Why the Fate of Fall’s New Shows Could Be Sealed in Just 15 Minutes

New data links early tune-out to a show's demise

The 2015-16 TV season officially kicks off today. The broadcast networks will begin rolling out 22 new shows this week, with three series premiering tonight: CBS' Life in Pieces, Fox's Minority Report and NBC's Blindspot. As those freshman series battle for viewers alongside 58 returning shows—part of the more than 400 scripted series airing this year—they'll have just 15 minutes to hook audiences, or their fate could already be sealed.

That's according to data from Peel, whose app turns smartphones and tablets into universal remotes. The company analyzed the viewing habits of its 5 million app users last fall as they watched the new comedies and dramas premiering on NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox. They found that, except for one instance, every fall show that ended up canceled had lost more than 30 percent of its premiere episode audience by the 15-minute mark.

"People figure out in the first few minutes whether it's a good-quality program," said James Ryan, Peel's head of marketing. "These shows had 15 minutes to capture an audience. We found that within 15 minutes, you're going to know whether that show is going to be a lasting success."  

All but one show with a 70 percent or higher retention rate after 15 minutes of viewing was eventually picked up for a second season. Only Fox's Red Band Society, which held on to 71 percent of Peel viewers after 15 minutes, was ultimately canceled.

While the data indicated that most of the audience drop-off occurred within the first five minutes of a show's premiere (39 percent of Peel users who watched NBC's short-lived Bad Judge had already fled by then), ultimately the 15-minute threshold provided the best insight into which shows were able to go the distance.

Of last year's fall newbies, the NBC sitcom A to Z fared the worst among Peel users: 44 percent of those who tuned in for its premiere episode had thrown in the towel by the 15-minute mark, which roughly lines up with the second ad break.

Peel, which has doubled its user base since last year, from 5 million monthly active users in the U.S. to 10 million, will continue its research this fall.

The data could also explain why the networks spent more time tinkering with their premiere episodes this summer than ever before. In several instances this month, networks did not provide completed versions of a freshman show's debut episode to critics until just a week before its premiere. In previous years, updated versions of those pilot episodes—which are filmed in time for May upfronts—would arrive much earlier, or networks would wait until the second episode to implement their casting, tonal or storyline tweaks to the pilot.

Now, however, every minute of those debut episodes count—or at least, the first 15.