TV Long View: Why The CW's No-Cancellation Season Is Unprecedented

The Flash, In the Dark and All American_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of The CW

On Wednesday, The CW renewed first-year series All American, In the Dark and Roswell, New Mexico, along with veteran show The 100, for next season.

The four join 10 other series picked up in January, and the network announced back in May 2018 that veterans Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, iZombie and Jane the Virgin would end this season.

That means that aside from those three pre-planned endings, The CW is not canceling any of the shows that aired during the traditional September-to-May season (incidentally, its entire 2018 summer lineup is also returning). At least since Fox became the fourth broadcast network in the mid-1980s — and even a little before then — that has never happened at a broadcaster.

The Hollywood Reporter checked network schedules going back to 1980-81, when only 20 percent of U.S. TV households had cable and ABC, CBS and NBC were pretty much it for primetime programming. In every season, every broadcast net alive at that time canceled at least one show.

Even brand-new networks that debuted with limited schedules cut bait on some shows in their first year. Fox's first set of primetime shows in the spring of 1987 included Married … With Children, The Tracey Ullman Show and 21 Jump Street, which helped forge the network's identity — but also Karen's Song with Patty Duke and a sitcom adaptation of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, neither of which made it to the net's first fall launch.

UPN's initial slate of six shows in January 1995 performed so poorly that only Star Trek: Voyager returned for the 1995-96 season. The WB also began in January 1995 with just one night of programming, a four-comedy block. Three of those four series — The Parent 'Hood, Unhappily Ever After and The Wayans Bros. — stuck around for several years, but Muscle, a nighttime soap parody set at a gym, was axed after a single season.

Heck, in the past decade, more than 60 percent of just first-year scripted series (227 of 372) on the broadcast nets have failed to make it to a second season, to say nothing of underperforming or expensive veterans that were axed.

Those first-year failure rates have come down a little recently as the corporate parents of broadcasters own more of the series on the networks and can thus keep the money they earn in-house. The CW gets all of its shows from co-owners WarnerMedia and CBS Corp., and as this column has touched on before, it doesn't really operate on the traditional broadcast model where gathering as many viewers — or at least as many demographically desirable viewers — as possible is the game. The network has been moving toward a no-cancellation season in recent years; not including pre-announced endings, it hasn't axed more than two shows in a single season since 2013-14.

The CW can be considered the first stop in a content machine that includes international sales of its shows, a free, ad-supported streaming app and a rich output deal with Netflix. All those revenue streams flow back to the parent companies.

It does raise a question of quality control, as THR's TV's Top 5 podcast noted this week. But as the network's current Netflix deal is up in a year, and both CBS (with CBS All Access) and WarnerMedia (a yet-to-debut streaming service) build out their own SVOD platforms, keeping up that volume of original series could remain key to The CW's on-air survival.

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