Why a Great Second Season Is Often Too Late to Save a Struggling Show

FX had to dynamite The Bridge. Could S.H.I.E.L.D. be next?

Very few TV series emerge fully formed. Most shows take at least a season to figure themselves and their characters out, or to course-correct after a rocky beginning. Often by Season 2, a series—like FX's The Bridge or ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—can finally complete its necessary adjustments and become the outstanding show it was always meant to be. Except that audiences no longer have the patience to stick around for such extended fine-tuning.

FX canceled The Bridge last month after two seasons of plummeting ratings, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hit a series low two episodes ago. New fall sitcom Selfie was improving creatively each week, but that wasn't enough to prevent ABC from pulling the plug on the show last Friday. These shows are the latest indication that when audiences check out of a series, it's next to impossible for networks to lure them back, no matter how much better those programs might get.

FX's drama The Bridge—about two detectives, one from Texas, one from Mexico, who team up to investigate a serial killer operating on both sides of the border—had an intriguing mix of U.S./Mexican friction, but its serial killer storyline ended up being such a dead-end that the team ditched it early to move on to richer material. Yet regardless of how many critical raves were published about the show's brilliant second season, calling it "the best show you're not watching," audiences had already waved the white flag. Similarly, S.H.I.E.L.D. arrived in fall 2013 on a tsunami of Marvel hype with a pilot directed by Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon, but it didn't figure itself out until the end of Season 1. Now in its sophomore year, the show is kicking as much butt creatively as its characters do on screen, but its ratings still sag.

Try as it might, ABC can't seem to win back S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers who bailed early on. It thought it finally had a chance when it announced plans to debut the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer during the show's Oct. 28, but that plan backfired when the trailer leaked a week early. Deprived of what might have been the show's last chance to woo back its former audience, the Oct. 28 episode, featuring that same heavily streamed trailer with some additional footage, drew a 1.74 rating in 18-49. While that figure was almost two-tenths of a point higher than its 1.56 series low a week earlier (which led ABC to finally cancel its anemic lead-in, Manhattan Love Story), it's still a tenth of a point below the lowest 18-49 rating last season (a 1.85), and far lower than what ABC had hoped for. This season's 18-49 average has fallen from 2.0 to 1.7. The show is better than ever—but its former viewers don't care.

The problem, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf tells Adweek, is that viewers simply have too many other options to be patient. "There will be about 350 scripted original series this year aired on linear and nonlinear services in the U.S. That's really an unprecedented volume," said Landgraf, whose team compiles a list of every season of scripted and unscripted series that airs. Last year's total: 1,400 original seasons of material, with 2014's tally looking to be even higher. "And so I think that consumers just have too many options," Landgraf said. "Why should you ever watch anything other than something that's the equivalent of a four-star movie or a four-star television show?"

Because of that programming glut, "the threshold for must-see TV is so unbelievably high," said Landgraf, who notes that because of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and HBO Go, "we're not only competing with everything currently airing, effectively we're still competing against The Shield, The Wire, The Sopranos, Nip/Tuck. Breaking Bad will be watched for many years to come. So will every great television show ever made."

And that spelled doom for The Bridge, which was bleeding viewers even as it fixed itself on the fly. Its 18-49 rating (even when you include live-plus-seven) was 1.35 in the first half of 2003's Season 1, 1.21 in the second half, then dipped all the way down to 0.79 in the first half of Season 2 this summer, and 0.69 in the second half. "A good chunk of the people who did watch the first season simply didn't come back for the second," said Landgraf. "If I'd seen any data that led me to be optimistic that we had stabilized in a bottom, if you will, and we could grow from there in subsequent seasons, I think I would have continued with the show."

Season 2's grander world—which Landgraf describes as "like The Wire, set on the border"—ultimately "took a long time to set things up," he said. "I think if you were patient the first half of the season, you were well rewarded by the second half of Season 2. Ultimately the show found its identity and its legs by that second half. And unfortunately, in a crowded environment, it just took us too long to get there."

By then, much of The Bridge's audience had moved on, regardless of its resurgence in quality. Said Landgraf: "No matter what I feel personally, I have a responsibility as the coach of a team. If I've given the show two years to find itself and show its mettle, you have to earn a spot on the roster."

While it's too late to save The Bridge and Selfie, there are several other much-improved shows in dire need of ratings bumps, like S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fox's Mindy Project and New Girl. But until audiences shake themselves out of the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality, these impressive quality upgrades will have been for naught.

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