Death by Hiatus: Extended Downtime Is Killing Your Favorite TV Shows

Mindy Project, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. scorched by rocky scheduling

While extended hiatuses may work for the likes of The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, broadcast TV series that take lengthy breaks or are erratically scheduled increasingly run the risk of losing their audiences.

Tuesday night provided ample evidence for the Death by Hiatus theory, as two shows returned, after weeks of downtime, to record low ratings. 

After having been benched for 10 weeks, Fox’s The Mindy Project last night returned to the sound of crickets. The first two new episodes since Jan. 21 averaged just 1.88 million viewers and a 1.0 rating among adults 18-49. Both figures were low-water marks for the Mindy Kaling comedy, which was down 38 percent in total viewers and lost one-third of its most recent demo delivery (1.5).

This has to come as a significant disappointment for Fox, which recently renewed the underperforming comedy for a third season. Season to date, The Mindy Project is down 13 percent in the dollar demo (1.4), which may or may not be a function of its fading lead-in. Through March 25, New Girl has lost 25 percent of its 18-49 audience, falling from its year-ago 2.4 live-same-day average to a 1.8. (Look back even further and New Girl’s slump really starts to look grim. When compared to the first 18 episodes of its freshman run, when it was averaging a 3.5 rating, the Zooey Deschanel sitcom is down 49 percent in the demo.

(Mindy’s saving grace lies in its demo composition. The comedy draws one of Fox’s more upscale audiences.)

Mindy wasn’t the only show to lose ground as a result of erratic scheduling. ABC’s comic book strip Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been off the air more often than on, as only six new episodes have run since the year began. Of the seven weeks S.H.I.E.L.D. was shelved, ABC aired four repeats and scheduled three preemptions.

While S.H.I.E.L.D. began its steady descent in October, dropping from a world-beating 4.7 rating in its series premiere to a 3.3 the following week, the on-and-off scheduling hasn’t done the show any favors. Last night’s episode notched just 5.71 million viewers and a 2.0 in the demo, down 5 percent versus its most recent airdate, March 11, and off 57 percent when compared to its series debut.

Thus far, the exceptions to the rule appear to be ABC’s Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, both of which actually gained ground after emerging from a two-and-a-half month layoff. Scandal hopped from a 3.2 on Dec. 12 to a 3.4 on Feb. 27, while Grey’s soared from a 2.7 to a 3.1.

Interestingly enough, the No. 1 network in prime time also tends to schedule the fewest repeats. Since the season began, NBC has scheduled the usual brief holiday and sports hiatuses. But its highest-rated series have aired largely uninterrupted. Both cycles of The Voice have hit their respective marks every Monday and Tuesday night, and The Blacklist is slated for a single encore episode (April 14). Thus far, only one episode of Chicago P.D. has been repeated, while all 13 episodes of the new comedies About a Boy and Growing Up Fisher will run in sequence, uninterrupted by reruns or preemptions.  

Last night wasn’t only an object lesson in scheduling pitfalls, which, to be completely honest, are more or less unavoidable. (There is literally no way to schedule 22 or 23 new episodes over the course of a 35-week season without having to run a fair amount of repeats—another reason why the 13-episode model looks like such an attractive alternative.) We also got another advance look at CBS’ second backdoor pilot for a potential NCIS spinoff.

At 8 p.m., NCIS’ two-part “Crescent City” arc concluded in front of 17.2 million viewers, while drawing a 3.5 in the adults 25-54 demo. And while that represented a slight (2 percent) dip from last week’s Part 1, the preliminary numbers were rather stronger than those served up by last season’s backdoor pilot for NCIS: Red.

Because the two-part Red package aired in the admittedly weaker NCIS: Los Angeles slot, the ratings were proportionately lower. Whereas the Crescent City episodes averaged 17.4 million viewers and a 3.6 in CBS’ target demo, Red last March delivered 15.5 million viewers and a 3.1. The Red pilot also lost 13 percent of its deliveries between hours.

Whether the Crescent City arc performed well enough for NCIS: New Orleans to earn a spot on the fall schedule remains to be seen. CBS only has room for a pair of new dramas, and Vince Gilligan’s Battle Creek has already been locked in for a 13-episode order. Then again, NCIS: N’awlins is a homegrown project and is all but teeming with boldfaced names like Scott Bakula and C.C.H. Pounder. Could go either way.

CBS will unveil its 2014-15 prime-time schedule on Wed., May 14, when it kicks off its annual upfront presentation in New York.