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'.

FX's highly praised Justified, already renewed for next year, finished its second season with an audience of just over two and a half million viewers.  The budget for a typical cable drama is considerably less than for broadcast networks but as long as it holds its target audience, most cable shows, able to take more creative chances because of their lower costs, can thrive at relatively lower numbers.  Interestingly, this explains the phenomenon of Mad Men, AMC's prestige production which ended its fourth season last year with less than three million viewers.

 

AMC knows that the series about 1960s advertising executives has disproportionate cultural clout because so much of the elite media discuss the show in print and it appeals to an upscale, educated demographic, catnip for advertisers.  (And next season, two broadcast shows set in the same time period, The Playboy Club and Pan-Am, will try to exploit AMC's successful period piece. As radio star Fred Allen said long ago, "imitation is the sincerest form of television").

Once a series has made it into its third season, networks may tolerate less than good ratings as it approaches 88 episodes.  In a TVbytheNumbers blog, ratings analyst Robert Seidman, discussed the importance of achieving that number.   

           "The prevailing Hollywood mindset is that 88 episodes is the minimum number of episodes necessary to be able to "strip" a show in syndication, i.e., run it Monday-Friday at the same time.  All shows, regardless of number of episodes can be sold into syndication, but shows that can be stripped can command higher per-episode pricing.  The magic number for being able to strip a show in syndication used to be ‘100' but at least for the last few years it has been 88."

 Thus, the scales of a show's fate can be tipped toward renewal as a network ponders the continued earning power of an established series both in syndication as well as future video sales.  And if a network owns the series, as ABC owned Lost, they have an even greater stake in the show's successful long term revenues.  Just think how much money the copyright owners of perennially popular classics like I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show have made.

Now, having discussed some, if not all the factors affecting series cancellation,  let's take a brief look at long-running programs that are getting long in the tooth and face the prospect of creative decline and imminent cancelation.  Arising out of the American broadcast practice of exploiting a show's ratings long past its best years, neworks programming depends on formulaic plots, prurient appeals to sex and violence, stunt casting, marriages, births, clip shows, evil twins or any other gimmick to flog a series into at least 22 episodes a year, a demanding schedule which drains many shows of their vitality by the third or fourth season.  (One reason many cable dramas, like TNT's The Closer, or the above mentioned shows continue to garner critical praise and good ratings is that producing a shorter season of usually 13 episodes allows writers to focus on telling the most compelling stories and cultivating complex characters that don't grow stale as fast as broadcast shows.) 

But a seven season show like House M.D., whose title character once intrigued and fascinated viewers, but who, having gone through drug rehab, got together and broken up with girlfriend Cuddy and fallen back into his Vicoden habit, he now irritates more than entertains.  My review last year pondered where House's recovery might take him dramatically; so far, it's been in a circular direction and it's looking like the show has one more season in it.  The series has declined from the ratings of earlier seasons but still soldiered along, last Monday hitting almost nine million viewers but less than half the number of its 8 pm competition, Dancing with the Stars with over 19 million.

 

House will likely continue until ratings really plummet or the actors and producers decide to end it on their own terms since the show long ago hit the episodes needed for syndication and thus has been a revenue generator for Fox.  This also explains another series long past its prime, by at least ten years, another Fox show, the once venerable The Simpsons.  That series' ability to maintain network support, despite its recent season finale audience of six million, demonstrates again the importance of the right demographic appeal and the value of syndication and home video sales.

So, the ratings game continues to affect what we will and won't see.  Commercial television is first of all a business designed to draw eyeballs to ads and until that changes, which is never, prepare to be disappointed by the fate of a favorite show.

*This review first published 5/25/2011