How Long Gaps Between Seasons Are Hurting Modern TV

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Photo Source: “Stranger Things” Credit: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

One of the most astonishing installments of television last year was “Long, Long Time,” the third episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” which took its title from the classic Linda Ronstadt song. But Ronstadt might as well have been warbling about the massive chasm that’s opened up between TV seasons for beloved (and even not-so-beloved) series, leaving viewers stranded in a viewing desert until a network or streaming service provides an oasis in the form of a return date.

“It’s like we’re watching [part one of] ‘It’ and getting part two while part one is still happening—because so much time has gone on, and these kids are now so much older than they were when it began,” says TV Guide Magazine senior critic Matt Roush. He’s referring to Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” one of the most notable offenders when it comes to long gaps between seasons. Matt and Ross Duffers’ sci-fi–horror drama, one of the buzziest shows of the past decade, hasn’t aired an episode since the two-part fourth season dropped in 2022. The fifth and final installment won’t premiere until 2025, causing a Vecna-sized disruption in viewer enthusiasm.

There are often valid reasons for these long delays. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 halted all production on TV shows, some of which had mere days left to complete filming their seasons. Last year, the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes further stalled production. 

Bella Ramsey The Last of Us season 2 Credit: HBO

These pauses, often lasting as long as two to three years, have led viewers to lose focus—and wonder whether they even remember the events of the previous season’s denouement. HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” took a whopping six-year hiatus between seasons—though the series rarely deviates from its modus operandi: Larry David grouses and disrupts all of Los Angeles.

“People are now finding library shows, because they’re always there,” Roush says. He cites basic cable staples like USA’s “Suits” and CBS’ “NCIS,” which were among Nielsen’s top 10 most-watched shows across all platforms in 2023. You won’t find a single recent Emmy-nominated series on the list; instead, viewers favored perennials like NBC’s “Friends” and the CW’s “Supernatural.” 

“There are so many episodes of [those shows], so [viewers] get sucked into a series because they know it has a bunch of episodes,” Roush explains. “I think the streamers will adapt themselves to something closer to the network model, with them putting ads in little by little, to keep people engaged in certain types of shows—as opposed to these short-run bursts of episodes and then this almost torturous wait for the next season to come.”

Another reason for the delays between might be the meteoric ascent of actors on current popular series: When they get cast in other projects, it leaves them less time to film the very shows that elevated them to fame. 

Take FX on Hulu’s “The Bear,” which has seen leads Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach become megastars in a very short span of time. They’ve gone on to land roles in major movies, including a Bruce Springsteen biopic (White), James L. Brooks’ first film in 14 years (Edebiri), and an upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe project (Moss-Bachrach). This might be the reason “The Bear” was reportedly filming Season 4 back-to-back with Season 3, which releases in full on June 27.

The Bear

Credit: Chuck Hodes/FX

Roush routinely gets mail from viewers asking when the next season of a favorite show will premiere almost immediately after the previous one has finished. “That has become especially keen in the streaming world because of the shortness of the seasons,” he says. “It still takes [the team] all that time to write and produce a show, like in the case of Netflix, where they dump them all at once. They can’t put the series back on the air until it’s entirely complete.” He notes that network faves like NBC’s “Law & Order” and CBS’ “Blue Bloods,” on the other hand, can film future episodes while they’re releasing current ones.

But audience habits, like the industry itself, are always changing; even streamers have gone back and forth between releasing entire seasons and using a week-to-week format. (Some shows, like Max’s “Hacks,” have taken an interesting approach by rolling out multiple episodes per week.)

According to Roush, viewer preferences vary widely. “I knew people way back in the day who would completely shutter their vision when it came to talk about ‘24,’ because they couldn’t stand to watch it as a weekly series because of the cliffhanger nature of it. They would just stack up the episodes and watch it all at once—and that was before the streaming days. There is that impulse that people do like to watch things consecutively.”

An oft-whispered axiom of late is that the era of Peak TV is waning. According to the New York Times, 14% fewer shows were produced last year than in 2022, though a still-whopping 516 scripted programs aired in 2023. This slowdown could be affecting the pace of episode production. 

According to the L.A. Times, film and TV production worldwide was down 7% in the first quarter of 2024. There may be a simple takeaway to be gleaned from this stat. Perhaps, as Axl Rose once sang, all we need is just a little patience. While you’re waiting for your favorite show to return, you have no less than 515 others to watch. We’ve come a long way since the early days of NBC, ABC, and CBS, baby.

Jason Clark
Jason Clark (he/him) has over 25 years in the entertainment and media industry covering film, television, and theater. He comes to Backstage from TheWrap, where he’s worked as an awards reporter since 2021. He also has bylines in Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Vulture, the Village Voice, AllMovie, and Slant Magazine, among many others. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in cinema studies from New York University.
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