It's happened to you more than once, a favorite new show, or one that you watched since its first season gets canceled after years of enjoyment. 

 

You may write to the network complaining but of course, nothing helps; you and a few million other fans are once again bereft of characters you'd grown to love and look forward to seeing on a weekly basis, more often than you see friends and family members.  And you know there are other shows that stay on the air despite lower ratings than your show got, so what gives?

 

There are no absolute rules for what makes for successful television, except of course maintaining good ratings, but since five broadcast networks and a horde of cable channels must fill many hours of programming, many shows can never maintain viable numbers.  Here are several reasons network executives may cancel or keep shows on their schedules.

 

 

I'll start with a show I reviewed positively this year, The Chicago Code.  Created by veteran producer Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and boasting a strong cast with vivid location shooting, I figured the new cop show was a likely success.  But after a strong start and positive reviews last winter, it maintained only middling ratings and never generated the buzz networks look for to garner attention amidst the competition. 

 

On May 11, Fox announced that Code, along with several other shows including Breaking In, Lie to Me, and Traffic Light were canceled.   Last Monday, the 16th, the show had less than 6 million viewers compared to other crime dramas Hawaii Five-0 at almost ten million and Castle at over 13 million viewers.  And comparing these numbers to CBS' powerhouse NCIS at over 18 million viewers demonstrates how small The Chicago Code's audience was.  

 

 

It's true that networks rarely take the time for a new show to "find its audience," by giving it more than 11 episodes to establish both a focused storyline, character development and the word-of-mouth that will build the number of viewers.  Back in the 1980s, NBC famously stuck with Hill St. Blues, a new police drama with a very large cast and heavily serialized storylines, giving it a full season for viewers to discover it and develop a taste for the new approach which eventually succeeded wildly and which has shaped television storytelling to this day.

 

But the competitive pressures in today's television marketplace make such patience a rarity—shows must be impressive out of the gate.  In the old days, before the proliferation of cable channels that started in the 80s, a popular show could get 25 million viewers; now, only talent contests like American Idol reach those kinds of numbers.  The pie slices are smaller for everyone these days. 

But it's not just raw audience numbers that determines a show's survival, it's the kind of audience that watches, namely the oft-cited 18-49-year old demographic that advertisers believe haven't locked onto their product choices and therefore are more desirable than older viewers with more money.  This explains why the CW network, targeting young women, can tolerate less than two million viewers for its long-running series, One Tree Hill, just renewed for another season.  A niche broadcaster that can deliver such a specific audience to advertisers doesn't need CBS-size numbers.  This especially applies to the many cable channels with series ratings well below some networks'.