Each year, a few familiar touchstones mark the passage of fall: trees shedding their leaves, the end of Daylight Saving Time and the ritual cancellation of broadcast's lowest-rated new shows. Yet for the first time in more than 15 years, the networks made it to November without pulling the plug on a single new series. Several freshman shows are rating a paltry 0.6 or 0.7 in adults 18-49, but instead of canceling them as usual, networks are keeping them on the air and reducing their 13-episode orders. Fox trimmed Minority Report's count to 10, while ABC did the same with Blood and Oil. NBC cut Truth Be Told's order to 10 and took The Player down to 9.
How did cancellation become a verboten word this fall? Several network execs (who declined to speak on the record) and buyers cite a perfect storm of rapidly changing viewing habits, delays in tallying multiplatform (and multiweek) viewing and a lack of viable backup programming options, leading to a scenario where leaving even the worst-rated shows on air is the best option for everyone involved. Most important of all: Audiences and advertisers want to avoid repeats at all costs.
There's no longer a guarantee that whatever filler programming a network might throw on in place of a canceled show wouldn't fare even worse. "If you slot in something brand-new, then you start from square one all over again. So it's the devil you know, or the devil you don't know," said Steve Kalb, svp, director of video investments at Mediahub. "If something comes on board that you like less, trying to find a remix on your package can be even harder."
Reruns, which used to be the go-to option when a show was pulled, have become kryptonite to audiences, which increases the pressure to stick with original content. "Because of the DVR, VOD and all these other options, putting a repeat out there is almost like putting test signals. The ratings aren't going to be good at all," said Lyle Schwartz, managing partner, GroupM.
However, these dead shows walking can generate some delayed viewing bumps in live-plus-7. In the season's fourth week, the most recent for which those numbers are available, The Player almost doubled its 18-49 rating, from 0.7 to 1.3. That's a bigger rating than a rerun or other filler programming would have provided.
But once audiences get wind that a show is officially canceled, those lifts will evaporate. "In a lot of homes these days, once people hear it's canceled, boom, they will just wipe it out of their DVRs," said Schwartz.
Given how many shows' seasons are now broken in half, with two uninterrupted runs separated by a lengthy midseason hiatus, the episode reductions allow the networks to conclude the runs during the fall (as was the case with Minority Report, where Fox had intended to air only 10 episodes in 2015). But that same no-repeats strategy—where midseason programs that in previous years could have been pressed into service have already been locked in to January or February premieres—also leaves networks with an empty bench if their schedule springs a leak. (One nonfactor in the networks' strategy: potential revenue from selling these 10-episode seasons to an SVOD like Netflix or an international market. Interest in "failed" shows will be nonexistent or minuscule, according to network execs.)
While Fox is already resigned to Minority Report's fate (episodes are now drawing less than 2 million total viewers), NBC is waiting on delayed viewing data before making a final decision about The Player, especially since now it is no longer airing against CBS' Thursday Night Football. Networks don't want to prematurely cancel in case the delayed viewing data indicate that audiences have discovered the show on other platforms. By not canceling anything—yet—they retain the rights to pick up the show down the road.
Yet despite fall's episode-trimming trend, it seems unlikely that networks will deviate too greatly from their standard 13-episode orders next season. Thirteen remains a key number for international deals, and a smaller order sends a shaky message to buyers. "They're basically telling us, 'We believe in it, but we're not 100 percent confident,'" said Schwartz. Plus if the show later turns out to be a hit, the network won't be able to produce additional episodes quickly enough to take advantage of that momentum.
However, buyers will have to factor in the broadcasters' sudden cancellation aversion when deciding about future ad buys. "We have a new series renewal prediction model, in which we do some statistical work to make our best guess as to which series have the best shots at being renewed," said Brian Hughes, svp, audience analytics practice lead, Magna Global. "This will definitely affect how we forecast ratings going into next year."
This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.