Fox’s “Minority Report” has fizzled in the ratings. So has ABC’s nighttime soap “Blood & Oil,” as well as NBC’s crime drama “The Player” and its sitcom “Truth Be Told.”
Not so long ago, all of these shows would likely have been canceled. But all four are still on the schedule, as is every other network show that debuted this fall.
This year, the TV season has stretched into November without a single new title consigned to the rubbish heap — something that industry watchers say hasn’t happened since the early 1950s.
In this modern era, it is very unlikely for one program to get an order of 26 episodes. Orders are usually five to 10 to a dozen episodes.
The absence of cancellations is another sign of the tectonic shifts underway in the television industry. Thanks to digital recording and streaming, millions of viewers no longer watch shows when they are first telecast — making network executives reluctant to kill a program that may be quietly building an audience that’s not being counted by traditional ratings.
Studio executives are “being really careful how they’re talking about shows that aren’t performing that well in the fall because they don’t want to cut their nose off to spite their face,” said Tom Nunan, a TV and film producer and former executive who now teaches at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
“They may actually have a real gem that was just on the wrong network, scheduled on the wrong day and wasn’t marketed properly that might actually have a life somewhere else if they’re thoughtful about it,” he said.
Another factor: Streaming services such as Netflix and Yahoo have shown willingness to grab programming castoffs in a bid to raise their own profile, making network executives doubly reluctant to hand over what could be a hit to one of their competitors.
After NBC in 2014 canceled its quirky comedy “Community,” for example, Yahoo lavished millions of dollars to relaunch the series this year with original episodes. (The show did not produce a happy ending for Yahoo, however, as executives last month partly blamed “Community” for a $42-million writedown.) Hulu picked up Fox’s canceled sitcom “The Mindy Project” earlier this year.
So instead of networks canceling shows outright, a new strategy has emerged — cutting the number of episodes, which happened with “Minority Report,” “The Player,” “Blood & Oil” and “Truth Be Told.”
“The order reductions we are seeing are largely financial decisions, [with networks] trying to get some air time filled with the originally programmed shows but without long-term commitments,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University in Indiana.
Developing a television series is an expensive proposition, and network executives now have added incentives to take their time before flushing away their investment.
“Some of the basic cable channels might reduce their own development slates and just wait for shows to fall out from big networks and just take their second pickings,” Nunan said. “Why not let them take all the risk with regards to development?”
A peek at the ratings data shows just how treacherous it has become to analyze a prime time show’s performance.
ABC’s new FBI drama “Quantico” has drawn an impressive average audience of 11.1 million, with 43% of those viewers watching the show up to seven days after the original telecast, according to Nielsen (advertisers pay only for viewers who watch within the first three days). If one examined only the overnight ratings after each episode premiered, “Quantico” might look like a dud.
Of course, delayed ratings can help only so much. “Blood & Oil,” which saw its episode order cut to 10 from 13, draws nearly one-third of its audience from viewing after premiere night. Still, with a total audience of fewer than 7 million, the show starring former “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson is a long way from a hit, at least by the standards of an expensive prime time drama.
The rite of fall cancellations is nearly as old as commercial TV itself. It’s tied to the September to May regular season that dates back to the late 1940s and was copied from radio broadcasting. For decades, programmers have ordered 13 episodes for the fall launch. If the series performed well, the producers would get a “back 9" — the order for additional episodes that would round out the full season.
Now, that entire system is crumbling.
Year-round premieres on cable and streaming networks are forcing broadcasters to adapt to a similar schedule. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are likewise mimicking the cable networks by ordering full seasons that consist only of between nine and 13 episodes — an approach long favored by British and other overseas broadcasters.
“The consumer no longer goes to the three networks to see what’s on the air. They use their DVR and streaming to see whatever they want whenever they want to,” said Joe Saltzman, professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“In this modern era, it is very unlikely for one program to get an order of 26 episodes,” Saltzman said. “Orders are usually five to 10 to a dozen episodes. And if the show hits, such as ‘Empire,’ the studio or network can order up a new batch of episodes, promote them and put them on whenever they want to.”
Fox’s sci-fi thriller “Lookinglass” saw its order cut even though the show isn’t due to premiere until January. The network declined to comment, but insiders say executives closely examined the schedule for the second half of the season and realized they didn’t need the extra episodes.
The industry is in a flux that makes predictions difficult, but many experts say it’s possible that in the future almost no producer will get a “your show is canceled” call. Instead, they will get an order for a few episodes — and if those don’t perform, the phone just won’t ring again.
The traditional fall launch “makes no sense whatsoever,” Nunan said, pointing to the high costs and inefficiencies of dumping dozens of new shows into a crowded marketplace all at once.
“I’m not sure that just because a show fails on the fall on the broadcast that that equals failure,” he said.