Consider three shows: ABC’s Trophy Wife, Fox’s Enlisted, and NBC’s Hannibal. Though the three could not be any more different in subject matter or premises, they share one major thing: Their ratings are disastrous enough that even a season ago, they would have been marked for swift, brutal cancelation. And yet as we head into renewal and cancelation season, all three have varying degrees of hope for renewal, even though their numbers would argue anything but. The delightful family sitcom Trophy Wife has lots of star power (including Bradley Whitford, Malin Akerman, and Marcia Gay Harden), but since the first of the year it’s been cause for celebration whenever the show’s numbers in the key demo of 18–49-year-old viewers cross the 1.0 threshold. (It also loses a substantial portion of its Goldbergs lead-in.) Fox may have realized that it buried military comedy Enlisted on Friday nights, but it didn’t seem too concerned about rectifying that mistake for the best new network comedy of the season, and the show’s numbers sank below an 0.5 for its last original air date. Finally, Hannibal ping-pongs between numbers in its Friday night slot, but it’s usually below a 1.0, too. Those are all terrible performances, and cancelation would be justified.
Yet there’s plenty of buzz among those who know that any or all of these series could still be alive and kicking in the 2014-15 TV season. Certainly, all three could be canceled. But in a TV landscape where Nielsen ratings are increasingly less important to network decision-making, we may be reaching a key point, a time when viewer passion and other hard-to-measure metrics may be just as important to renewal as raw data. And it’s often impossible to know what sorts of data networks are drawing from when they make their decisions. Even a few short years ago, TV statheads and pundits at sites like TV By The Numbers could speak with some degree of authority about shows that would surely fall, no matter how good their ratings. But those proclamations carry less and less weight. We just don’t always know, and ratings have started to seem like only a part of network decision-making—and a less important part with every year.
For instance, consider three other shows: Fox’s The Mindy Project, HBO’s Getting On, and FX’s The Americans. Here are another three shows that couldn’t seem more different on the surface, but they’re also three shows that have one major thing in common: Despite a live viewership you might need a microscope to see (particularly in the case of the HBO show), all have been renewed for new seasons. In particular, most pundits had marked The Mindy Project for death at the end of the season, thanks to losing a substantial portion of an already low lead-in from New Girl. Yet Fox didn’t just renew the show. It renewed the show early, betting not on the program’s ratings right now but on some potential upside in the future—possibly even one a few years from now. Getting On’s renewal was perhaps less surprising, as HBO renews low-rated but promising shows fairly often, but The Americans’ live numbers were dipping into Terriers range, only for FX not just to pick it up, but also to talk about how the network expected it to be a centerpiece of the lineup for years to come.
The most obvious changes are the invention of the DVR and the increasing willingness of networks—even staid old CBS (which renewed the low-rated-for-CBS Good Wife early yet again)—to take long-range ratings data (including DVR numbers) into consideration for renewals. Even a few years ago, networks were hesitant to talk about DVR viewership beyond the first couple of days after air. Yet at the most recent Television Critics Association press tour, Fox president Kevin Reilly was talking about live-plus-30 numbers—that is to say ratings numbers that include the number of viewers who watch a program over the first 30 days after air—and when asked whether she thought such an idea was nuts, Nina Tassler, chair of CBS Entertainment, suggested that she was fine with it, so long as advertisers would pay up. And increasingly, it would seem, they are. The Americans is a good case-in-point here. Judged by live viewership, it’s a bust, but add in seven days of DVR viewing, and the numbers improve by as much as 140 percent.
Yet DVRs—and online streaming—can’t account for all of these changes, for the fact that even the biggest networks are more and more interested in keeping around marginal-to-terrible performers if they attract even the slightest amount of buzz, critical or otherwise. What’s happening isn’t that networks have taken leave of their senses or have run out of options and are just throwing stuff on the air they know will get a certain number (though some degree of both may be true). What’s happening is that TV shows increasingly are seen less as immediate performers and more as long-term assets. The rise of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime in the world of TV has proven to be comparable to the rise of DVD in the world of film. It’s pumping ridiculous amounts of money, even for catalog items, into the fragile network economy. Network TV may no longer occupy the center of the broadcast universe, but it doesn’t need to. A good show, a show that people will want to binge-watch, can pop up anywhere, and the potential upside for it, even if it tanks in its first run, is enormous.
For an example of this, consider the case of New Girl, as explained by Vulture’s Josef Adalian. As Adalian relates, New Girl’s lucrative pact with Netflix means that Fox is able to amortize costs from the show’s production much sooner than it would have in the days when a show needed at least 65 episodes, ideally 100, to get to daily syndication (where the real money was). Now, Netflix can give 20th Century Fox that money shortly after the show’s second season ends, allowing the production of new seasons of New Girl to be funded not just by all of the people watching it now, but by all of the people who might conceivably watch it in the future. It’s a revenue strategy that extends even to shows like Under The Dome (produced by CBS with a substantial monetary boost from Amazon) and Hannibal, which doesn’t cost NBC as much as it might because of lucrative international deals (deals that may keep the show in production for another network or streaming service even if NBC cancels it).
What this all means is that we don’t precisely know what the people who make cancelation decisions in the upcoming weeks will be basing those decisions on. Those decisions will likely be based on different information on a network-by-network basis. Will ABC prioritize Trophy Wife because its parent company owns the show? Or will the fact that it loses so much of The Goldbergs’ audience doom it? Will it help save Enlisted if people tweet about it a lot? Is Sony’s campaign to save Community by galvanizing the fan base behind a Twitter hashtag going to work? And just how much of Hannibal’s budget is NBC responsible for? Is it small enough that the network can reliably say it doesn’t care about the ratings so long as critical acclaim rolls in? Could the network pull a Breaking Bad strategy, hoping that the show grows slowly into a real player thanks to streaming options, finally breaking out when it’s time for Hannibal Lecter to go down once and for all? (This is clearly what FX is betting on with The Americans.) Making this even more difficult to parse is that certain networks seem more open to long-term strategizing than others. If your at-risk show is on a network under the Fox corporate umbrella, it’s probably in better shape than something on ABC, for instance.
Obviously, we will have cancelations as long as we have television, and there will always be unfortunate ones. Just this season, Fox cut down Raising Hope after four consistently funny seasons. And it’s also possible that all of this streaming service and international revenue will prove to be the TV equivalent of the DVD bubble that briefly panicked the film industry when it burst. Making decisions based on theoretical viewers might eventually seem like a bad idea, and the Netflixes of the world may become less loose with their pursestrings once they realize even some of the best shows of all time lost a certain amount of cachet once they were off the air.
Yet it feels like we’ve reached a tipping point: Amazon signed a massive deal with HBO to get HBO content on its streaming site, and Orphan Black garnered fewer than 1 million viewers and still became one of the most buzzed-about shows around. There will never be a time when cancelation doesn’t exist. Just ask fans of Happy Endings. But fans of TV—particularly good, challenging television that pushes boundaries and tries interesting new stuff—have never lived at a time when a marginal performer was more likely to stay alive based solely on hard-to-measure things like audience excitement and critical acclaim. Indeed, we’re to the point where if all three of those shows I mentioned in the first paragraph are canceled, I’ll be more surprised than if all three are renewed.