Once upon a time, there was thing called the television season. Shows typically premiered in early fall, would break for the holiday season, then pick back up and conclude their respective seasons some time before Memorial Day. It was predictable, but it worked.
Netflix, Hulu and peak-era cable networks like AMC and FX have certainly changed the game. Audiences now have instant access to any number of original programs with the click of a button. Some shows now premiere and thrive during the summer, a season once reserved for reruns rather than original content. Hell, the thought of a network airing reruns at this point is almost comical.
So, yeah, the TV game has changed a bit. And yet, many networks — particularly the major ones — still attempt to adhere to the September-May schedule that allows them to promote their shows via “up-fronts” that cater to advertisers and generate a little media buzz before the upcoming season.
In fact, the upfronts are going on this week; Turner and CBS will be rolling out their lineups today, and the CW will wrap up the week tomorrow. May tends to mark the time when television networks bring out the hatchet and cancel underperforming shows from the previous season. That’s what happened recently with when the Big Four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) axed a ton of programming, as did networks like the CW and AMC, along with Netflix and Hulu.
A number of these shows never had a chance, while others had potential but perhaps fell victim to poor casting or show-running. Hell, a number of the shows cancelled ran for a good while before the law of diminishing returns kicked in and the axe came down.
But what did we learn from the recent spate of cancellations? More importantly, what lessons can networks learn from the most recent round of cuts? Or is the traditional model of network television simply broken beyond repair?
FIND A FORMULA
Just as it once did with CSI – and the many CSI spin-offs – CBS has again cornered the commercial market with NCIS and its two spinoffs – one in Los Angeles, another in New Orleans. These programs are fairly formulaic, but CBS knows that for all the critical love shone upon shows with far more buzz and far fewer viewers, a sizable audience out there likes its shows fairly predictable. Now NBC has gotten in the game with its Chicago Fire/Med/P.D. triumvirate (Chicago Justice likely isn’t so lucky, based on recent reports), which has brought a little steadiness to a network that once ruled the roost and is again beginning to show signs of life. In short, find a formula. If it hits, spin it off. It’s worked for a number of cinematic superhero franchise adaptations, and for the most part, it works for TV.
CRITICAL LOVE ONLY TAKES YOU SO FAR
Networks like HBO and content providers like Netflix can take a risk on a critically adored but little-watched program. It helps when you have behemoths like Game of Thrones and House of Cards in your stable – programs which people pay for the privilege of viewing – to help offset the ratings book. However, when it comes to more traditional network programming, critical buzz and adoration can only take a show so far. NBC had to strike a partnership with DirectTV to keep Friday Night Lights on the air at one point. Even Fox let go of Arrested Development after three seasons of low ratings, and that third season feels kind in hindsight. (Further proving the point, the series was eventually revived by Netflix, and another season is reportedly on the way.) This past TV season was no exception; critics raved over Fox’s Pitch, which told the story of the first woman to play Major League Baseball. The show – which, to be frank, was damn good – never capitalized on that goodwill and was cancelled after its initial 10-episode run. Proof, once again, that network TV exists to make money, not serve niche audiences.
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SOMETIMES A BAD IDEA IS JUST A BAD IDEA
Television is littered with a host of bad ideas. Hell, some of them even hit for a short while (remember Dinosaurs?). But, on the whole, audiences get wise to a show’s potential before it even hits the air. They may not determine if it will be any good, but they can likely determine whether it has no chance of being good. This explains past drivel like Cop Rock, Cavemen, $#*! My Dad Says, pretty much anything starring Eric Balfour. This year’s prime example was ABC’s Imaginary Mary, which starred Jenna Elfman as a woman who is revisited by her childhood imaginary friend, who serves as a life coach of sorts. Shenanigans and hijinks ensue. What didn’t ensue, however, were ratings; Imaginary Mary was recently axed after one abbreviated season, proving once again that if a television show sounds that dumb on paper, it will likely translate just as poorly to the small screen.
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It's over, America, it’s just over.