The broadcast networks took most of the guesswork out of this year’s pickups, renewing the lion’s share of their returning shows far in advance of their May upfront presentations (when they reveal their fall schedules to advertisers). There aren’t many shows left “on the bubble” — the popular parlance for shows in primetime limbo. But for the series with uncertain fates, a lot of factors in the next few weeks will determine whether they live or die.
Ratings used to be the controlling factor in renewing or canceling a show, but with most series now averaging less than a 2.0 rating in the core adults 18-49 demographic, it’s virtually impossible now to gauge a show’s success by Nielsen numbers alone. “When you wake up every day and every show is between a 0.8 and a 1.4, with a few exceptions, I think what a bubble show is more a financial thing than a creative thing,” says former Fox and NBC scheduling exec Preston Beckman.
Series ownership has been a key factor since the mid-1990s, when regulatory rules were relaxed and networks could begin owning more of their own programming. But being in control of your hits has become even more important in the age of streaming, as more viewers avoid the linear telecast and wait to access those shows on another platform.
Popular on IndieWire
We asked network scheduling execs past and present to come up with a checklist to help predict whether your favorite show will live or die. Every show is different, and sometimes there are outliers that are renewed or canceled to the confusion of everyone. But the more you say “yes” to the questions below, the more likely your show has a chance of coming back.
1. Are the ratings great? If so, you’re in the fast lane to being picked up. The bar is always dropping, but if you average over a 2.5 rating among adults 18-49 these days, you’re strong. Most series, however, fall below that line, which means almost every show is equal these days. Yes, time-shifted viewing is nice, and Live+3 and Live+7 ratings — which include DVR and VOD usage — helps boost ratings much higher than that. But in most cases, a hit’s a hit and a flop’s a flop. If no one showed up for the live telecast, it’s rare for it to suddenly become a hit days later. That may change, especially for shows geared toward younger audiences. And several networks have stopped touting Live+Same Day ratings. But it’s baby steps.
2. Is the network happy with the creative? If the ratings aren’t there, but network execs love the show, critics are happy, awards are coming in and it’s adding a nice patina to your lineup, then there’s more of an impetus to find a way to make it work. “I remember [former Fox Group chairman/CEO] Peter Chernin sitting in a room one year saying, ‘I will not be the person who kills ‘Arrested Development,'” Beckman recalled. Said another network exec: “Creatively, where is the show? Has it run its course, or are there stories left to tell? Some shows run out of gas, while some can run forever.”
3. Does the network own the show? This is now the biggie. If the network doesn’t own the show, and the ratings and creative are both weak, you’re already done. But if the show comes from the network’s sister studio, there’s a stronger chance for survival — especially if you can tick “yes” on some of the other boxes below. ” I don’t know why you pick up anything if you don’t own it,” Beckman said. That plays into the next point.
4. Are there already backend dollars coming in? If the network owns the show, and it’s already earning off-network revenue from streaming, traditional syndication, international, even DVD sales, then the number crunchers may see value in keeping things going. This is also true if a show is in year three and getting close to a traditional syndication payout. “If you look at all the potential revenue, including license fee and ad dollars, and if syndication is already built in, you can break a show into an ultimate, bottom line revenue number,” one exec said.
5. Is the show’s cost and license fee still low? Said one insider: “Are you still under the show’s first contract and cheap or are you in the sixth, seventh or eighth year of a show, and talent costs have gone up?” Sometimes a studio, hungry to keep a show on the air, will reduce the license fee to next to nothing – making it easy for the network to pick it up as a backup. (That’s how Sony TV famously kept “Rules of Engagement” on CBS for many years.)
6. Does the network’s fall schedule need it? Perhaps executives are disappointed with this year’s crop of crappy pilots. Maybe a big show is going away (for example, “American Idol” on Fox) and the network has too many holes to fill already. On the flip side, maybe the network already renewed too many shows, or has a big franchise coming (like “Thursday Night Football” on NBC) and suddenly there’s no room.
7. Is the network’s sales team lobbying to keep the show? Said Beckman: “Sometimes sales wants us to announce this show, it helps them for whatever reason. Eighty percent of the time their reasons are bullshit. But we picked up a lot of shows we knew we didn’t want because the sales team said, ‘I can sell it.'”
8. Does the network have an important relationship with the show’s auspices? Deciding whether or not to cancel a Shonda Rhimes show is a very different conversation than deciding whether or not to cancel a show with B-list talent and lesser-known showrunners.
9. Are there any other financial deals to keep the show alive? NBC struck a deal with DirecTV, for example, to keep “Friday Night Lights” going because, even though the ratings weren’t there, the show was a creative triumph, and one network execs wanted to aggressively save.
10. Are there unforeseen corporate politics impacting the show’s fate? This could be anything. Maybe there’s some last minute horse-trading behind the scenes. Perhaps the CEO has a thing for this show. Or hates the lead. This is why nobody really knows anything. There are so many variables that outsiders can’t predict.
Notice what’s not on here: “Save Our Show” campaigns. While they’re nice, and every once in a while can get a network jazzed (see CBS’ “Jericho” renewal in 2007), you probably noticed by now that most of the checklist above has to do with one important thing: Money.
Now, let’s use NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura” as a case study from this year’s bubble chart.
“The Mysteries of Laura” (NBC)
1. Are the ratings great? It’s not an 18-49 juggernaut, but “Laura” is solid with total viewers, averaging around 8 million viewers.
2. Is the network happy with the creative? It’s a procedural, and doing what a procedural does. It won’t win any awards, but there’s still a huge audience for this kind of show. (See: “NCIS.”)
3. Does the network own the show? No. Warner Bros. TV produces.
4. Are there already backend dollars coming in? No, but as the show potentially enters year 3, Warner Bros. TV is looking down the line at perhaps a nice cable syndication deal.
5. Is the show’s cost and license fee still low? It’s expensive: Hour-long show, and big star in Debra Messing.
6. Does the network’s fall schedule need it? Not necessarily. NBC has Dick Wolf’s ever-growing stable of “Chicago” shows to satisfy procedural fans. And as mentioned, the arrival of Thursday Night Football in late fall, and the continued strength of two nights of “The Voice,” means NBC’s schedule is pretty full.
7. Is the network’s sales team lobbying to keep the show? Unclear.
8. Does the network have an important relationship with the show’s auspices? Superstar showrunner Greg Berlanti is an executive producer, and NBC is also in business with him on the hit “Blindspot.”
9. Are there any other financial deals to keep the show alive? Unclear.
10. Are there unforeseen corporate politics impacting the show’s fate? Also unclear. NBC and Warner Bros. TV appear to have a good relationship.
Verdict: 50/50, but perhaps if the license fee is brought down, that will be enough for NBC to renew “The Mysteries of Laura” for Season 3.
Now here’s what’s already picked up, looking good, on the bubble or dead at the broadcast networks:
Renewed: “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” “The Bachelor,” “Black-ish,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “Fresh off the Boat,” “The Goldbergs,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “The Middle,” “Modern Family,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Quantico,” “Scandal,” “Shark Tank.”
Likely to return: “Castle,” “Dr. Ken,” “Last Man Standing.”
Bubbles: “American Crime,” “The Catch,” “The Family,” “The Muppets,” “Nashville,” “The Real O’Neals.”
Not likely: “Galavant,” “Marvel’s Agent Carter.”
Renewed: “The Amazing Race,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Blue Bloods,” “Elementary,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Madam Secretary,” “Mom,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Scorpion,” “Survivor,” “2 Broke Girls.”
Likely to return: “Life in Pieces,” “Supergirl”
Bubbles: “Code Black,” “Criminal Minds,” “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” “CSI: Cyber,” “Limitless,” “The Odd Couple,” “Undercover Boss”
Not likely: “Rush Hour.”
Renewed: “The Blacklist,” “Blindspot,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med,” “Chicago P.D.,” “Grimm,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Little Big Shots,” “Shades of Blue,” “Superstore,” “The Voice.”
Likely to return: “The Biggest Loser,” “The Carmichael Show,” “Hollywood Game Night.”
Bubbles: “Crowded,” “Game of Silence,” “The Mysteries of Laura,” “Telenovela,” “Undateable.”
Not likely: “Heartbeat,” “Truth Be Told.”
Renewed: “Bob’s Burgers,” “Bones,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Empire,” Family Guy,” “Gotham,” “The Last Man on Earth,” “Lucifer,” “Masterchef,” “New Girl,” “Rosewood,” “Scream Queens,” “The Simpsons,” “World’s Funniest.”
Likely to return: “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Bubbles: “Grandfathered,” “The Grinder,” “Sleepy Hollow.”
Not likely: “Bordertown,” “Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life,” “Second Chance.”
Renewed: “Arrow,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” “The Flash,” “iZombie,” “Jane the Virgin,” “The 100,” “The Originals,” “Reign,” “Supernatural,” “The Vampire Diaries.”
Stay on top of the latest TV news! Sign up for our TV email newsletter here. And now, enjoy a video about “The Muppets.”