Here in the United States tomorrow is the 4th of July, also known here as "Independence Day." For most of us this means fireworks and such foods as fried chicken, watermelon, and other summertime treats. It also means that various television stations and cable channels will air marathons of television shows. That is, they will show episodes of a series one after another. Since the Eighties, television show marathons have become a tradition on American television, not only on the 4th of July, but on other holidays as well.
Indeed, it is difficult to say where and when the very first television show marathon took place, but it may have been on Thanksgiving Day in 1980 at Los Angeles television station KTLA. That day the station aired back to back episodes of the classic anthology series The Twilight Zone. KTLA's Twilight Zone marathon would meet with such success that they would air marathons not only of The Twilight Zone, but other shows as well. KTLA's success with television show marathons would not go unnoticed by other stations, who soon held marathons of their own. Among the early television show marathons would be a twenty six hour Star Trek marathon on Connecticut station WTXX in November 1982 and a Leave It to Beaver marathon on KXLI in Minnesota. With such television show marathons meeting with success on local stations around the country, it was not long before cable channels began holding their own marathons. In October 1985 TBS (then still called WTBS) held a small Andy Griffith Show marathon in celebration of that show's 25th anniversary. Premium channel Showtime held a marathon of The Honeymooners in August 1985.
Indeed, one early marathon on a cable channel would prove historic for the impact it would have on pop culture. Starting on 23 February 1986 MTV (which still showed music videos at the time....) aired 45 episodes of The Monkees back to back. Not only would MTV start airing The Monkees regularly, but the marathon sparked a fad which revived interest in both the sitcom and the rock group. The Monkees (except for Michael Nesmith reunited for a tour, while TV stations around the country picked up The Monkees.
In the Eighties television show marathons were relatively uncommon. Much like KTLA's early Twilight Zone marathon, they were generally held on holidays such as Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, or New Year's Eve. Television show marathons would come to be shown on other occasions as well. Often a TV station or cable channel would air a marathon of a series to celebrate its début on that station or channel. The historic MTV Monkees marathon is an example of this--it was held to celebrate The Monkees coming to MTV. Marathons were also held to celebrate a special occasion or the passing of one of a show's cast members. WTBS' held its short Andy Griffith Show marathon in 1985 to celebrate the show's anniversary. In 2006 TV Land held an Andy Griffith Show marathon to honour Don Knotts, who had just passed. Marathons would also come to be used as a means of counter-programming against such events as the Super Bowl or the Oscars.
Television show marathons occurred with much more frequency in the Nineties than they had in the Eighties. By the Naughts they had become outright common place, particularly on cable channels such as TNT, the USA Network, BBC America, and documentary channels such as History International and Animal Planet. It is not unusual for these cable channels to schedule marathons of particular shows on Saturdays or Sundays (in fact, I swear the USA Network has a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit marathon every other weekend) that often last all day. What is more, the television show marathon has seen the an offshoot in what can only be called a marathon programming block. These are regularly scheduled blocks of a certain programme that run anywhere from three to even ten hours a day. TNT, the USA Network, TV Land, and several other cable channels have made a regular practice of marathon programming blocks (I addressed this phenomenon way back in 2007 with regards to the show Law and Order).
While television show marathons are now rather commonplace and marathon programming blocks can be seen on many cable channels, many television show marathons remain special events. Indeed, some have become traditions. Starting in 1995 the Sci-Fi Channel (since rebranded "SyFy"--yes, I think it's silly too) has aired a Twilight Zone marathon to coincide with the Fourth of July. Last year when SyFy did not air the marathon for some odd reason, fans were so outraged that they boycotted the channel with an event held on Facebook and other social networking sites called "Hold Your Own Twilight Zone marathon." Apparently enough fans watched their old Twilight Zone DVDs and Twilight Zone episodes on outlets from CBS to YouTube, that SyFy decided they should hold the marathon this year....
In the thirty years since they were first introduced, marathons have become a regular part of the broadcasting landscape. In fact they have become so common that in many ways they no longer feel like special events. Regardless, audiences do still look forward to marathons of their favourite shows at holidays. As pointed out above, last year when SyFy did not show a marathon of The Twilight Zone many viewers were outraged. There can be little doubt that they will continue to be a part of television programming for many years to come.