TV Long View: No Hits, No Problem — Cancel Rate for Rookie Shows Could Hit 10-Year Low

Broadcast networks are holding onto their first-year series at a rate scarcely seen in recent seasons.
Courtesy of CBS; CW; NBC
From left: CBS' 'The Neighborhood,' The CW's 'Charmed,' NBC's 'New Amsterdam'

Squint hard enough, and it's possible to find a couple of hits in the 2018-19 crop of first-year scripted series. 

NBC's Manifest and New Amsterdam and CBS' FBI are all set to finish in the top 20 among total viewers (including a week of delayed viewing), and the two NBC shows will do the same in the adults 18-49 demographic. There are solid players like CBS' comedy The Neighborhood, ABC's The Rookie and The CW's Charmed and Legacies, but there was no This Is Us-level breakout among the freshman class. The majority of new shows were middling performers at best.

Yet a higher percentage of new shows will be returning for their second seasons than at almost any other time in the past decade.

Including two series scheduled for summer debuts, the broadcast networks ordered 37 scripted shows for 2018-19 (not including acquisitions from international markets). As of publication, only 11 have been canceled, with 18 renewed and eight still awaiting word.

At worst, then, just under half of the new series that aired or will air this season will return in 2019-20. That will be among the two lowest cancellation rates of the past 10 years: Half of the 46 new shows in 2016-17 also returned for second seasons.

The past three seasons, in fact, have had three of the four lowest cancellation rates of the past 10 years. From 2009-10 to 2015-16, the rate fell below 60 percent just one time (52.2 percent in 2014-15). The 10-year average will fall between 58 percent and 60 percent, depending on how many of the seven remaining shows are canceled.

Here are the 10-year figures:

Season New scripted shows Renewed Canceled Failure rate
2009-10 33 13 20 60.6%
2010-11 37 10 27 73.0%
2011-12 44 16 28 63.6%
2012-13 39 13 26 66.7%
2013-14 44 13 31 70.5%
2014-15 46 22 24 52.2%
2015-16 44 17 27 61.4%
2016-17 46 23 23 50.0%
2017-18 39 18 21 53.8%
2018-19* 37 18 11 29.7%
Totals 409 163 238 58.2%

*TBD: Grand Hotel (ABC), Blood & Treasure (CBS), The Code (CBS), The Red Line (CBS), Abby's (NBC), AP Bio (NBC), The Enemy Within (NBC), The Villiage (NBC). Source: THR research.

The trend isn't confined to new shows, either. Cancellations as a whole were way down in 2018-19, with 26 shows getting the ax as of May 17 vs. 40 at the end of the 2017-18 season. That's a drop of 35 percent; even if all seven remaining shows are canceled, the total will still be down 17.5 percent. (Last season, it should be noted, had more cancellations than the 33 in 2016-17 and 36 in 2015-16).

This seemingly paradoxical situation, where fewer series are pulled without warning even as linear ratings continue to fall, could well be the new normal. More than one network head mentioned that the primetime schedules they unveiled at the upfronts in the past week were a starting point, not the final destination for their shows. It follows then that the same-day ratings that once meant everything are no longer the only measure of a show's health (though they're still important).

Nearly as vital now is ownership by networks' related studios — the better to feed the proliferating outlets for streaming, soon to include in-house platforms for the parent companies of ABC and NBC as well as the already existing CBS All Access and CW digital services. The CW didn't yank any of its shows this season, only retiring three it had announced were ending a year earlier. The other, bigger networks might not get there anytime soon, but they're slowly moving in that direction.