The season of seasons

“What if some of our beats were reimagined as seasons, with a bit more structure and focus, and a bit less permanence?”

When you think about it, it’s kind of strange that digital stories — both web series and things like podcasts — have “seasons.” The beginnings and endings of these seasons are often completely arbitrary; I watched one series whose first season ran from November to May, and whose second ran from August to November. With Netflix and Amazon releasing entire “seasons” of their shows in one drop, you’d think the concept of the season might be dying.

matt-thompsonBut the reverse seems to be happening: More types of digital stories are shaping themselves into this format. This will probably not be the first or last prediction to name-check Serial, but there it is, a podcast – notably, a podcast originating in a non-seasonal show – just wrapping up a twelve-episode season. High Maintenance decided to charge for its second season on Vimeo, after the first garnered so much acclaim. Telltale, the video game company responsible for 2013’s game of the year, releases several of its games in seasons.

The digital season isn’t usually like your classic TV season. (I mean, TV seasons aren’t even like your classic TV season anymore.) For one thing, digital shows seem to start and stop at entirely random times in the year; for another, the number of “episodes” is as arbitrary as the timing of them. (In some contexts, I’ve heard things like Serial and High Maintenance referred to as “mini-series,” which is closer to a classic television concept.) But it turns out there’s genuine value in the concept of the season, and I suspect the concept will start making further incursions into media and journalism in 2015.

For some storytellers, the season offers a decent frame for making multi-episode story arcs, in the mode of Serial, or to bundle together a set of episodes to raise funds for, as 99% Invisible does. For audiences, seasons suggest a finite commitment — not a one-night stand, but not a marriage, either. For sponsors or advertisers, seasons are a great conceptual fit with the idea of the marketing campaign. 

In newsrooms, we tend to talk a lot about “projects” or “series,” and it’s worth noting how these often differ from “seasons.”

  • Projects are more nebulous than seasons; they can take the form of a multi-day story intended to grab the news cycle for a week, or they can stretch out indefinitely, with installments appearing at random. The life cycle of a season — House of Cards and its ilk notwithstanding – is usually a few months, with weekly or semi-weekly episodes.
  • When we think of seasons, we don’t usually think of text; they’re typically video, audio, or interactive programming.
  • Seasons target subscribers/followers/binge-watchers. If you sample only one episode, you’re not really watching the show. The stories that compose a newsroom project, on the other hand, are meant to stand alone. Nobody would presuppose that everyone read every installment.
  • This might be the most important difference: Newsrooms often spend most of their attention on launching projects. But the momentum of a season builds towards its finale. A season’s beginning is an event, certainly, but especially if the last season-ender was terrific.

It may be just a slight shift in mental framing and vocabulary, but I think it could be a powerful one. We talk about politics in seasons, for example — primary season, campaign season, election season — but what if we actually brought the logic and approach of the programming season to the different phases of the next presidential election? What if some of our beats were reimagined as seasons, with a bit more structure and focus, and a bit less permanence? What would an investigative journalism project look like if it were organized and released as a season instead? 

Lest I be accused of trafficking in thought experiments rather than predictions, here it is: Over the next 12 months, I think a news organization is going to give us a compelling answer to at least one of those three questions.

Matt Thompson is the incoming deputy editor of