Culture: Let the games of autumn begin

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The Independent Online

As a child, I thought the New Year began in September. This wasn't just because the first day of term after the summer holidays marked the beginning of the school year. It was also because the two big television channels unveiled their new series. The custom persists to this day, with BBC1 placing its bets on Wallander – a detective series starring Kenneth Branagh – and ITV1 pinning its hopes on Lost in Austen (pictured), a drama serial in which a young woman travels back in time and swaps places with Elizabeth Bennet.

So why do the two main broadcasters launch their most high-profile programmes in the autumn? One possible explanation is that the audience is up for grabs in a way that it isn't at any other time. Traditionally, the summer is when people watch television the least. Children spend more time outdoors, and a good many of us travel overseas for a week or two, where we may have no access to television or can only watch programmes in a foreign language.

The upshot is that when the holidays end, people's viewing habits are in disarray. If BBC1 or ITV1 want to poach viewers from each other, their chances of doing so are greater now than at any previous time. And, of course, once viewers have been won over, they'll form attachments that last for the rest of the year.

The same logic doesn't apply in the first week of January because people don't spend the Christmas break playing outside or going abroad. On the contrary, most of us spend it glued to the television.

There may be a less rational reason why the broadcasting year begins in September. After all, this doesn't just apply to television. West End theatres save their most lavish productions for the autumn, which, in box office terms, is a period of recovery after the summer. In Hollywood, the studios release their big Oscar contenders between now and Christmas, while in the book business the next three months are when publishers put out their most commercial fare.

Perhaps the reason it is a season of renewal in the arts is because it is a season of decline in nature. As the days grow shorter and the trees shed their leaves, we are inclined to rage, rage against the dying of the light. In other words, all this frenzied cultural activity is a way of distracting ourselves from the intimations of mortality surrounding us in nature – of keeping death at bay.