Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Network Chopping Blocks

 It would seem that the 2011-2012 season has not been a banner year for the broadcast networks. It is only mid-October and already four new shows have been cancelled. This might not seem unusual to many, except when one considers that for much of the Naughts the networks were content to let new shows air until December or January until placing them on their chopping blocks. The only exception to this rule has been Fox, who always seemed to can at least one show before mid-October (often, before the end of September).  In an odd twist, however, Fox is the only broadcast network which has yet to cancel anything this season.

To a degree the start of the 2011-2012 season reflects the start of the 2010-2011 season. By this time last season three shows had been cancelled (Lone Star on Fox, Outlaw on NBC, and My Generation on ABC). This was a sharp contrast to the prior two seasons when only one or two shows were cancelled. During the 2009-2010 season only two shows had been cancelled by this time. During the 2008-2009 season only one show had been cancelled by this time. It would seem then that the cancellation of three to four shows by mid-October is a fairly recent phenomenon.

What makes this year's cancellations even more interesting is that two of the shows cancelled were sitcoms that received dramatically lower ratings than the shows preceding them. NBC's adaptation of the British show Free Agents had an average rating of 1.0, a dramatic drop from the average rating of 2.2 of Up All Night, the show preceding on NBC. It is little wonder then that NBC cancelled the show as of 6 October. As to where the viewers went, I suspect that they switched over to Subugatory on ABC, Suburgatory has averaged a rating of 3.2, up from the show preceding it, The Middle, which has averaged about 2.8. I rather suspect that those viewers who didn't simply find something to watch on cable, DVD, or DVR then switched to ABC.

Of course, what is puzzling to me about the cancellation of Free Agents is that NBC ordered a full season of Up All Night as of 4 October. This puzzles me as Up All Night only has an average rating of 2.2, respectable enough but hardly spectacular. Indeed, it has consistently come in third in its time slot. It seems to me that if NBC was not going to give Free Agents a chance, then they would have moved much more cautiously with regards to Up All Night. I could see ordering a half season, but not a whole season. It is not as if it going to suddenly start beating Survivor and The Middle  in the ratings.

The other sitcom that saw a dramatic drop in the ratings from the show preceding it was CBS's How to Be a Gentleman. How to Be a Gentleman averaged about a rating of about 2.6, down from the established hit The Big Bang Theory, which averaged a rating of 4.6. While this is a dramatic drop, I must still say I am a bit surprised that CBS cancelled the show after only two episodes. How to Be a Gentleman soundly beat Parks and Recreation on NBC, which averaged a rating of 2.1. It also beat Charlie's Angels on ABC and The Vampire Diaries on The CW. As the number 2 show in its time slot, then, it seems odd to me that it did get cancelled, despite losing much of the audience of The Big Bang Theory. The show as thrashed by critics, but then it seems to me that it hasn't been since the days of William S. Paley that CBS worried too much about the quality of a show (let's face, Yes, Dear ran for years). As to where the audience for The Big Bang Theory went, I am thinking that they must have switched over to the second half of X-Factor, watched something on DVD or DVR, or simply turned off the sets. Sadly, they did not apparently switch over to Parks and Recreation, which is one of the best sitcoms on the air right now (for that matter, I think Community is far better than The Big Bang Theory).

While the cancellation of How to Be a Gentleman came as a surprise to me, I was not surprised when I heard the news of the first show to be cancelled. The Playboy Club debuted on NBC with only a rating of 1.6, soundly beating by Hawaii Five-O on CBS and Castle on ABC. Its second weeks its ratings dropped by 19 percent. By its third episode it only pulled a rating of 1.2. It was cancelled by 4 October.

The cancellation of the revival of Charlie's Angels on ABC came as no surprise either. The show debuted with a somewhat respectable 2.1 rating, which dropped the following week to a rating of 1.5. The ratings dropped even further in the next two weeks. In the end it was even beaten by The Vampire Diaries on The CW.

As to why Free Agents, The Playboy Club, and Charlie's Angels did so poorly in the ratings, I suspect much of it may have do with the quality of the shows. I watched both Free Agents and The Playboy Club and I was not impressed with either. In my humble opinion Free Agents committed the cardinal sin of a sitcom--it just was not funny. I did not even laugh once. Critics gave the show mixed reviews at best. Of course, here it is must be pointed out that I found Up All Night unfunny as well, even though critics seemed to have given it better reviews. My own thought is that the reason it received better ratings at the beginning (ratings which have since fell) is its cast--the show stars the ever popular Christina Applegate and SNL veteran Maya Rudolph fresh from her success in Bridesmaids. If not for its cast, I have to wonder Up All Night would not have been gone by early October as well.

As to The Playboy Club, I don't think there can be much debate that it was a bad show. Even if one could overlook the many inaccuracies (if the producers had done any research they apparently threw it out the window), the show was very poorly written. Critics appear to have agreed with me, referring to the show as everything from "cheesy" to "boring." Regardless, anyone expecting a sex filled romp (which would have been unrealistic anyway) was probably sorely disappointed.

I saw neither Charlie's Angels nor How to Be a Gentleman. My brother watched Charlie's Angels and he liked it, nothing that while he would necessarily call it a "good show" it was at least fun and entertaining. A friend of mine said that she thought it was all right for what it was. Critics were a lot less forgiving, giving it on the whole even worse reviews than The Playboy Club. Personally, I have to suspect critics may have been overly hard on the show, but if then it is possible that audiences agreed with them. Its ratings did plummet rather rapidly.

As to How to Be a Gentleman, It also received generally negative reviews. In fact, at the web site Metacritic, users on the whole rated the show lower than professional critics. It is perhaps little wonder that it lost much of the lead in of The Big Bang Theory. While I still do not think its ratings warranted enough for it to be cancelled, it could be that CBS took notice of viewers' reaction to the show. Any show that viewers hate more than critics probably wouldn't be popular with network programming executives.

While I am willing to give Charlie's Angels the benefit of the doubt, it seems to me that Free Agents, The Playboy Club, and How to Be a Gentleman were bad shows (The Playboy Club was really bad) and as a result they received dismal ratings. This is probably complicated by the number of choices viewers have today. Thirty years ago any one of these shows might have survived despite their poor quality, simply because in 1981 viewers more or less had a choice of the networks, something on VHS, or maybe HBO or an independent station. Today there are hundreds of cable channels, DVDs, and the time shifting capacity of the DVR (for all I know a lot of people may have been re-watching some other show during Free Agents). It seems to me that it might now be harder for bad shows to survive. Of course, I must admit that my theory is very flawed, as it fails to explain how so many reality shows survived in the Naughts (I do not think anyone can claim The Simple Life was great television), but it seems the only explanation of how these shows received such low ratings and were cancelled after so very few episodes.

Of course, the next questions is whether or not this is a trend developing in broadcast network television whereby several shows are cancelled before mid-October. After all, it happened last year as well. Honestly, I am not sure that we can tell if it is going to be a trend in the Teens or not. Two years is not a very big sample and next season could be very different. Indeed, it might be significant that Fox has cancelled nothing yet this season. Fox has traditionally been the first network to cancel a show in any given season and usually it does so even before 30 September. The fact that it did not do so this year could be more significant that the other networks did. At any rate, it will be interesting to see what the start of the 2012-2013 season will be like. One thing I would advise the broadcast networks--as if you should not do so already, make sure the shows you air are actually good.

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