As the official 2014-2015 TV season kicks off on Monday, Sept. 22, we're about to find out whether TV's unofficial "Rule of 4" will strike again.
What's the "Rule of 4"? Quite simply, in the past few decades, years that ended in "4" have turned out to be game-changing seasons in network TV. In 1984, The Cosby Show premiered and immediately revived a moribund NBC, as well as the entire sitcom genre.
By 1994, NBC was struggling once again — until Friends and ER came along and made the Peacock Network an unstoppable force for the rest of the decade. By 2004, it was ABC on the ropes, until Lost and Desperate Housewives debuted and turned that network around.
Go back even further: In 1964, legendary shows like Gilligan's Island, Peyton Place, Bewitched, The Munsters, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Gomer Pyle, USMC all debuted. Clearly there's something about years ending in "4" that is good for primetime. But why?
Perhaps that happens to be the moment when shows from the previous decade have finally cleared out and viewers are ready for new, iconic series.
"Each of the 'Rule of 4' titles you mention does suggest that a sort of recalibration of the TV zeitgeist [occurred]," says former CBS exec Jim McKairnes, who now chairs the global broadband and telecommunications department at Temple University's School of Media and Communication. "These titles didn't just bring good fortune to their networks; they also changed TV itself. If not decade-defining, they were surely decade-changing, kicking up ocean tremors that led to tsunamis of new approaches to primetime."
Soon after Cosby premiered, "TV was rich with similar attempts, some of which worked, like Growing Pains, and some of which didn't, like CBS's cynical Charlie & Company," McKairnes notes. "It also paved the way for scores of sitcoms that would start arriving four years later, starting with Roseanne, that were fashioned out of stand-up-comedy- persona cloth."
As for Friends a decade later, "it changed the way the half-hour was written if only because it changed the way characters in them spoke," he says. "Real. Relatable. Arch. Set-up-and-punchline need not apply. Overnight, the half-hour group-com was the Holy Grail."
In 2004, Lost and Desperate Housewives also reinvigorated the concept of serialized storytelling. "Dramas were now to be spun in chapters, with backstories that informed the writing and kept viewers wondering, with mythologies to be acknowledged," McKairnes says. "About more than they were about. Action and events were to be interpreted. Affecting and being affected by a rash of envelope-pushing rule-breaking cable dramas just breaking back then, the whole sixty-minute form became different."
As the fall 2014 TV season officially kicks off this week, will this year yield a similar crop of landmark series? If the nation's TV critics are any indication, perhaps not. Most critics have been sour on this fall's lineups. But it only takes one or two mega-hits to trigger a new primetime evolution. And this is the one week of the TV season where anything is possible.
"I'll leave it to you to analyze whether the heavens divined this or if it suggests an end-of-previous-decade tectonic shift," says McKairnes. "But it does make for an odd, and even fun, coincidence."