Watching Shows You Know Won’t Last

The broadcast networks will officially unveil their 2014-2015 schedules this week at their annual upfront presentations in New York City (NBC has already released its schedule) and late last week announced which current shows will be returning and which have been cancelled. For fans of the cancelled series, the mourning period has begun. You can find a complete list here.

There are a lot of new obscurities on the list of cancelled shows. Some premiered back in September, others at mid-season and there are even a few spring tryouts that debuted in the past month or so (Bad Teacher premiered on CBS on April 24th and was officially cancelled on May 10th).

Are Viewers Refusing To Watch New Shows?

Reading about all of the cancellations and pickups over the past few days got me to thinking about how now, more than ever before, there are some shows that never have a chance. They’re all but assured to be quickly cancelled and become new obscurities. Case in point this season: FOX’s Surviving Jack.

For the majority of you reading this who didn’t watch it and probably haven’t even heard of it, Surviving Jack was a sitcom that premiered on Thursday, March 27th. The show was given the post-American Idol time slot, which these days means next to nothing, and doesn’t appear to have received much promotion. In other words, it was doomed from the start and that was reflected in the ratings, which were low and led FOX to cancel the series. Eight episodes were produced but only seven have aired. Did viewers not tune in because they weren’t aware of the show, weren’t interested in watching it or because they felt it wasn’t worth getting invested in a show that wasn’t going to last?

(For the record, I watched every episode of Surviving Jack on FOX and thought the show was hilarious.)

Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that there is the belief among some viewers that the rate of quick cancellations has been increasing over the past few years. Heavily serialized dramas, particularly those with science-fiction or fantasy elements, tend to attract hardcore fans who are understandably upset when their favorite new shows end on a cliffhanger. With every cancellation without resolution, are these viewers less inclined to tune in to the next high concept drama? With every procedural or sitcom cancelled after three or four episodes, are more casual viewers learning to think twice before sampling new shows?

Likewise, are savvy viewers waiting to see how new shows fare in the Nielsen ratings before deciding whether or not to tune in? Social media has made it easier and faster than ever for fans to learn how their favorite shows did in the ratings. There seem to be more and more websites reporting ratings these days as well. So are people recording the first few episodes of a new show on their DVR, waiting to hear how it is performing, and deleting the episodes without watching them if the show’s early ratings aren’t good. Once again, anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that even casual viewers are starting to do this.

And yet, even with all the quick cancellations and one season wonders, there have been many shows over the past four or five years with very low ratings that have been renewed rather than cancelled. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable for low-rated shows like Community, The Goldbergs, The Mindy Project or Hannibal to stay on the air for a full season, let alone multiple seasons. But these are the shows being renewed time and time again. So what are viewers to think? Do they stick with a low-rated new show because even with low ratings it might get renewed? Or do they give up because it won’t last and it’s not worth getting invested?

A Recent Phenomenon

The vicious cycle of networks cancelling low-rated shows because not enough viewers are watching and viewers not watching new shows because too many of them are quickly cancelled for being low-rated isn’t new, although it may have accelerated in the past decade or so. Long before that, the networks were regularly pulling new shows at mid-season due to low ratings. But until the 1970s, it was relatively unusual for a new show to be cancelled after only a few episodes.

One early example was Doc Corkle, which aired on NBC for just three weeks in October 1952 before it was cancelled. When ABC canned The Tammy Grimes Show after only four episodes in September 1966 it was a big deal because it was such a quick cancellation.

For those who were around in the 1960s and 1970s and watching television, did you ever decide not to watch a new show because you didn’t think it would last? There weren’t a lot of viewing options in those days. If you weren’t watching ABC, CBS or NBC and you were lucky you could watch an educational or independent station. Or nothing at all.

Take my very favorite obscurity, ABC’s The New People. It had the misfortune of facing both Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC and Here’s Lucy on CBS — two of the most popular shows on television at the time — when it premiered in September 1969. It also had an unusual time slot, running from 8:15-9PM, which certainly didn’t help. Assuming that watching it was an option, meaning somebody else wasn’t controlling the remote, were there people who thought maybe it looked interesting but decided not to watch it because of its competition? I doubt it, to be honest, but who knows.

Hit the comments with your thoughts. Have you ever not watched a new show because you knew it would be cancelled? If so, was it within the past five years or a long time ago?

10 Comments

  • Patrick Murtha says:

    I wonder if my solution to this is unusual, or becoming more ordinary. I only watch series on DVD or Blu-ray. I have no problem with watching a series that was canceled before its time, as long as it received a good press and is available on disc. I find it is so much cleaner to absorb series this way. I don’t have to worry about missing an episode; I don’t have to remember to set the DVR. With respect to “unsuccessful” series, I can be sure of seeing everything without having to worry about episodes that were never aired, burned off in odd time slots or online, etc. Jason Smilovic’s “Kidnapped” (2006) is a superb example of a series whose broadcasting was mishandled in every possible way, but is supremely enjoyable as a box set.

    I haven’t had cable TV for ten years; I have lived out of the country for the past four. I don’t have Netflix streaming either (tried it, hated the glitches). My TV set, with an all-region DVD player and a Blu-ray player attached, is used solely for watching discs of movies and TV series. I don’t feel entertainment-deprived; instead, I feel that my viewing life is streamlined. It is true that I have to buy discs of what I want to watch, and therefore have a large physical collection, but I like that.

    • David says:

      I also still purchase DVD sets of TV series. I do not purchase them too often any longer, as most of the series that I want I have already purchased. However, there are a few that are not complete yet, and I purchase new seasons as they are released. I also record series via my DVR, and I have a Netflix account as well as an Amazon Prime account. I am not that enamored with Amazon Prime, because very little seems to be viewable as part of the package. So many series or movies that I want to watch via their system cost $1.99 or $2.99. Most of what I want to watch on Amazon Prime that is included in the annual fee I have already watched, so I might not renew it. Netflix streaming is pretty good, but there is only a fraction of what is on DVD available for streaming. Also, one drawback to that is that movies or TV series can come and go, depending on license agreements, etc. I was working my way through one series, and then one night it was not available any longer. Having a favorite series on DVD means I can watch it on my TV in the living room or the bedroom (the bedroom TV has a built-in DVD player, but it is not hooked up to the streaming services). I also do not have to worry that halfway through it will no longer be available. I know that streaming seems to be the way of the future, but until everything that is on DVD is available on all the different systems, with no guarantee that they will be deleted from those systems with no advance warning, DVD is still a desirable format.

  • Bob says:

    1. 18-49 Demo numbers
    +
    2. DVR playback numbers
    =
    3. Advertising Dollars
    5. Social Media Buzz/Trendings
    4. A Network Owned Program
    6. Ratings ( Not a Major Factor Anymore)

  • Troy Lee Turner says:

    This does become a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while, and it’s our own fault as a TV-watching public. We know too much, therefore we expect too much. The element of letting a show “grow on us” is gone, by and large

  • Philip says:

    You’re optimistic to think many households had a remote TO control back in the fall of nineteen-hundred-and-sixty-nine! That marvel was scarce around our place until the ’80s, and it appeared by virtue of a cable box rather than as an accessory of a television! Having to get up and turn the dial on the console was a huge deterrent to channel-surfing in days of yore, though the task was often assigned to eager kids (such as me) who were strategically positioned near the TV in hopes of being utilized as a human remote. Incidentally, if we human remotes deigned to exercise our own free will in channel changing, it could be hell to pay. I found this out the hard way in an ill-timed twist of the dial during one of the Apollo missions. The instantaneous rage registered by every single adult in the room was something out of a horror movie, and I was scarred for life.

    • Troy Lee Turner says:

      The first remote that I recall was on a Zenith model we had around 71-72

      • Philip says:

        For years the remote was oh-so-remote, something I’d see at a friend or a relative’s house! I could take some solace in the fact that we were the only family I ever knew of to have a SONY Sun Set, a portable black and white TV with a giant rechargeable battery pack and an adapter for the car cigarette lighter! TV on the go and always on the road in family car trips! That appeared under our Christmas tree around 1969 or 1970, and it was still working until the early ’80s. Not a bad trade off for missing all those years of remote control bliss!

  • Mitchell H says:

    Answering your question, when I watched TV in the 60s and early 70s I don’t remember consciously thinking about cancellation when deciding what to watch. Being a naive kid through many of those years, I think I was always surprised when a show I watched, even if it was in the “certain death” timeslot, wound up getting cancelled. Later, when I was more sophisticated about my viewing, I let my personal likes and dislikes determine what I watched – take “Police Squad” for example. It was fairly obvious to me that a show like that was too smart for television, and yet I would never have not watched it just because it was destined for a short run. I don’t watch that much new TV today – mostly the old series on DVD – so my thoughts might be somewhat different, but I’m still inclined to give something a shot if I think it looks interesting.

    • Troy Lee Turner says:

      I was a fan of Police Squad like yourself, and I agree that the Profft/Abrams humor was too broad for the small screen, but I remember ABC giving it two or three chances to stick (mostly due to the popularity of the Airplane/Naked Gun movie series)-but it could have just been the one chance. Can anyone here clear this up?

  • Wiseguy70005 says:

    ABC showed only four episodes out of six before removing it from the schedule in March of 1982 (not sure if it was officially canceled at this point); the final two episodes were shown in July after which it was definitely canceled (at least three of the episodes were rerun in July and September 1982). A&E reran the series in the late 1980′s (possibly around the time of the first movie) and at the time of the release of the second movie, CBS reran the series in the summer of 1991. Comedy Central has since aired the reruns.

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