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The biggest surprise among last week’s network cancellations was Magnum P.I., which CBS cut after four seasons despite the show ranking in the top 25 entertainment programs in total viewers.
One more reason it stuck out? Broadcasters have sharply curtailed the number of cancellations and series endings in the past two years. The parade of cancellation announcements in the past week may not make it feel that way, but data bear out the fact that as a group, the networks are more likely to stay with shows than they have been in the past decade.
While there are also fewer scripted series airing on the broadcast networks, both the number and rate of cancellations has dropped off. As the audience for scripted programming becomes ever more scattered, networks are making the bet that familiar titles — the NCISes and Law & Orders — will be what keeps viewers coming back, whether it’s to a specific primetime slot or to streaming platforms that carry network shows the day after they air.
For the nine seasons from 2011-12 to 2019-20, the five English-language broadcast networks were pretty consistent in their cancellation figures: Over those years, they ended an average of about 40.6 scripted shows (either via outright cancellation or a pre-announced final season) per season. The number fluctuated year to year but never went below 35 (in 2011-12) or above 45 (in 2013-14).
For the past two seasons, however, that average has fallen to just 24.5 cancellations — 22 a year ago and 27 this season. Even with The CW erasing half of its scripted lineup, the number of cancellations and endings climbed by just five series.
Source: THR research. Figures do not include acquisitions.
Broadcasters have also aired fewer scripted shows since the onset of the pandemic: 87 this season and 86 in 2021-22, compared to an average of about 105 for the nine prior seasons. Just four years ago, for instance, ABC canceled 14 shows; this season, it only aired 14 scripted shows (plus one miniseries in Women of the Movement).
The reduction in overall volume is due in part to spending shifting to streaming projects and the cost of productions — regardless of outlet — rising due to factors ranging from increased fees for showrunners and top talent to extra COVID-19 precautions on sets.
The lower cancellation figures aren’t just a function of having fewer shows to cancel, however. The past two seasons have also seen the rate of canceled shows drop. From 2012-20, the five networks axed an average of 38.7 percent of their scripted rosters each year, and the rate never fell below 33.3 percent.
The past two seasons have come in some 10 points below that average. In 2020-21 and 2021-22, the cancel rate was just 28.3 percent. This season comes in at 31 percent (27 of 87 shows), with 10 of those — just over a third — coming from The CW as the network pared its roster ahead of a potential sale.
While all of the big four networks have slowed their cancellation rates, ABC has hit the brakes the hardest. From 2012-20, the network canceled or ended an average of almost 11 shows per season. As its overall volume has dwindled more recently, though, that number became unsustainable. It dropped only eight series total in 2021 and 2022, with just three of them coming this season.
NBC has cut five series in each of the past two seasons, after averaging about 10 per year in the nine seasons prior to that. Fox averaged eight scripted cancellations or endings from 2012-20, but dropped only four shows last year and three this year (assuming that it can make deals to bring 911 and The Resident back). CBS has seen the smallest dip, going from eight series axed per year from 2012-20 to six apiece in 2021 and 2022.
The CW had been following this model for years, never canceling more than a handful of shows in a given season. Only this season, with the network’s future in limbo as corporate parents Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount Global explore a sale, did The CW reverse its course of gradually building a stable of scripted shows for year-round programming.
First-year breakout hits like CBS’ Ghosts and ABC’s Abbott Elementary are an increasingly rare commodity for broadcasters. Long-running titles and franchises like CBS’ NCIS stable, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19, and NBC’s Law & Order and Chicago-verse, meanwhile, continue to draw reliable — and differentiated — audiences on both linear and streaming platforms: NBC has said that Law & Order: SVU’s streaming audience, for instance, is a full generation younger than the one that watches the series on-air.
As broadcast nets become starting points in a cross-platform ecosystem, rather than the stand-alone entities they long were, staying with proven (or at least familiar) programming makes sense: Networks can still draw eyeballs to on-air shows that people know so well, and recognizable library titles help bolster affiliated streaming services. Outside of having NFL rights, that’s as much of a win-win as the shrinking linear TV world can provide.
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