It’s that time of year: TV Deathwatch 2015.

Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project: Image provided by imdb/Universal

Every Spring, the five traditional broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX and NBC) have a lot of decisions to make. Each network has to pick which shows to renew and which to cancel to make room for new programming. Many of those decisions have already been made, either officially (The CW took the unusual step of renewing its entire Fall lineup months ago) or de facto (there is no world in which ABC wouldn’t renew Scandal or Modern Family for next season). Many low-rated programs are “dead shows walking” (Forever? Not so much).

That leaves a decent category of shows subject to the TV Deathwatch 2015. TV By The Numbers has the methodology down: a show’s odds of renewal depend on its relative positioning to the average rating for Adults 18–49 for that show’s network. Shows at or above the average are almost definitely to be renewed. The further a show’s 18–49 ratings are below the average, the more likely it is to be cancelled. Their assessments of various shows’ odds seem pretty spot on.

Here are a few things to consider.

TV Deathwatch 2015: The 18–49 Tyranny

Complaints about the networks’ focus on viewers in the 18–49 age range are not new. There is some validity to criticisms that advertiser focus on this age group are misplaced. It’s steeped in a 1950s notion of which consumers have disposable income and are persuadable to try new products.

Casey Wilson and Ken Marino in Marry Me: Image provided by imdb/NBC

Premium cable networks and streaming services, which are subscription-based, have largely freed themselves from overwhelming concern with demographic breakdowns. As long as they collect their fees every month, the age of the subscriber is largely irrelevant.

Advertising revenue is still the largest revenue source for broadcast networks. As such, the networks are beholden to what the advertising community demands. Media buyers still place an almost exclusive focus on ratings in the 18–49 age group as the determining factor in advertising purchases. It can be maddening for networks and fans for shows with a large overall audience but a small 18–49 following to have all those other viewers discounted. But with rare exceptions (usually for programs targeted at a desirable and hard-to-reach teen audience), the 18–49 rating is still the biggest factor in a renewal decision.

TV Deathwatch 2015: DVR, OnDemand and Platform Viewing

Viewing patterns have been changing for years. The introduction of the VCR in the late 1970s made time-shifting programs possible. The VCR became widely used in the ‘80s and started to erode the live viewing model. But that was a slow process. Newer technology, such as TiVo and the DVR, continued the time-shifting trend. More recently, viewers have had even more options: OnDemand cable service that freed viewers from even having to record a show; availability of episodes online, either on networks’ web sites or through web/streaming services like Hulu/Hulu Plus and Netflix; and paid per-episode downloads on iTunes or Amazon.

For DVR viewing, advertisers are willing to consider only playback within three days of the original broadcast. Many fans prefer to stockpile episodes of a show and marathon view it at some later point. And fans who don’t binge watch still often wait several days before viewing a DVR’ed episode. That means that shows that get a meaningful 18–49 rating spike within three days tend to be shows that already have healthy 18–49 ratings. Only a small handful of moderately-rated shows tend to see a significant uptick within three days.

Networks would prefer advertisers consider seven days. Many shows tend to see a significant increase in both overall and 18–49 ratings when looking at the seven-day numbers. But advertisers aren’t convinced of the utility of that timeframe. Networks still flog the seven-day numbers, both as a PR stunt and as a propaganda tool. If the networks keep pushing the seven-day increases, there’s a chance they’ll wear down advertisers. But that hasn’t happened yet.

OnDemand viewing presents a similar situation. If networks present the original broadcast, with all ads intact and the Fast Forward functionality disabled, advertisers will consider OnDemand viewing within three days of the original broadcast. But like DVR playback, most OnDemand viewing tends to occur after that three-day window.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu: Image provided by imdb/CBS

As for other platform viewing, that’s a developing area. For most of the broadcast networks, the fees that the network collects for running episodes on its web site or for allowing episodes to stream on Hulu or be purchased on iTunes is fairly modest compared to what networks collect in advertising revenue. Until platform viewing becomes a significant revenue source (and there’s enough of the pie going around to satisfy the network, the production company and the platform provider), it’s not much of a factor in renewal decisions. Only The CW has indicated it gives platform viewing any kind of significant consideration, and that’s only because CW series tend to have much smaller budgets, thus making platform revenues more relevant. But even with the CW, there’s no evidence that platform viewing has been significant enough to save any bubble show.

TV Deathwatch 2015: Syndication Prospects

If you peruse TV By The Numbers’ predictions, you’ll note several shows with low or middling ratings as all but guaranteed renewals. Those are third-year series that, by season’s end, will have an episode count in the mid-60s. While series can launch into profitable second run syndication with fewer episodes, the current standard is 88. That number is conducive to Monday to Friday “stripped” syndication and can be a long-term source of massive profits for production companies.

Thus producers of shows like Nashville, The Mindy Project and Elementary, which otherwise might be borderline contenders for renewal at best, have a big incentive to get a fourth season, to increase episode counts.

Nashville and Elementary are in the best position. Each is produced by a production company affiliated with the network on which the show airs. Since the long-term interests of the greater conglomerate are served by producing an additional season, the network division involved will deal with potentially lower revenues now (though it will put pressure on the studio sibling to contain costs).

Even though The Mindy Project isn’t a FOX Studios production, it still has a strong shot at returning. Half-hour comedies are among the most profitable properties in the syndication market. They present more flexibility in scheduling and are friendlier to casual and “drop in” viewers. So Universal (Mindy’s production company) will probably swallow a lot of costs in order to convince FOX to order one more season. Network economics are such that executives usually will go for the predictable revenues (even if modest) of a known performer they can get cheaply instead of taking a chance on a new program.

TV Deathwatch 2015: Veteran Dramas

Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic: Image provided by imdb/ABC

Many veteran dramas have already hit and passed their minimum syndication windows. With ratings in decline and costs increasing, it can be a tricky calculus for networks to decide what to bring back. Those cost considerations create a blind spot in the usual model, where relative 18–49 ratings are within renewable range for a network, but costs could be a dealbreaker.

Take ABC’s Castle. It’s an ABC Studios production and, in its seventh season, already has commenced a lucrative syndication deal. Ratings have been eroding for a couple seasons now, but are still within a range that could justify renewal. There’s no syndication imperative, beyond gilding an already lucrative property. The biggest stumbling block: leads Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic aren’t signed for an eighth season. At a point in its life when a series like Castle needs to cut costs to stay on the air, producers are faced with having to re-sign key stars who, knowing how much the production company is making in syndication, will expect healthy raises. Raises for the leads might require cuts elsewhere, including letting go valuable supporting cast members or other production shortcuts. Expect heated negotiations between the network and production divisions on a potential renewal.

CBS faces even more of a difficult choice with its veteran dramas. CSI (15th season), The Good Wife (6th season), Hawaii Five-O (5th season) and Blue Bloods (5th season) are all CBS Studios productions. At best, the shows have ratings that make them borderline cases. Some have pulled in numbers this season that make them clear cancellation targets. All have syndication deals that generate decent revenues (some more than others). Costs for some are higher than others. With CBS having already renewed a trio of freshman dramas and with the ratings for other veterans all but guaranteeing renewal, the network needs to clear some space for new series launches in the Fall.

Tom Selleck and Len Cariou: Image provided by imdb/CBS

TV By The Numbers has CSI pegged as a likely casualty. A steady performer on other nights, its ratings collapsed on Sundays and its episode order was cut (never a good sign). It’s also the most expensive of the four dramas. Among the other three, Hawaii Five-O and Blue Bloods get a bit of a pass for lower 18–49 numbers for airing on Friday nights, where more modest ratings are acceptable. Five-O is probably the more expensive program, due to producing in Hawaii (even though CBS owns the production facility there). There have also been rumblings that some key cast members are ready to move back to the mainland. That could put it in more jeopardy than Bloods, which has been drawing slightly better numbers and runs a fairly economical New York-based production. The Good Wife, meanwhile, has battled years of poor 18–49 numbers. Overall costs for the New York-based production probably aren’t bad, but the show’s losing key cast members and its industry awards probably count for far less than some observers might think. But it’s defied the odds before, so it’s hard to count it out this time.

TV Deathwatch 2015: NBC Comedy

The once vaunted home of “Must See TV” has fallen on hard times. Even its respected, modestly-rated comedies of the last decade are now all gone. What’s left has been a big mess. NBC’s Thursday comedies A to Z and Bad Judge were a disaster and didn’t make it out of the Fall. Tuesday comedies About A Boy and Marry Me started off promisingly, but collapsed without a lead-in from The Voice. They’ve been M.I.A. for months. Spring comedies Undateable (which had a relatively successful Summer run last year) and One Big Happy have been modestly rated, following the Spring run of The Voice. NBC is in a position where, for the first time in years, they might not renew any comedies.

Chris D’Elia in Undateable: Image provided by imdb/NBC

It’s hard to fathom that NBC would have no comedy on its Fall 2015 schedule. The network has announced a revival of the old ABC sitcom Coach, featuring original star Craig T. Nelson (late of NBC’s recently wrapped Parenthood). That indicates the network intends to have at least one hour of comedy, somewhere on its schedule. If NBC decides it needs one veteran comedy to pair with Coach, Undateable probably has the edge (be it ever so slight). But an NBC Comedy Apocalypse is not out of the question.

Originally published at on April 8, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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