Why struggling shows are still on the air

Adriene Hill Nov 6, 2015

Why struggling shows are still on the air

Adriene Hill Nov 6, 2015

Usually, by this point in the fall television season, at least one new network show has been cancelled. 

“Manhattan Love Story” was the first casualty of last year’s fall season, with ABC dumping it four episodes in.  In 2013, “Lucky 7” was yanked after only two episodes. And in 2012, CBS dumped “Made In Jersey” after only two airings.

So, history tells us a show should have gotten the ax by now. Critics do too; they’ve written some joyfully scathing reviews of the season’s new shows. 

But networks are showing a little patience.

“I think the metric has changed,” said Warren Littlefield, the executive of FX’s “Fargo,” and former president of NBC Entertainment.

He said a show used to live or die on the ratings that came out the day after it aired, but now studio executives and advertisers look at the numbers over a few days — or even a week. They pay attention to how a show does online and what kind of buzz it’s getting.

“For me it’s a sea change of trying to pound that into my brain,” said Littlefield, “I spent 20 years at NBC, walking up to overnights, waiting for nationals.” 

It’s not just ratings and the way we watch that are changing the cancellation calendar. In a counter-intuitive twist, the intense competition for our attention has meant even weak shows are given a little longer to catch on. There’s competition for talent and ideas, for this season and next.

Littlefield said being quick to dump a show is no way for a network to endear itself to a future Shonda Rhimes.

“The notion that you’ve spent a year on something and it’s on one week and canceled the next is no way to bring the creative community to your doorstep,” Littlefield said.

It’s also no way to make the studio bean counters happy. 

“It’s much, much more expensive to market a show and break through the noise than it has been in the past,” said Tom Nunan, a lecturer at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. 

Nunan said networks spend as much as $20 million to advertise a new show, and most of that money is already out the door. 

“As far as the fall campaign goes, over 75 percent of the marketing spend will go into the lead up and the launch of the show itself.” 

The first high-profile cancellation will come.  Low performers “Blood & Oil”, “Truth Be Told” and “Minority Report” have all had their episode orders cut back. 

“That’s French for ‘you will get cancelled soon,’” Nunan said.

Just not as soon as in years past.

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