Quick Cancellations Hurting Broadcast Nets?

Five new broadcast network television shows have been canceled in the first seven weeks of the new TV season and some industry observers are wondering if the networks are pulling the plug too soon.

“The broadcast networks should not forget that Cheers started its tremendously successful 11-year run as the lowest rated show of the week,” said Steve Sternberg, veteran media agency research analyst who now authors his own newsletter.

Sternberg says many other TV “classics” like Dallas, Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, The X-Files and even the current Fox hit drama House needed time to catch on. “What would the historical television landscape look like if one of these series made it to season 2 and how many network series over the past decade might have joined the classic club if given more time to find an audience.”

Insiders at Fox said freshman drama Lone Star was canceled after just two episodes, because viewers outright rejected the show from the start. The show did a 1.3 18-49 demo rating in its premiere episode after getting tons of money spent promoting its Fox’s signature new show, and a week later dipped 23 percent to a paltry 1.0.

“Everyone here pretty much felt the viewers had spoken and it was evident that they just didn’t want to watch this show,” one Fox insider said.  “We gave it every chance to succeed putting it behind our highest rated drama [House].”

ABC’s My Generation also averaged a 1.1 18-49 rating after two episodes and was pulled. Other freshman cancellations include ABC’s The Whole Truth and NBC’s Outlaw and Undercovers.

Clearly with those shows, the ratings started low and steadily got lower. But Sternberg and others believe if a network is going to spent millions to develop a show and millions more to promote it, it should give the show more than a few weeks for an audience to find it.

The network executives disagree. “When a show premieres so low, there’s just no hope for it to rebound,” one network executive said. “The networks do try to give shows every chance to succeed and keep shows on as long as they can. But if a show has no hope you can save millions in production costs by canceling it.”

Sternberg has been an outspoken proponent of the broadcast networks doing what cable networks do—promote their shows on other networks, but no broadcast network Mediaweek spoke to was amenable to accepting ad dollars from their competitors to promote their shows.

“Sadly, 90 percent of the people in the country didn’t even know that some of these canceled shows were on because they are primarily promoted on the network that is airing them,” Sternberg said. “Even Glee did not have a great rating leading out of American Idol when it premiered, but it wound up getting great viral promotion over the summer and became a hit in the fall. But that’s an exception.”

One network executive said the day may eventually come when the broadcast networks allow other networks to promote their shows on each other, but right now “pride is getting in the way.”

Billie Gold, head of programming research at media agency Carat, said “advertisers of course get a little upset if a show is canceled, particularly when they have a big presence in a show. We bought a lot of Outlaw and ultimately had to get make-goods and advertisers would much rather have first-run programming that has higher commercial retention than repeats.”

In the case of Outlaw, it was replaced by an extended hour of Dateline, a news magazine which is a totally different genre than Outlaw. While the ratings might be higher, the audience composition for advertisers might be different, although when a show is canceled, advertisers are free to jump ship totally.