The Yuletide holiday is still a few weeks away, but we’ve already witnessed a miracle on television—and I’m not talking about the annual airing of It’s a Wonderful Life. Instead, we find ourselves at the fall 2015-16 midseason point and there have been virtually no cancellations of any new TV shows by any of the major networks. Sure, a few of the shows that have outlived their usefulness (“CSI,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “American Idol”) are being put out to pasture, but as far as the freshman crop goes, ABC’s retro-style crime saga “Wicked City” has the distinction of being not only the first new show of the season to be canceled, but the only new show of the season to be officially removed from the lineup.
ABC’s ’80s-set drama about serial killers on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles was pulled by the network after three airings. It premiered on Oct. 27 to mediocre ratings (3.3 million viewers) and cut that number in half by the time mid-November rolled around. So it’s no surprise the network yanked it from the schedule and replaced it with “Shark Tank” reruns. But why have so many other shows held on? ... Trust me, it’s not because this is the most awesome season of television ever aired.
Broadcast network executives, scared of everything from cable to Netflix to DVRs have been reluctant to get rid of any new show on the theory that maybe it really is a hit and the ratings just haven’t figured out how and when people are watching it. The fact is very few people do watch TV shows on the night of their premiere. DVRs allow people to “timeshift” when they watch shows. Or they can turn to the internet. Or “on demand” satellite/cable. Or they can go to hulu.com. All this widening of the viewing options makes it hard for networks to judge just how many eyes there actually are on their shows.
In the past couple of years, Nielsen—the industry standard for ratings—has shifted focus to what’s known as “Live Plus” ratings. Live Plus 3, for example, takes into account how many people watch a show on the night of its premiere and up to three days later. Live Plus 7 calculates how many viewers catch it in the first week of release. When L7 ratings are figured in, ratings for shows can jump by as much as 50 percent among adults 18 to 49.
So, instead of strangling shows that are potential hits in their cribs, network executives are starting to take a different tack—scaling back on the number of episodes they order in a season. If a show only lasts eight episodes, the financial risk in its cancellation is low. And if it does take off, you can always order more.
Rickety shows like FOX’s “Minority Report” have already seen their total number of episodes trimmed this season. “Minority Report” hasn’t shown up on the schedule beyond this month, meaning it might a de facto cancellation. But the network hasn’t said one way or the other. ABC’s “Blood & Oil” and NBC’s “The Player” seem to be in similar situations: in the doghouse, but not officially kicked out. Only time (and some complex ratings calculations) will tell if they return. But we may be looking at the new normal for TV—an end to the annual “dead pool” and the introduction of the “comatose pool.”