which is how Mad Men took such a long break between its fourth and fifth seasons. (And if you’re making a Netflix series where all your episodes drop on the same day, then year-plus gaps between seasons become possible regardless of how many episodes you produce.)

2) Shows are getting more ambitious, in both production values and storytelling

Westworld’s puzzle-like construction makes it harder to assemble than more traditionally constructed shows.

For years, when fans would ask why Game of Thrones didn’t produce more than 10 episodes per season, the producers’ answer was the same: It was physically impossible to produce more than 10 episodes. This was due to the show’s gigantic production scope, which involves massive special effects and filming all over the world. And as the series progressed and its scope only expanded, its number of episodes per season shrank accordingly.

But shows’ ambitions can go far beyond production scope, as they take on storytelling tasks that carry a high degree of difficulty. A series with more complicated storytelling — like Westworld, whose seasons almost resemble gigantic jigsaw puzzles — needs to take time to make sure that its stories and scripts are up to snuff. (Whether the series succeeds in this regard is up to the viewer to decide.) And even a show like Better Call Saul must find a way to simultaneously tell its own story while making sure it will eventually line up with Breaking Bad, the series to which it serves as a prequel.

All of these ambitions fall under the broader idea that as more TV shows crowd the landscape, it’s more difficult to stand out, and audiences are less forgiving of even minor screw-ups. The degree of difficulty ratchets up a little more with every year, and if a hit series needs an extra three or four months to figure out how to top its previous season, most networks are willing to take the risk of offering more time to get it right, instead of taking less time and getting it horribly wrong.

3) Everybody’s schedules are getting more crowded

Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot is a show where lots of these trends converge.

Consider this: Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail directs every single episode of his show, a feat that requires a lot of prep time. But the massive success of Mr. Robot has meant he’s also getting offers to do other things, like direct episodes of Amazon’s new series Homecoming and produce other upcoming pilots for Mr. Robot’s network, USA.

The flip side of having so many TV shows crowding the landscape is that the industry needs an increasing number of people to run those TV shows, but there are fewer people who actually know the job backward and forward. When somebody comes along who does — like Mr. Robot’s Esmail or Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley — they often get bogged down with more work, which delays future seasons of the shows that made them well-known.

And the answer isn’t always to spread out or delegate responsibility. Too often, when less experienced showrunners step in on other shows, they get into a place where they need to delay production just to stay ahead of the massive rolling catastrophe that is any television series. That can translate into a delay in getting the season on the air. Sometimes everything turns out great, and sometimes it doesn’t. But the delays inevitably leave fans wondering when the next season will arrive.

That’s to say nothing of actors’ crowded schedules. Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk filmed a major role in the Best Picture–nominated The Post between seasons of his show, while Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek plays the lead role in the upcoming film Bohemian Rhapsody. And look at the careers of the Game of Thrones stars, who have found copious work in blockbusters and indie films of all shapes and sizes since the HBO show’s 2011 debut. TV actors have always been an asset to movies looking to fill out their casts, and as an increasing number of roles for actors migrate to television, films are raiding the small screen more than ever.

While the practice of filming a movie while your TV show is on hiatus has been around for as long as there have been TV shows, fitting actors’ other projects into a TV show’s schedule is just another headache for networks to figure out when planning a new season. Add cast scheduling hurdles to those involving both prominent and rookie showrunners and you have yet another explanation for why so many shows are taking longer and longer breaks between seasons.

Of course, longer gaps don’t have to be a bad thing. If nothing else, they take certain shows out of the annual Emmy race (as happened with Better Call Saul this year, and with Game of Thrones last year), leading to shake-ups in categories that might otherwise become staid. And taking extra time to try to make every episode of a show as good as it can possibly be is never a bad thing.

But viewers should get used to those long gaps. All of the above trends will only continue to grow more pronounced. We’re not there yet, but it’s not unimaginable to envision a future where new seasons of TV shows are treated like movie sequels, arriving every two or three years and becoming major events when they premiere, then receding in the pop culture landscape between new installments. Taking extra time can be a good thing, but those of us who’ve always taken a certain comfort in knowing our favorite TV characters will be there for us every year, if only for a limited number of episodes, might find this shift a little bittersweet all the same.

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