‘Last Man Standing’ Gets the Last Laugh

WHY THIS MATTERS: Many things besides ratings decide shows’ fates in today’s fragmented TV era, including corporate ownership and monetization.

Maybe Tim Allen should thank President Donald Trump. Or Roseanne. Or Disney. Whoever is responsible, Allen’s sitcom, Last Man Standing, is returning to life after being cancelled by ABC last May after six seasons in broadcast primetime and one in syndication.

In truth, Allen’s gratitude is probably best placed with “new” Fox, which brought the show back after seeing the success of another similar series, Roseanne. The return of the Conner family displaced CBS’s The Big Bang Theory as TV’s highest-rated sitcom most weeks that it aired until the wedding of Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Amy (Mayim Bialik) in Big Bang’s season finale finally returned that show to the top with a 2.9 live-plus-same-day rating among primetime’s key demographic of adults 18-49, compared to Roseanne’s 2.6.

“Obviously, I think everyone took a good, hard look at the performance of Roseanne,” Dana Walden, chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group, said on a press call with reporters last week. “It did so well and it certainly reminded us that we have a huge iconic comedy star in our Fox family in Tim Allen.”

Both Roseanne and Last Man Standing come from similar points of view — but those perspectives are less political and more cultural, said a TV station executive.

“Viewers don’t care about politics,” he said. “Hollywood plays to two coasts, but Roseanne wouldn’t have done a lower number if Hillary Clinton was president.”

Corporate ownership also has something to do with Last Man’s revival. Disney is in the process of buying most of 21st Century Fox, but for now, Fox still owns 20th Century Fox Television, and it’s often financially advantageous for a network to air shows produced by its sibling studio. Similarly, Fox cancelled Brooklyn Nine-Nine after five seasons, and that show, which is produced by Comcast-owned Universal Television, was picked up by Comcast-owned NBC.

In Good (Enough) Standing

While neither show can be considered a flop — both have run for more than five seasons — neither can be considered a hit either. On ABC on Friday nights, Last Man Standing averaged a 1.1 rating/5 share on a live-plus-same-day basis in households in its final season. Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on Fox was averaging a 0.7/3 in households.

A possible bonus for both Last Man’s owner — whether that be Fox or Disney — and for TV stations and cable networks airing the show is that the show’s return means licensees will get to add the new episodes to their run come 2020 when the show will be up for a second-cycle renewal, according to sources. That should extend the show’s aftermarket life. In the meantime, its return to primetime will likely improve its ratings in syndication.

Last Man Standing launched into syndication in fall 2016. At the time, it wasn’t considered an “A” sitcom, or even really a “B” sitcom, selling for low cash license fees plus national advertising time. To help improve that monetization, it was also sold to cable networks CMT and Hallmark Channel, and it just recently added WGN America to its lineup.

At least partly due to that addition, Last Man Standing improved its national household ratings by 12% in the week ended May 6 to a 1.9, coming in third among off-network sitcoms behind only Warner Bros.’ The Big Bang Theory at a 4.5 and Twentieth Television’s Modern Family at a 2.1. In syndication’s key demographic of women 25-54, Last Man Standing ranked fifth at a 1.0.

But that number is somewhat deceiving since much of it comes from the show’s cable runs. In the top 10 markets, Last Man Standing’s broadcast performance is fairly anemic.

For example, on CBS-owned independent WLNY New York at 5 and 5:30 p.m. so far in May, Last Man Standing is averaging a 0.2 rating/1 share and a 0.3/1 in households, respectively. Among women 25-54, that number drops off to a 0.1/1 and a 0.2/1.

Last Man Standing has its best showing in the top three markets on Tribune independent WGN Chicago at 8 and 8:30 p.m., where it leads out of Warner Bros.’ Two and a Half Men and is averaging a 1.6/3 in households and a 0.7/2 among women 25-54 across the hour. WGN is a strong station where the series has a good time period, giving the show it’s best opportunity to shine.

At a median age of 55.6, Last Man Standing is the oldest-skewing show among syndicated sitcoms, appealing to an older crowd than Twentieth’s animated sitcoms such as The Cleveland Show at 31.4 and King of the Hill at 32.9.

Overall, it appears to have been another weak year of comedy development at the broadcast networks, which is also why shows such as Last Man Standing and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are remaining in production. While that’s bad news for TV stations, it’s less so than it once was, with many stations moving away from off-network sitcoms as part of an overall programming strategy.

Looking ahead, one show appears to already be on buyers’ radar: Warner Bros.’ Young Sheldon, which was one of the season’s best-performing new series and returns next year for season two.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.