Another one bites the dust. On Oct. 25, ABC dropped the ax on Maura Tierney’s The Whole Truth, making it the fourth broadcast-TV drama to be canceled during the first six weeks of the 2010-11 season. (Lone Star, My Generation, and Outlaw share the dubious distinction.) On the flip side, several other shows with mediocre ratings have already been picked up for full seasons. So how does a network decide what makes the cut and what gets tossed in the TV trash bin? And what shows could be dropped next? Read on for answers.
Why do some shows with middling ratings — like Chase and Raising Hope — get saved, while others get canceled?
A number of factors go into a network’s decision to quickly kill a series, like whether a show appears dead on arrival, whether future scripts lack promise, or if the network has something else to put in its place. This pretty much sums up the reason Lone Star was axed after only two episodes: It brought in just 4.1 million viewers in its first week and dropped to 3.2 million in week 2, so Fox — which had Lie to Me waiting in the wings — decided to cut bait. ABC, meanwhile, replaced My Generation with repeats of Grey’s Anatomy, which are performing almost as well as that abominable drama about high school chums. And while NBC nixed the buzz- bereft Outlaw after three episodes (averaging 4.6 million viewers), it’s given Chase — 6.9 million and holding — a full-season pickup. ”Chase looks like it can find an audience if we show patience,” says one NBC insider. ”And we don’t have a lot else to put there.”
A new drama can cost anywhere from $2.5 million to $3.3 million per week to produce, while a comedy runs between $1 mil and $2 mil an episode. (That’s why the networks hedge their bets before the season begins and order only 13 episodes.) Though production companies like 20th Century Fox TV and NBC Universal cover about 70 percent of the financial burden at this stage — they’re the ones purportedly paying stars like Outlaw’s Jimmy Smits close to $125,000 an episode — the networks still cover the marketing costs, like the $8-10 million it likely took to promote Lone Star.
Studios and networks can sometimes suffer staggering financial losses when a show is canceled. How is this good business?
It’s not exactly cheap to shut down a show after only a few weeks: NBC already dropped roughly $20 million on eight episodes of Outlaw — the rest of which it’ll burn off on Saturday nights. (That’s a pretty penny, though some costs were recouped by ads and overseas sales.) But one bona fide hit can make up for a lot of misses. Last season’s breakouts Glee and Modern Family — both of which have already sold in syndication — more than paid for 20th Century Fox’s misfire on Lone Star this year. Meanwhile, the dividends from mammoth hits like ER and Friends continue to make it possible for Warner Bros. to take chances on mediocre performers like Chase. ”You can’t be a volume supplier and not take risks,” notes one studio topper. ”If you are too busy counting the losses, you’ll miss the next great idea.”
So what’s still on the bubble?
At press time, Fox hadn’t announced the fate of Running Wilde, the Keri Russell/Will Arnett show averaging 4.5 million. And NBC has ordered a few extra scripts — but hasn’t committed to more episodes — of Undercovers, the J.J. Abrams drama that’s breaking ground by featuring two black leads but is averaging only 7.5 million fans. When it comes to any new show troubled by low ratings and lack of momentum, ”no amount of promotion will save it,” observes one competing network exec. ”At some point the grieving process has to end, and it’ll be time to make peace.”