Fall TV's Slow Death March: How "Trimmed" Became the New "Canceled"
Scaling back instead of cutting bait, broadcast networks are letting DOA shows continue thanks to studio synergy and a lack of viable replacements.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
What does it take to get a show canceled these days?
Rather than yank Wesley Snipes' little-watched thriller The Player, NBC on Oct. 23 cut the episode order from 13 to nine. The same day, ABC trimmed Don Johnson's Blood & Oil from 13 episodes to 10. And four days after that, NBC's low-rated comedy Truth Be Told had three episodes slashed. All of it came after an early October move by Fox to chop three episodes from DOA drama Minority Report.
"Trimmed," it seems, is the new "canceled," as the broadcast networks wait on three-, seven- and 30-day viewership numbers to try to breathe life into their otherwise rejected series. Despite the networks' average viewership collectively down 8 percent in the 18-to-49 demo from a year earlier, all five made it to Nov. 3 without outright canceling a freshman show. Rationales vary from patience to desperation (or, many argue, a combination of the two).
"With viewing habits as they are, it's crazy to judge the performance of a show right out of the gate," NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke told THR ahead of the fall season. Agrees another high-ranking network exec: "It's a new world. Everyone wants to hedge their bets because we won't know what the live-plus-7 trend is on these shows." And with more series owned by networks' studio counterparts (all mentioned above but The Player fall into that category), there is reluctance to cut bait. "It's not as black and white as it used to be," adds the exec.
Indeed, in 2010, Fox pulled critical favorite Lone Star after two low-rated episodes. But both drew more total viewers than Minority Report when it premiered Sept. 21. In 2013, ABC's Lucky 7 bowed to a 1.3 demo rating and a week later became the first show of the season to get canceled. On Oct. 16, Truth Be Told opened to a 0.7 — nearly half the Lucky 7 rating.
To be sure, those increasingly-cited DVR numbers require time to compile and analyze. Is Fox's Scream Queens, for example, worth continuing because its low-rated premiere grew 53 percent in adults 18-49 with three days of delayed viewing? Fox chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman have called the horror series a "model for contemporary viewership"; others wonder if such a model is sustainable on broadcast. But with so much lip service paid to the significance of cross-platform or delayed viewing, insiders suggest if can be difficult to simply kill a show before all the numbers come in.
Other issues, including lack of a solid bench, have emerged. Fox, for instance, can't pull Minority Report if it doesn't have a decent replacement, and slapping on a new series is challenging as most shows require time to market and build word of mouth. (And tossing up repeats rarely is an ideal alternative, particularly sincefew genres outside of multi-cam sitcoms rerun well.) Warns a veteran, "You always risk putting something else in that does worse."