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Cancel? The Networks’ Reasons Why Not

While the DVR has long been viewed as a frenemy of programmers, and probably more of an enemy than a friend at that, the black box and other digital developments, such as Hulu and VOD, are likely playing a key role in giving poorly performing shows a stay of execution. After all, it’s that time of year when new shows, a couple airings under their belts, are at risk of being canceled.

Looking at the last few years, NBC’s The Playboy Club aired its third episode October 4, 2011, and that was it. The lawyer comedy (drama? dramedy?) Made in Jersey was whacked by CBS after two episodes in 2012. Lucky nothing—ABC folded Lucky 7 after two episodes in 2013.

But the networks are increasingly patient; witness last fall’s first cancellation happening Oct. 24. (It was Manhattan Love Story, if you’re scoring at home, whose lead-in from the late, not quite great Selfie was not enough to sustain it.)

Live-plus-3 and live-plus-7 ratings can make a case for keeping a show on the air. “I have to believe that [the networks] are going to take a less immediate decision on programs,” says Bill Carroll, senior VP and director of content strategy at Katz Television Group. “They’ll step back and look at the whole picture—if delayed viewing is an element in terms of whether or not the show is reaching an audience.”

We know it’s crazy early, but the fall season’s biggest disappointment thus far has to be Fox’s heavily promoted Scream Queens, which debuted to a 1.7 rating among viewers 18-49, then slid to a 1.4 this past Tuesday.

Carroll says to be patient and see how the live-plus ratings shake out, especially for a young-skewing show like Scream Queens, whose premiere ended up gaining 1.07 ratings points in 18-49 when live-plus-3 was factored in by Nielsen. “Young viewers tend not to follow schedules,” says Carroll. “A show that’s targeted to them will likely benefit more from VOD/DVR viewing than, say, NCIS.”

Fox heavily promoted its Tuesday comedy duo, Grandfathered and The Grinder, only to see them debut to 1.5 ratings, which Carroll calls “soft.”

But Fox of course has Empire, which debuted to a 6.7 among 18-49 viewers, per Nielsen’s live-plus-same day figures. That slid to a 5.5 this past week—showing that even high flying Empire is not exempt from the laws of ratings gravity. “It’s still doing extremely well,” says Carroll, “and dramatically winning its time period.”

Carroll too singled out Blindspot on NBC, which rode heavy promotion to a 3.1 debut, followed by a 2.6 in 18-49 this past week. Yet The Player, another touted rookie drama on NBC, is not getting it done. The Vegas-set Wesley Snipes drama posted a 0.9 in last night’s preliminary 18-49 ratings, down 25% from last week’s already disappointing 1.2.

Carroll cited rookies The Muppets (ABC) and Life in Pieces (CBS) for acquitting themselves thus far, the latter thanks to a big boost from Big Bang Theory. And football is a monster, whether it’s Sunday nights on NBC or Thursdays on CBS, while NBC’s The Voice gobbles up ratings points like Stephen Colbert eating Oreos.

“On balance, the shows that were expected to do well have done reasonably well,” says Carroll, who acknowledges that it’s “really early in the game.”

Early as it may be, all the rookie debutants have nonetheless outlasted the 2006 comedy Emily’s Reasons Why Not, which ABC—in another era—pulled the plug on after but one episode.

“I have to assume, the networks are taking a little bit longer view than they might have a couple years ago,” says Carroll. “They’ll look at live-plus-3, live-plus-7, and get a better handle on where the audience is—and if the show can be successful.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.