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It's been a disastrous fall for new TV shows — yet none have been canceled. Here's why.

ABC's Blood and Oil has terrible, terrible ratings, but it hasn't been pulled from the air yet.
ABC's Blood and Oil has terrible, terrible ratings, but it hasn't been pulled from the air yet.
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.

It's November, and none of the new fall shows have been canceled yet.

Sure, some have been effectively canceled, having had their episode orders cut, which strongly suggests their respective networks won't be ordering any more episodes beyond what they've already agreed to produce. But the shows are still running, in their regular time slots, week after week, and they'll continue to do so until all the episodes they have in the hopper have aired.

This is pretty remarkable. The amount of leeway networks give to shows these days grows more and more substantial with every year. But even in 2014, ABC had canceled the little-loved Manhattan Love Story by the end of October. If you entered a cancellation pool — a contest to predict the first show to get the ax — you must be pretty irritated by now.

So why is this happening? In short, nobody's sure they could do much better.

This has been a terrible fall for new shows

Supergirl fell off substantially between week one and week two.

Nobody was expecting this fall to have as many breakout hits as previous seasons. For one thing, the 2014-'15 TV season was really good, from a broadcast network perspective. Several series, including Black-ish, NCIS: New Orleans, and Empire, performed admirably for their respective networks. It's extraordinarily rare for a strong TV season to be followed by another, because talent pools get depleted.

But the networks' new fall shows this year are, by and large, an awful assortment of stale leftovers and retreads. It's uncommon for these sorts of series to become major hits, and the numbers for fall have reflected that.

Only two series (Blindspot and Supergirl) debuted to truly impressive numbers, and both of those fell off substantially in week two. Meanwhile, other series that debuted with more modest but promising numbers, like The Muppets and Quantico, have seen even larger audience erosions. Viewers haven't completely rejected what the networks have offered up, but they don't seem all that enthused by it either.

That creates a situation in which essentially everybody's in the same boat. Many new shows could easily be canceled outright, but it's not immediately clear that anything put in their place could perform better. Once shows start posting ratings numbers this low, any variance among them becomes so many blips in the data.

Thus, broadcast networks are increasingly operating like cable networks. They'll probably cancel a lot of the low-rated shows, but before they do that, they'll let the shows finish their runs. A lot of the time, a low-rated but predictable number is better than the major expense and inherent unpredictability involved in launching a new show or rushing a midseason entry to the air. That's similar to how cable usually treats low-rated shows, keeping them around for a full season and only canceling them after that season is over.

Of course, the way people watch TV is changing

The cast of Scream Queens
Scream Queens rose substantially when delayed viewing was taken into account.

I probably don't need to tell you that the way people watch TV is changing, and that plays a role in the networks' reluctance to pull the cancellation trigger. Fox has spent a lot of time talking about how its low-rated Scream Queens actually pulls pretty good viewership numbers once DVR and streaming numbers are factored in. Does it matter to the network if those first-run numbers are so bad if the later ones are better?

Yes and no. Advertisers still prefer live viewership, for the most part, because it allows them to get a rough idea of which ads you'll be watching and when. That's changing with the rise of video on demand and streaming platforms that feature ads, but the ideal situation from the advertisers' perspective is still that you're sitting down to watch Empire when it airs, so they can pitch you exactly the product they want to be selling at that moment.

Of course, there are so many different ways for people to consume TV nowadays that networks have additional methods for recouping their investments on shows that don't rate well enough to appeal to advertisers. Fox's Minority Report is a huge bomb — one that won't live past its first season — but the network might be able to make back most of its money in sales overseas or to streaming platforms, if, indeed, it hasn't already.

This means, increasingly, that TV fans trying to read the cancellation tea leaves need to know more and more about arcane business practices and contractual regulations if they want to make even remotely accurate predictions. Is a full season for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The CW's low-rated but critically loved musical comedy, likely? If you're just looking at the numbers, no. They're catastrophic. But once you consider that The CW operates under a weird system where it's required to pick up a certain amount of programming from both CBS and Warner Brothers — the two companies that own it — then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's prospects look brighter. It's from CBS Television, after all, and The CW is lousy with WB programming and not so lousy with CBS shows.

This is not to say that shows won't be canceled — of course they will be. It's just that networks might increasingly wait until series have completed their runs, or even until it's time for the upfront presentations in May, to make those cancellations official. They're not hoping audiences will discover these dead shows walking; they're just looking to stanch the bleeding.