Struggling Shows Get Stay of Execution

While there was a time when cancelled broadcast series were as much a part of fall as changing leaves and football on TV, the list of scrapped rookie shows is shockingly short heading further into December. A variety of reasons, ranging from the prospect of landing a new broadcast show on a streaming network to the increased focus on delayed-viewing ratings, has sparked a sense of patience among network executives who decide the fate of a new program.

Some believe the era of peak TV, with close to 500 scripted shows on the air, means there’s such demand among networks for fresh content that it keeps the Nielsen-challenged rookies from being yanked. “Everybody is in content acquisition mode right now,” Dominic Caristi, telecommunications professor at Ball State University, said. “The idea of keeping shows on the air longer is about building up libraries of content.”

Struggling broadcast shows are less likely to be cancelled than to be limited to a 13-episode run. Thirteen episodes, after all, sounds like a full season to digital natives. Among the new series on the bubble, The CW military drama Valor did not get a back order, limiting the show to 13 episodes to date. ABC drama Ten Days in the Valley aired four episodes on the Sunday schedule, but will shift to Saturdays starting Dec. 16.

On CBS, comedy Me, Myself and I was pulled off the schedule after six episodes, though the network has not announced a final verdict for the series. New drama Wisdom of the Crowd was canceled after 13 episodes were shot; complicating that show’s status were sexual harassment allegations against star Jeremy Piven.

Last fall, ABC cancelled drama Conviction on Nov. 8, but did let the first 13 episodes make it to air.

While the broadcast networks became well-known for their itchy trigger finger on underperforming shows — in 2006, ABC famously killed Emily’s Reasons Why Not after one episode — many more shows are being canceled by cable networks and streaming services these days. Netflix killed Girlboss in June, a couple of months after the first season launched. Amazon Video scrapped The Last Tycoon, and TNT yanked Shakespeare drama Will after one season.

Streaming Opens a New Market

The broadcast networks are keen to shop their new shows to Netflix, Amazon and other streaming players. “There didn’t used to be a market for a 13-episode show,” said Myles McNutt, Old Dominion University assistant professor of communication. “Now, if you have a 13-episode season, there’s money to be made by selling it to Netflix.”

More and more, networks are eager to find content to stock their own streaming services, too. In 2015, ABC killed drama Wicked City in mid-November, after three episodes. Subsequent episodes aired on Hulu, which counts ABC, Fox and NBC among its owners.

ABC parent The Walt Disney Co. is of course working on its own Netflix-like over-the-top offering, and CBS has been eagerly adding originals to CBS All Access.

“Once upon a time, you looked at overnight ratings for a show,” Caristi said. “Now, you think about what the aftermarket is for the show, and is it something that gives you content for over-the-top services.”

That the broadcast networks have made such an effort to own more of what’s on their schedule has made them more patient with lagging shows as well. “The incentive of syndication and streaming pushes them to keep a show growing, keep it alive,” McNutt said. “When you buy programming, there’s very little incentive to keep it on the air if it’s not performing.”

The evolving nature of ratings has also compelled the networks to rethink canceling shows. Whereas overnight ratings used to be the telltale number, with shows often killed after a few soft overnight scores, delayed viewing thanks to digital video recorders and video-on-demand can give network chiefs a reason to keep a show alive. “So much viewing is not within the first week,” said Amanda Lotz, professor of Communication Studies and Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan. “They may not get advertising money for it, but it tells them there’s interest in the show.”

Finally, as a few bona fide broadcast hits have emerged the last couple of years — most notably, NBC’s This Is Us last season and ABC’s The Good Doctor this season — the breakout shows are recent reminders that hits do occasionally happen. “It gives everybody else a reason to wonder,” McNutt said, “if that might happen to them.”

Michael Malone

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.