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The end of Girls tells us a lot about how TV cancellations are changing

Or consider how CBS seems poised to cancel two fairly successful shows for one strange reason.

Girls is ending in 2017. We know that already in 2016.
Girls is ending in 2017. We know that already in 2016.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

We think we know how TV cancellations work.

A network realizes that a show's ratings aren't where they should be, and it pulls the plug. Often that happens right away — after a few episodes. Sometimes a show lasts a full season and then quietly disappears. And in very rare cases, a show runs for multiple seasons but is canceled before its cast and crew are ready for it to end.

Historically, the vast majority of TV shows have been canceled at or before the end of their second seasons. Once a series gets past that hump, it's easier to see the promise of syndication (and the money it can bring) at the end of season four or five, so they tend to run that long.

However, the way cancellations work is slowly but surely changing. Shows that would have been axed after two or three episodes even a couple of years ago are running for full seasons — or longer — before networks pull the plug. Shows are still being canceled, but they're being canceled in myriad new ways, some of which you may not be aware of. Just ask HBO's Girls, which has essentially scheduled a cancellation for 2017 — one that both network and creative personnel have agreed upon.

Here are five of the ways shows are canceled in this day and age.

1) The old-fashioned way, like Wicked City

Wicked City on ABC. Ed Westwick.
Remember Wicked City? Probably not, because you didn't watch it.


It's not happening nearly as often as it used to, but shows are still being canceled when their ratings are simply so disastrous that they can't run any longer.

This past fall, such a fate befell ABC's Wicked City, whose third episode pulled only 1.69 million viewers and a 0.4 rating in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic that advertisers love (higher numbers are better, as you'd expect). The serial killer drama had already been mostly ignored, and the drop-off in episode three — after an already low debut — suggested things would never improve.

And so it became the fall's first outright cancellation, even if it took until November for any of the major broadcast networks to get rid of one of their new shows.

2) The network cuts the episode order, as happened to Minority Report

Minority Report
Minority Report lasted on the air for 10 episodes before being quietly shuffled away.

The ratings for Fox's recent adaptation of Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie were similarly disastrous, but because Fox is in such dire shape, Minority Report's low but predictable numbers were actually preferable to rolling the dice on something new that might perform even more poorly. However, the network wasn't going to order any more seasons of the show, so rather than pay for the 13 episodes it had initially asked for, the network cut Minority Report's episode count to 10. That minimized the network's financial risk, while still giving it a "dependable" performer to air on Monday nights.

This has happened to a lot of the new shows that debuted this past fall. Their networks don't have to say they're canceled, and they'll get to finish their shortened runs — and then they'll be quietly shuffled offstage come May, when the new fall schedules are announced.

Occasionally, this can happen to entire seasons, too. HBO renewed its summer comedy The Brink for a second season, before deciding a few months later that it didn't actually want more of the show and canceling it after the fact.

3) The network just doesn't order any more episodes

Bastard Executioner
The Bastard Executioner just didn't have any more episodes ordered.

This is a variation on cutting a show's episode order where the episode order simply remains unchanged. The network airs all of a show's episodes in the show's regular time slot, even though ratings are terrible, but then it never picks up any more, and the show dies when everyone's contracts expire.

This is how many cable networks prefer to cancel shows. All of the episodes will air, and then a few weeks after the season is over, the show is discreetly canceled. (A recent exception to this is FX's The Bastard Executioner, which was canceled, very loudly, in an announcement published in a Hollywood trade.) Fans may be left wondering whether there were ever any more episodes, but this is generally seen as a kinder sort of cancellation — after all, the show got a full season (or even two) to prove itself.

This process works a little differently on network TV. Broadcast networks usually order 13 episodes of a new show, and then if it performs well they'll pick up another nine episodes, for a total of 22. But shows might air all 13 episodes of their original order without getting the so-called "back nine" pickup, and that serves as a de facto cancellation, too. (The CW appears to be doing this with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a low-rated, critically acclaimed series that only earned five additional episodes, instead of the full the back nine and, thus, seems unlikely to be renewed for a second season.) Networks may even pick up a full 22-episode season, simply to have a predictable underperformer to air in a certain time slot all season long, then never order another season.

4) The network declines to renew a show's contract, as might be happening with Mike & Molly

Mike & Molly
Mike & Molly has run six seasons on CBS. It may run no more.

This is by far the strangest form of cancellation — and one that is sadly becoming more common (or, at least, fans knowing about it is becoming more common). All TV shows are produced by a studio and then purchased by a network. The network collects most of a show's ad revenue; the studio usually collects the rest of the money the show makes, from opportunities like DVD sales, foreign sales, Netflix streaming deals, and more.

However, it's becoming more common for networks to be part of the corporations that produce the shows in the first place. Marvel Television, for instance, produces Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which airs on ABC. Disney owns both ABC and Marvel, so all of the money the show generates ultimately goes to the same place.

What's happening now is that with shows where that's not the case because they're produced by outside studios (a still somewhat typical business arrangement), networks are often leaving them out in the cold after several seasons on the air, even if they draw good ratings. And frequently, the cancellation isn't forthrightly announced by anyone, or the network might go down to the wire on renegotiating its contract with the studio.

For two examples, look at CBS's Mike & Molly and Person of Interest, in their sixth and fifth seasons, respectively. Both shows are produced by Warner Bros. Both shows have long been steady performers for their networks. And both are being pushed aside to make space for shows produced by a CBS corporate partner. Indeed, Mike & Molly just started airing its sixth season, and Person of Interest's fifth season remains on the shelf, ordered and produced but with no air date announced.

The main difference now is that the only reason fans know these shows are likely dead is through the series' cast, which has announced via social media (in Mike & Molly's case) or at conventions (in Person of Interest's case) that the studio has told them the network is unlikely to order more episodes. No cancellations have been officially announced. Technically, CBS could activate its contracts with the shows at the absolute last minute and order more episodes of either or both — it just seems unlikely to do so.

5) The network announces when a show will end, as just happened with Girls

Girls will end after its sixth season in 2017.

Technically speaking, HBO canceled Girls in early 2016, before its fifth season started to air. But the show won't actually end until 2017, when its sixth season will air. What the network is doing is something increasingly popular, especially on cable — announcing an end date that's at least a year away, to create the impression that a show will form a "complete set" of seasons for future viewers who catch up on streaming and DVD.

Girls was never a huge performer for HBO, struggling to top 1 million viewers per episode. It stayed on the air thanks to critical acclaim, award nominations, and some unknown number of viewers who watched it on the network's various streaming platforms. Plus, the cost of most TV shows starts to increase substantially after season five or six, when actors start to renegotiate their contracts for more pay. Thus, it's in HBO's best interests to end Girls with season six.

But it's also in the best interests of the show itself. Instead of simply petering out, Lena Dunham's comedy will have a chance to conclude with a finale that will hopefully be properly foreshadowed and plotted. And a good ending can mean the difference between a show that becomes an all-time favorite and one that slowly fades from memory.

In some ways, the future of TV lies in the idea of being able to sell shows to streaming services and other new media platforms as "entire series" that tell full, satisfying stories. Breaking Bad will probably be on streaming forever (and at top dollar) because it's perhaps the ultimate example of this — and it will always appeal to new generations of viewers.

Essentially, anytime a cable series draws huge critical acclaim but low viewership, you now have solid hopes for it to get to season five or six, and to have a lot of time to come to a planned, satisfying ending. (The best current example of this might be FX's The Americans, which is just about to begin its fourth season.) Chances are the show's studio has found a way to barely cover its immediate production costs in hopes of reaping bigger rewards somewhere down the line.

Correction: The original version of this article stated Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had received no additional episodes. It has received an order for five more, though not a full back nine.

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