The big four US networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) are playing a strange game this year. Usually by now they would have axed their underperforming new shows.
But instead they have adopted a policy of reducing the number of episodes they initially ordered then letting the shows in question quietly crawl away to die.
A case in point is Fox’s Minority Report, which was initially meant to have 13 episodes. But after failing to impress in the ratings, its order was cut to 10. The same has happened to ABC’s Blood and Oil and NBC’s Truth Be Told, also reduced to 10. NBC also cut Wesley Snipes drama The Player to nine episodes after poor ratings.
Various theories have been put forward to explain this emerging trend. One is that the networks have decided to give scripted shows more time because of the complex nature of audience behaviour these days. With so much time-shifting going on, they don’t want to kill a show off before they know for sure it is a dud.
This thesis takes on added weight now that subscription VoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon have started picking up and reviving a few axed shows. The last thing the networks want to do is produce a show and then hand the benefit to their fast-growing rivals.
Another possibility, mooted by E! News, is that networks don’t want to face flak from fans by axing a show early. By giving these shows a reasonable run out, it’s a way of reducing the size of the social media backlash that invariably follows cancellation.
Alternatively, there may be a commercial agenda here. Possibly the networks have decided there’s more value in having nine or 10 episodes of a show with closure than four or five without a satisfactory end. Such is the international demand for drama content that maybe there is an opportunity to recoup some of the cost of production via the distribution side of the business.
Some international channels would rather have a single series of a big-budget American series (complete with star) than none at all.
Whatever the reason, it will be interesting to see what it takes to finally push one of the big four networks over the edge into cancelling a scripted show. There is, for example, a particularly badly performing anthology show on ABC right now called Wicked City.
Three episodes in, the show has seen its ratings fall from 3.3 million to 2.4 million to 1.7 million, making it the joint lowest-rated non-Saturday drama original on the major four broadcast networks in Nielsen People Meter history. If that isn’t a good enough reason to axe a series then we may never see a cancellation again.
While Minority Report has failed to live up to expectations, another Philip K Dick-based project is receiving plenty of plaudits ahead of its appearance on Amazon. The Man in the High Castle, a 10-parter that will launch on November 20, is an alternative-history drama that imagines a world in which the Nazis and Japan each control half of the US (having won the Second World War).
Adapted for TV by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), a recent screening of the show received a swathe of positive reviews. While we are unlike to ever see any ratings for The Man in the High Castle, Amazon is confident it could be a game-changer for the platform.
Russell Morris, marketing and merchandising director of Amazon Video in the UK, says: “All the data points to this being our out-and-out success.” It’s unusual for Amazon to be so openly enthusiastic, but an 8.4 rating on IMDb suggests the series is already starting to build up some decent momentum.
There are also positive noises for Crackle’s The Art of More, which debuts on November 19. Starring Dennis Quaid as a ruthless real-estate billionaire, the 10-episode first season is set in a high-octane version of the art world, where rival auction houses battle to secure the best clients and works of art are smuggled into the US from exotic locations.
Deadline – particularly impressed with Quaid’s performance – has declared itself a fan of the show, which has already managed to rack up quite a few international sales.
While The Man in the High Castle and The Art of More are yet to launch, one show that has already established itself as a huge franchise is FX’s anthology drama American Horror Story (AHS), created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.
Now in its fifth season, AHS: Hotel, the show is averaging 3.8 million viewers, which makes it the channel’s highest-rated scripted series. As a reward for its strong showing, FX this week announced that there will be a sixth season.
John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, says: “American Horror Story has unquestionably joined the ranks of television’s landmark series. From Murder House to Hotel, AHS has pioneered a new TV form as well becoming FX’s highest-rated show – while also pushing every conceivable boundary of creative excellence and audacity.
“This is even more remarkable because Ryan and Brad tear up the playbook every year, challenging the entire creative team to come up with something even more spectacular, frightful and entertaining. You could not ask more of an artist, their team or a series.”
The icing on the cake for FX is that AHS is not just a ratings success, but also an award winner. The first four seasons received 71 Emmy nominations and 13 Emmy wins, including five awards for its fourth instalment, AHS: Freak Show.
Finally, this week, it’s interesting to note that there is another trend in the market right now – the ‘falling off a cliff’ phenomenon. This is where shows start incredibly strongly then see their ratings collapse almost immediately. ABC’s The Muppets is a case in point, with its ratings dropping from nine million to 5.8 million viewers between episodes one and two and then continuing to slide, so that they are now below the four million mark at episode seven.
CBS’s Supergirl is now experiencing something similar, with ratings for the first three episodes going from 12.9 million to 8.9 million to eight million. Although some ground will be clawed back once the time-shifted numbers are in, that’s still a pretty precipitous drop. NBC’s Heroes Reborn and ABC’s Quantico are showing similar fragility.
What’s behind this? It seems to be a combination of two factors. First, networks are getting very good at generating a movie-style buzz around their new series so that audiences feel compelled to be in at the start. This is particularly true when we’re talking about a rebooted idea, because large swathes of the TV population are lured in by the promise of a nostalgia fix.
Having grabbed the audience’s attention, however, the slightest misbeat on the part of the show and viewers lose interest – creating the mass migration effect seen with programmes like The Muppets.
Like the apocryphal script reader who knows 10 ten pages whether he or she is in the presence of a great script or another addition to the recycling pile, a significant part of the audience will cut its losses before the first ad break has occurred – turning to rival channels or second-screen entertainment.
An interesting premise or unusual setup may hold the audience in for a little longer, but in the end the only thing that will get them to come back for a second helping is genuinely compelling work. And even in this ‘golden age’ of drama, that is still quite rare.
tagged in: ABC, Amazon, American Horror Story, Blood and Oil, CBS, Crackle, Fox, FX, John Landgraf, Minority Report, NBC, Supergirl, The Art of More, The Man in the High Castle, The Muppets, Truth be Told, Wicked City