The Calculus of Canceling TV Shows

So Long, 'My Generation' and 'Lone Star': Why TV Nets Swing the Ax

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Why'd they cancel my show?

'My Generation'
'My Generation' Credit: ABC
More than 75% of new shows fail each TV season, so we're not surprised to hear that the big broadcast networks have already taken an ax and chopped two programs from their fall ranks. After all, none of the new programs launched so far has cracked the top 10 most-watched shows of the season -- a clear signal the nets will have to work a lot harder to get a hit. We are surprised, however, to hear the networks yanked two shows that were considered distinctive and innovative -- and for which critics had high hopes.

Fox's "Lone Star" and ABC's "My Generation" were both cited by media buyers as programs that stood apart from the pack of usual choices (cop shows, procedurals and medical dramas). During the upfront, one senior buyer even suggested "Lone Star," an oil drama centered on a two-timing scoundrel who infiltrates a great old-money family, had the potential to woo ad dollars from female-focused packaged-goods makers -- a nice development for male-skewing Fox. And the same constituencies had positive thoughts about "My Generation," an offbeat concept that looked at a high-school class from Austin, Texas, and how its members grew up and matured.

If the wishes of TV critics and ad honchos ruled the world, then no high-minded TV show would ever be pulled off the air. In reality -- and even reality programming -- TV executives have to abide by the ratings and a complex formula that helps them determine whether a show should stay on the air. It all comes down to revenue -- from advertising during a show's run and from ancillary distribution afterward. If dollars won't be coming in, the program can't remain on the screen. Below, we sketch out the equation that runs around in TV executives' brains:

Can the show find a market after its initial run on our network?
In these days of splintering audiences who often have too many shows to watch at once, this question is more important than ever. After all, if no one tunes in to see a show on its first run, there's likely to be little chatter about it to drive others to catch up on what they missed.

Only around 1.7 million viewers between 18 and 49 have been tuning in to 'Lone Star' in recent weeks.
Only around 1.7 million viewers between 18 and 49 have been tuning in to 'Lone Star' in recent weeks. Credit: Fox
"Lone Star" and "My Generation" were each produced by studios that are part of each network's parent company. Had either found an audience, News Corp. and Disney would have likely tried to get other audiences to buy DVDs, would have tapped international markets and tried to sell the program to a cable network so that older episodes would run two to four years from now. But with the programs clocking around 1.7 million viewers between 18 and 49 ("Lone Star") and 2.1 million viewers between 18 and 49 ("My Generation") in recent weeks -- paltry numbers at best -- the networks likely saw little to gain by keeping either on the air for much longer.

How much longer can we keep a show on the air when its ratings come in at abysmal levels?
TV networks are loath to offer what are known as "make-goods,"or extra commercials, when the ratings levels they guarantee advertisers cannot be met. At this point, it's a pretty safe bet that neither "Lone Star" nor "My Generation" was bringing in the audiences that had been predicted for each.

When networks are required to give up some of their reserve ad inventory for make-goods, it hurts their ability to sell that same inventory as "scatter," or ad time that is sold much closer to air and that usually comes at a premium. So the longer "Lone Star"and "My Generation" brought in lackluster ratings , the more Fox and ABC would have to dip into their reserves of air time and earmark time that could have been sold at a pretty price for what would essentially be extra ads to clients at no extra cost. That's pretty unsustainable.

Let's consider the DVR factor:
Sure, you say, I was gonna watch "Lone Star." I just hadn't gotten around to it. But I have it on my DVR or TiVo and I would have tried it out.

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That's not a reason for a network to keep a show on the air. Yes, TV networks like to boast that the audiences for their programs expand the longer DVR users have to watch their video backlogs, but the simple fact is that advertisers don't want to pay for people who watch their commercials a week or more after they air. Marketers have movies to launch and sales to open. They are only willing to pay for people who watch ads as many as three days later -- and even the value of those audiences is in dispute.

This whole discussion may be moot. The majority of people who watch shows on DVRs skip the ads entirely. So you may get around to watching that program on your DVR, but you aren't helping the network pay its bills.

What are our rivals doing?
"Lone Star" and "My Generation" also had the added whammy of being scheduled against heartier fare. In the case of the Fox drama, "Lone Star" was put up against all kinds of heady competition at rival networks -- including CBS powerhouse "Two and a Half Men," and ABC's standout "Dancing With the Stars." Being placed up against the first episode of NBC's "The Event" -- promoted so heavily over the summer -- didn't help either. Add to the fact that the central character of "Lone Star" was a bigamist looking to con people out of money and you wind up with a show premise that might be better suited to FX, home of flawed-protagonist dramas like "Rescue Me"and "The Shield," than to Fox.

As for "My Generation," it was placed on another competitive night -- Thursdays -- opposite two hot CBS comedies as well as Fox's "Bones" and CW's "Vampire Diaries." It's hard for any show -- let alone one with an unorthodox concept -- to scratch out a new audience against that kind of competitor.

With that kind of thinking, it's a wonder more shows aren't canceled lickety-split.

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