Television

Quick, Before It's Gone: Should Networks Cancel Shows Early?

When broadcast networks rapidly cancel new shows, it undermines their own efforts to reach out to audiences and make quality programming.

At one time the list of shows that had been cancelled by the broadcast networks after just one primetime airing was a very short—not to mention, very dubious—list. For many, many years, it was a list that consisted of 1969’s Turn On (a bawdy Laugh In-like sketch series on ABC) and 1979’s Co-Ed Fever (a rowdy sitcom from CBS). But as the networks have faced far greater competition from newer networks (like FOX), from cable and, now, from services like Netflix, this “one-and-done” list has begun to multiply rapidly.

Since the early 1990’s we’ve added: CBS’s South of Sunset in 1993, Public Morals in 1996, Lawless in 1997, Dot Comedy in 2000, The Will in 2005, Emily’s Reasons Why Not in 2006, and QuarterLife in 2008, among others.

Meanwhile, numerous shows these days get the ax after just one or two airings. For example, in 2007, CBS pulled Viva Laughlin after just two episodes.

Considering the continuing assault on network viewership numbers by so many new outside factors, and our own collective, rapidly diminishing attention spans, it doesn’t seem like this list is going to stop or slow down anytime soon.

So far this fall season -- as of this writing, at least -- the big four networks haven’t killed off any of their news series. (Though, of course, not all of the new series have premiered yet.)

More cancellations are coming. Often, for the networks, these fast cancellations are the height of hypocrisy. As they gear up for the new fall season, the nets boast endlessly in their ads of the Stunning Quality of this new series or that new series only to, two or three weeks later, unceremoniously yank it from the line-up as if to say, “You’re right. This was a complete piece of crap. What were we thinking?”

It’s a completely unsentimental business these days, vastly different from how the (then) big (then) three networks used to operate.

Case in point: the mid-'60s NBC series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E, a spin-off of the far better known The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Though the series did well in the ratings when it debuted on September 13, 1966, its viewing numbers soon steadily declined. By November, the series was ranking a distant third in its timeslot. The show ended the season ranking 69th, a then low, low number when only 75 or so shows were on then on the air. But, the point is, it did end the season. Despite its ever-decreasing numbers, NBC left it on the air until April of 1967, when it had completed its run of 29 original episodes. Such patience and indulgence now, shown by the networks, in regard to a show getting such low Nielsens, is practically unheard of.

In more recent years, the networks have only been showing patience for lower-rated programs if they have great demographics and/or overwhelming critical acclaim. NBC made great use of this tactic in the '80s when they stuck with shows like Hills Street Blues and Cheers until public attention matched their critical response. It was a patience the Peacock Network also employed -- eventually to amazing success -- with the debut of Seinfeld.

Would such nurturing be allowed today?

To some extent, FOX has hung with The Mindy Project despite its middling ratings and NBC showed great faith in Community until they decided to finally give up the ghost on that one.

Still, the act of quick cancellation by the networks is becoming more and more the norm. With this practice, the networks are no doubt trying to save face, cut their losses and, probably, show how “with it” they are--able to reverse and try a new track as quick and canny as any of their cable competitors.

But increasingly, quick cancellations are undermining the networks’s own search for viewers. With so many new series biting the dust so soon after they debut, it seems to ward off viewers’s willingness to try something new. This seems especially true in regard to many of the hour-long dramas now making it onto the air. The overwhelming majority of them these days are deeply serialized in nature and demand an investment from the viewer from episode one (Gotham, anyone?).

We’ve all faced the sheer soul-crushing disappointment of having our favorite show killed off. What is even worse, however, is to see a new show we have just made time for, incorporated into our viewing, and gotten invested in have the rug swept out from under it.

While even in the world of TV it might be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, it’s still frustrating to commit to a new series only to see it die a premature death after only two or three episodes. But that’s what you risk these days with so many quick cancellations, that feeling of “Why’d I even bother?”

Therefore: Am I the only viewer that doesn’t want to get involved until I know “my show” is going to be around for a while?

With the staggering glut of new shows that are now starting every fall, (as we now not only have the four networks to contend with but a plethora of basic- and pay-cable series vying for our viewing) choosing to become attached or addicted to a new series is a dicier undertaking than ever before. Everything it seems has a much greater chance of ending rather than sticking around. So, again, why bother?

It seems that, considering the new world that networks have found themselves in, it behooves them to actually stand by their product and allow it to be fully sampled before too many potential viewers shy away from it from the get-go (or even before the “get-go”). It will only be by giving their series, and thereby their viewers, a chance, that the networks can not only build an audience but also survive.

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