Statistically speaking, the overall performance of the new television shows that have debuted this autumn on the programming lineups of the big five broadcast networks is about as anemic as the play of the Dallas Cowboys. Of the 22 new shows that have so far premiered on ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, and NBC, three have already been canceled— Lone Star, Outlaw, and My Generation. And ratings data through the first month of the television season suggest that viewers shouldn’t get too attached to any of the remaining 19 shows still left on the schedules, as it’s likely that most of them won’t be returning for a second season.
According to a study conducted by media buying agency Magna Global, over the last five years the broadcast networks have debuted an average of 35.6 new shows per season, with only 12.4 of them per year getting renewed, for a success rate of 34.8 percent. The low season came in 2005/06, when the broadcast networks premiered 49 new shows but only renewed 14 of them, a renewal rate of just 29 percent. Last year marked a high point for renewals, as 14 of the 33 new shows that debuted across the broadcast networks returned this season, for a success rate of 42 percent.
Industry observers suggest that the ratings performance thus far for this year’s crop of new shows is likely to send the renewal rate into a downward spiral, however. The best adjective the eminently quotable Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, could muster to describe the batch of shows was “serviceable.” That’s a tad more diplomatic than Bill Carroll, television analyst at Katz Media Group, who said this year’s new shows are for the most part “either incorrectly programmed or not very good.”
Which shows will be canceled next? There is a slew to choose from—even shows that have already gotten full-season pickups aren’t safe unless they can build on their initial ratings throughout the year and establish a solid, loyal and, most important, consistently returning fanbase the way NBC’s Chuck did a few years ago.
Based on the ratings, sources point to Fox’s Running Wilde, which is averaging 4.3 million viewers over the course of four weeks, according to Nielsen data; NBC’s Chase (6.1 million), Outsourced (6 million), and Undercovers (7 million), and ABC’s The Whole Truth (4.6 million) are almost certain to meet an early death. Other shows accurately described as being on the bubble include: Fox’s Raising Hope (6.6 million), whose survival will depend in large part on how it performs in its presumed coveted post-American Idol timeslot come January; NBC’s The Event (8.5 million); and ABC’s Better With You (7 million). Friday’s debut of School Pride on NBC only garnered 2.9 million viewers, which doesn’t bode well for the survival chances of that program either. (NBC this week picked up The Event, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Chase, and Outsourced for a full-year, but whether they come back for a second season, or even last for the rest of this one, is unclear.)
Gallery: Fall TV Season
But even that bleak assessment is optimistic, as none of the fall debuts are scoring ratings solid enough to anchor a given evening, even among the well-performing CBS slate, where its five new shows— Hawaii Five-O, Blue Bloods, Mike & Molly, The Defenders, and $#*! My Dad Says—collectively rank as the Top 5 new series’ on television. On Thursday, CBS picked up all those shows for full seasons, but none yet appears to be a breakout hit like Glee and Modern Family last year. (It should be noted that the new offerings from the CW, Nikita and Hellcats, are performing solidly for the network’s needs.)
Sources speculate that a large portion of show renewals for next season could end up coming from the 17 shows slated as midseason replacements across the five broadcast networks, which include such offerings as a Criminal Minds spinoff from CBS; ABC’s Dana Delany-starring procedural, Body of Proof; Fox’s cop show, Ride-Along, from Shield creator Shawn Ryan; and comedies Love Bites and The Paul Reiser Show from NBC. That the networks are looking to their midseason replacements, which are generally weaker than their fall offerings, to help salvage the development season says a lot about the performance of this year’s new shows.
The fall season wasn’t supposed to go this way for the broadcasters. Back in May, during the upfronts, those splashy events held each year in the hopes of convincing advertisers to spend copious amounts of money supporting new programming, the big five displayed a newfound vigor and competitive zeal in relation to their upstart cable network counterparts. (Check out the accompanying gallery of ad rates for the networks’ new fall shows based on a survey recently conducted by trade magazine Ad Age to get a sense of the return-on-investment they are making.) After all, this was the year the broadcast networks kicked off the crutches of cheap reality television, reopened their wallets to big-name talent, and started taking creative risks again.
Indeed, ABC, CBS, and NBC all planned to aggressively program dramas in the 10 p.m. hour, as well as adding new shows on Friday night in an attempt to revive that once lucrative, now nearly abandoned evening on television. But aside from CBS, no new shows have been able to gain much traction at 10 p.m., and NBC has already been forced to retreat from Friday night, plugging in Dateline to fill the slot vacated by Outlaw.
The basic problem is that when the broadcast networks play it safe, as they have in years past, viewers flock to edgier cable programming like True Blood or more zeitgeist-defining shows like Mad Men. And when they take risks, such as Fox’s gamble on Lone Star, they don’t go big enough to lure viewers back.
Or, as Tim Brooks, television historian and author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, says, “Broadcast television has to ‘wow’ us from time to time.”
So far this is the television season that hasn’t happened. But hey, there’s always the spring.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story used household audience as its rating metric. We switched to Live + Same Day throughout.
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.