On the cusp. On the bubble. Use whatever TV-racket terminology you want, but after the cusp or the bubble comes one of two things – more episodes or outright cancellation.
Television is the most brutal of rackets. This past week saw the cancellation of three of the new season's most highly regarded series: ABC's 666 Park Avenue and Last Resort and CBS's Partners. This follows the earlier cancellation of NBC's Animal Practice after only three episodes and CBS's Made In Jersey after it was on the air for about five minutes.
In related news, the current season of Anderson Cooper's daytime talk show will be its last. And Starz, the U.S. cable channel, has decided not to proceed with a third season of the wonderful Boss.
Why do shows fail? Well, if there was an easy answer, no shows would ever fail. There are no easy answers. But here's a theory for network TV right now: There are just too many shows.
Ratings and money do matter most. A drama is more likely than a sitcom to be cancelled if the number of viewers is disappointing the network. A drama costs more to make and is a bigger drain on resources than a sitcom. It is also more difficult to retool once production is under way if there's an impulse to tweak the show to attract more male viewers, female viewers or young viewers. And, after all, there are only so many times it can be revealed that the previous six episodes turned out to be somebody's dream.
What matters most is scheduling. Last Resort aired on Thursdays at 8 p.m., up against The Big Bang Theory and The X-Factor. The ABC plan, we can only guess, was to draw people toward an intelligent, vaguely paranoid drama that required some concentration from viewers. That is, those viewers who were not amused by The Big Bang Theory, or tired of it, and were disinclined to watch the fake drama of wannabe pop stars competing on The X-Factor while Simon Cowell feigned interest and indignation. The plan failed. Even those who want intelligent drama are suckers for the well-crafted comedy of Big Bang.
You could say Last Resort was always a 9 p.m. show, a slot that would have allowed it to be more adult. But, at 9 p.m., ABC has Grey's Anatomy, which is still a solid hit, and at 9 p.m., Last Resort would have competed for viewers with Person of Interest on CBS and Glee on Fox. Mind you, as is so often these days, the team behind Last Resort hoped to pick up viewers from delayed DVR viewing, and the show was heavily DVR'd. Thing is, in the real world, people always record more than they get around to watching and not enough people saw Last Resort on DVR before the ratings didn't matter any more.
666 Park Avenue had a different problem. With a strong, engrossing pilot episode, its task was to draw viewers into the paranormal doings at a Manhattan apartment building. It aired at 10 p.m. on Sundays, with a lead-in from the red-hot drama Scandal. But the show's failure also compels us to wonder if, in fact, there are too many shows.
Sunday is a very busy night on network and cable. Awards shows. The Simpsons. Serious Masterpiece drama or major documentaries on PBS. Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead and Homeland on cable. In the matter of DVR viewing, people will tape The Walking Dead to watch later and will indeed watch it because it has a short season. 666 Park Avenue, not so much.
This has not been the most imaginative or strongest of fall TV seasons. One reason is that the four U.S. networks had plenty of existing hits and didn't need to retool or reinvent their schedules.
Still, the networks have yet to grapple with the erosion of the mass audience, the growth of cable and the distractions of the Internet. There are only so many hours that can be devoted to TV viewing each week. Choices must be made. The era of couch-adhesion is over. More channels, more choices, the DVR and online streaming mean that hardly anyone sits and watches one show after another all evening.
This is the new reality. So, why are shows killed? The answer is this: There are too many of them.
Nova: Inside The Megastorm (PBS, 8 p.m.) is for those who got addicted to the coverage of Hurricane Sandy. Here, Nova trains a serious eye on the storm. It asks, "Was Hurricane Sandy a freak combination of weather systems? Or are hurricanes increasing in intensity due to a warming climate?" There's a minute-by-minute account of the storm's creation and then devastating impact. There is also a look at the possible future of storm protection. No TV reporters swaying in the wind and rain to illustrate that, yeah, it's raining and windy.
All times ET. Check local listings.