Tim Goodman: How to Not Get Canceled in the New World of Television

The third-season renewals of 'Halt and Catch Fire' and 'Tyrant' reiterate the changing nature of the game and provide one possible template for how to survive 'Peak TV.'
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

There was a great moment that encapsulated a lot of television feelings last week at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where I was moderating a panel that featured Christopher C. Rogers, co-creator, writer and executive producer of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.

AMC, which renewed the series Thursday, had told Rogers that it was going to make a decision at any moment. What if he got the call right when we were in the session? That’s when Simon Davis Barry, creator and writer of Continuum, the Syfy series now closing out its four-season run, urged Rogers to keep his phone not only on during the session, but right on the table in front of us for everyone to anxiously monitor, live. The packed house in Vancouver naturally thought that was a great idea. The audience was vociferously encouraged a few minutes later by the final panelist, Fargo executive producer (and legendary NBC entertainment president) Warren Littlefield, to get on Twitter and be the tipping point for AMC.

It was one of those moments in the unpredictable, often insane world of television where for a moment everybody was pretty damned happy about their role in it. Barry was able to close out his drama on his terms, story-wise — increasingly uncommon these days — and he’s now partnered with Littlefield on his next project. I had just finished writing a glowing review of the second season of Fargo (which starts Monday) and let Littlefield in on that just moments before the panel started. And Rogers felt confident that whatever way AMC went, he’d done the best job he could have as a writer to not only tell a compelling story but give fans of the show something close to closure if it came to that.

But as I said to Rogers during the panel, he’d accomplished something rare that he should be proud of — he turned Halt and Catch Fire into a series that, when given a second chance, delivered on its promise, greatly improved and sparked a lot of (additional) critical acclaim.

While the Platinum Age of television keeps delivering superior quality, more and more shows are getting lost in the glut and even though second chances are coming to cable series in ways they’re not for network series, getting a renewal still means you have to do something with that gift.

What Rogers and co-creator Chris Cantwell did on Halt was fine-tune the story, shift some emphasis on plotlines and actors and wound up with an acclaimed second act that, while not increasing the audience much, increased the value of the series.

In some ways, Halt and Catch Fire and now perhaps Tyrant, the FX series that was also renewed Thursday for its third season, are poster-shows for the new world order in television and the unfamiliar landscape all the players in it are navigating.

The era of “Too Much Television” has forced an industry that has never been adept at change to readjust outdated standards of success and come up with policies for rapid decision-making. You can imagine how well that is going.

For starters, everybody in the TV business has to forever and always lower their expectations and modify the specs of what a success looks like. Empire and The Walking Dead and whatever giant CBS hit is out there are the outliers. Everybody else is dealing with audience and demo ratings that are depressed – flat-lined, really – and cancelation and renewal decisions have to be run through an algorithm that few have devised and even fewer want to believe in or know how to read.

The networks are having the hardest time, naturally, since broadcasting is literally that – making television for the broadest possible audience. All the expectations, financial calculations, analytics and whatnot are hard-wired into a business and production model that still has fingerprints on it from 50 years ago, when networks used to print money on the back lot.

It’s not a system that can fathom what a 1.0 in the demo means other than “should I jump from this building or the higher one across the street?”

On the cable side, where niche channels have existed for ages and where quicker adaption to survival mode in the Platinum Age has occurred, whether to renew a series or not gets run through a whole other kind of cruncher. It certainly helps that AMC owns Halt and Catch Fire and that FX Productions co-owns Tyrant (with Fox 21 TV Studios), which means international sales and streaming rights can help offset costs.

But cable historically has been more patient than networks at letting a series come into its own. Patience is both necessary these days and hard to justify when looking at certain numbers.

Yet as a series completes a season — wholly unwatched, it sometimes seems — its next phase is often about being discovered by bingers on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. It used to be — and in this instance I’m talking about way back when, say three seasons ago — being discovered on another platform after season one was the whole point, so that season two would be the ratings breakout year.

Now, in the so-called “Peak TV” era? The rules changed again.

It’s often about how great you are. Too many excellent shows means nobody has time for a show that’s merely good (and, in some cases, very good). What’s your buzz? People will research your acclaim on the Metacritic or RottenTomatoes websites. They’ll study your grades from AV Club. Those are the metrics available to savvy, time-challenged viewers.

Your show didn’t really pop in season one but you got the renewal — so, did you get better in your second season? Seems like more people are waiting for that level of affirmation — because they absolutely can with all these other choices.

Maybe the new normal for shows like Halt and Catch Fire and Tyrant is that people who opted out or never got pulled in during season one will monitor your second season progress for qualitative improvement and then, after the second season ends and you get a third season renewal, they’ll opt in — third time’s the charm.

Has it really come to that? Apparently. Check back next week as the rules of survival get reposted.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

 

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