As the fall TV season kicks off, the networks usually have itchy trigger fingers when it comes to killing off new shows that flop out of the gate. But not this season. It took more than a full month before fall's first cancellation: Manhattan Love Story. ABC killed the (alleged) comedy late Friday, Oct. 24 after four episodes had aired. It's the longest any network has gone into the season before canceling a new show since 2003, when Fox waited until Oct. 28 to axe Luis Guzman's sitcom, Luis, after five episodes.
By this point last fall, four shows had already bitten the dust—ABC's Lucky 7, CBS' We Are Men and NBC's Welcome to the Game and Ironside—with a fifth (ABC's Back in the Game) just a week away from joining them. And over the past several years (see TV's Worst Prime-Time Debuts, From 2000 to Present), networks usually made their first moves in late September or early October, after just two or three episodes had aired.
How DVRs and On-Demand Changed the Rules
This season, networks have been emphasizing the need to wait for delayed viewing ratings (live-plus-three and live-plus-seven) as viewers caught up with shows via DVR or VOD. "The growing truth is that picking winners today isn't as simple as looking at the overnight ratings," CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler said this summer. And unlike last year, when the networks paid that idea lip service but still quickly moved to cancel several low-rated shows, they've actually been practicing what they preach.
That's because those delayed viewing bumps can be considerable. How to Get Away With Murder doubled its already hefty series premiere rating in adults ages 18-49, from 3.8 to 7.5, after two weeks of DVR, VOD and online viewing. And the wait-and-see approach has helped buoy Fox's Red Band Society, which saw an 82 percent increase in live-plus-seven ratings among 18-49-year-olds for its second episode, from 1.1 to 2.0; the following week jumped 73 percent, from 1.1 to 1.9.
Bigger Bets and Slower Cancellations
Manhattan Love Story—airing at 8:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, one of TV's worst time slots—received only a 15 percent lift in live-plus-seven, the lowest for a scripted series this fall. And its final episode last Tuesday fell to an unsustainable 0.7 rating in the 18-49 demo, with just 2.62 million total viewers. That also led to series-low ratings for Manhattan's lead-out show, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
That abysmal Tuesday number should have resulted in a quick cancellation on Wednesday, but with Manhattan Love Story already scheduled to be pre-empted Tuesday for The Great Halloween Fright Fight, ABC had some extra time to decide on a backup plan (repeats of Selfie, which airs right before Manhattan Love Story, will fill the gap).
Saving Money by Pulling the Plug
Beyond the increasing reliance on delayed viewing, another unique factor has been at play this fall to keep quick cancellations at bay. Mulaney, a show that might have ordinarily been pulled by now (it debuted at a 1.0 rating in 18-49, and last Sunday had only 2.25 million viewers), is still on the air in part because Fox made an early commitment to the series last fall, and 13 episodes have already been shot. As most shows are filmed only a few weeks before they air, "when you pull the plug on something, you can often save money on it," then-Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly explained in January. But when 13 episodes are already in the can, as opposed to the typical six or seven, "we're going to have a very big financial headache" if those episodes don't make it on air.
Reilly stepped down on May 29, a few weeks after he extended Mulaney's order from six episodes to 16 (and set in motion many other moves that have come back to haunt Fox this fall, including giving Tuesday and Friday slots to Utopia, a reality bust whose last episode had even lower ratings than Manhattan Love Story, with a paltry 1.77 million viewers tuning in). On Oct. 18, Fox trimmed that order to 13—the other three episodes hadn't yet been shot—and claimed it was sticking with the show. Given the amount of money it's already spent on all those episodes, it doesn't have much choice.
More Cancellations to Come
While the networks have been unusually patient up to this point, now that the seal has been broken, look for the cancellations to begin in earnest, especially with November sweeps just days away. Utopia, Gracepoint, A to Z and (sunk costs or not) Mulaney: the cancellation clock is ticking.