TV Long View: Networks' First-Year Cancellation Rate Stays Low in 2019-20

The freshman class of scripted shows is hovering near 50 percent survival for the second season in a row.
Courtesy of ABC; FOX; NBC
ABC's 'For Life' (left), Fox's '911: Lone Star,' NBC's 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist'

With a pandemic and production shutdown that saw a number of network series stop production before finishing their season orders, the end of the broadcast season was a strange one.

One thing, however, remained the same: Networks canceled a little less than half of their first-year scripted series, continuing a trend of patience with new shows. With ratings for initial airings becoming a progressively smaller piece of a given show's total audience, the trend has been to keep more series that five to 10 years ago would have been jettisoned.

The 2019-20 season was novel in one respect: It will feature just 31 first-year series (including ABC's comedy United We Fall, which premieres July 15), the smallest number since at least 2009-10. Fox punted completed dramas Filthy Rich and Next to the start of the 2020-21 season to help fill out its fall schedule.

So far, 15 shows have been canceled and 15 renewed, putting the first-year failure rate at 48.4 percent. That's on par with last season, which was the first time in a decade more than half of new shows on the five English-language networks survived. Even if United We Fall doesn't make it to a second season, the overall cancellation rate will be the second lowest of the past 11 seasons. 

Here are the numbers dating back to the 2009-10 season.

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 19 18 48.6%
2019-20* 31 15 15 48.4%
Totals 440 179 260 59.1%

*TBD: United We Fall, which premieres July 15 on ABC. Source: THR research.

Among the 15 renewals are some obvious choices: Fox's 911: Lone Star, for instance, was the top-rated new scripted show among adults 18-49, and CBS' FBI: Most Wanted led the rookie class in total viewers. There are also, however, some shows that illustrate networks' increasing reliance on delayed and multiplatform viewing to decide what stays and what goes.

ABC's For Life drew modest numbers for its initial airings, averaging a 0.55 rating among adults 18-49 and just 2.45 million viewers. A week of delayed viewing pushed those figures to 1.1 in the demo and 4.36 million viewers — substantial gains. After five weeks, and including streaming and other digital platforms, and the show jumps to a 2.2 in adults 18-49 and more than 7 million viewers. About 45 percent of the drama's 35-day demo rating, and 32 percent of its total audience, comes from digital platforms.

Similarly, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist overperformed on digital platforms, drawing more than half of its all in, 35-day 18-49 rating of 1.69 from nonlinear sources.

Looking network by network, four of the five English-language broadcasters canceled fewer than half of their new shows. ABC and The CW are each at 33 percent (pending United We Fall's fate on ABC), and CBS axed three of its eight rookies for a cancel rate of 37.5 percent. Fox dumped three of seven (a 42.5 percent failure rate).

And then there's NBC, whose freshman class had a very rough year. Of seven new scripted shows on the network, only Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist survived — a failure rate of almost 86 percent.

Stats like NBC's, however, are increasingly an outlier. Its first-year cancel rate was the highest for any network in the past four seasons — and if the overall trend of the past two years continues, it's unlikely to be a situation that repeats itself very often.

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