A Brief History Of (TV) Failure

Posted by

This was written by the reaper’s friend @TVTomShaw in October, 2014, but it’s still timely today during the blizzard of “no shows have yet been canceled” nonsense from the TV media.

This week, virtually every media reporter published something on what the lack of cancellations so far this season means. While most have fallen into the usual (network talking point) categories of having to wait for the C3/On Demand/Streaming numbers, the most likely answer is this is just the next logical step in how networks have handled failed shows over the last decade.

Ye Olden Days

Long ago, the process was simple: a DOA new show had production stopped, was pulled off the schedule, and replaced by repeats of another show. After two or three weeks of promotion, another new show was tried in the timeslot. It turns out that was a terrible process for trying to launch new shows, and almost inevitably those freshman follow-ups joined their predecessors on the cancellation pile. New shows needed significant advance promotion and premiere scheduling at one of the natural* “reset points” of the year (January, post-Olympics).

The Veterans in Reserve

What did work (especially as the ratings of repeats collapsed) was plugging in an existing veteran into the hole created by a failed freshman. These veterans (commonly nicknamed “spackle”) had a pre-existing audience and would give their networks bearable numbers with little promotion until another new show could premiere at one of those reset points. The problem (for the networks) was that each of those veteran spackle shows was $25 Million or more they were leaving on the shelf until needed – possibly not until Summer (where the networks had no chance of recouping their costs).

Delayed Start Spackle

The networks attempted to literally have their cake and eat it too by creating the concept of Delayed Start Spackle – they would take their veteran backups and schedule them on Fridays** (where they could get regular season ad revenue if they weren’t needed as replacements) while delaying their starts until late October or after (to give the networks time to find out if any freshman shows needed replacing). Friday ratings continued to collapse (making scripted programming generally unprofitable there) and the usual failed freshmen meant virtually none of these shows ever even aired a single episode on Fridays (revealing the PR sham it was all along and voiding their upfront ad sales). “Spackle” turned into syndication-padding partial orders of shows in their final seasons (e.g. One Tree HillParks & RecreationThe Mentalist) given regular scheduling. Networks have almost completely abandoned the concept of emergency spackle, leading to the current state of…

The Let it Ride Era

So what does a network do when they have a failure and nothing to replace it with?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

If a failed show is staying above the level of repeats (or if the network, like Fox, simply doesn’t have any  shows to repeat), the only modern option is to just let the flop air until you can reboot with a new show at that natural reset point in January. (Something like Red Band Society might even get a couple extra episodes just to cover the timeslot until the follow-up can take over.) Networks might be able to cut the size of the order down slightly (as with Mulaney), but will likely be forced to keep airing failed shows, at least until Holiday specials can take over.

Or to summarize, Fox’s Mob Doctor wasn’t a weird historical footnote. It was the harbinger of our new, terrifying present.

*Why those natural reset points work is an interesting question. Do Holiday specials and the Olympics bring in different eyeballs who wouldn’t normally see their promos? Do Holiday specials and the Olympics break the routine of viewers of other shows and allow them to try something new? Or do the short orders of cable series mean significant audience is suddenly up for grabs?

**Strapped for space CBS was even forced to schedule Rules of Engagement on Saturdays.

Tom Shaw is a computer programmer from Milwaukee, WI. Bereft of Lost theories to argue about, he’s spent too much time attempting to figure out the TV industry.

Here’s a 2015 update from the reaper:

Trim The Episode Orders, And The Costs, Era

Instead of letting rookie ratings losers run through their 13 ordered episodes this season, four shows (The Player, Truth Be Told, Blood & Oil, Minority Report) have had their 13 episode orders trimmed down to 9 or 10 instead.

This is simply an evolution of the last era described by @TVTomShaw (and somewhat anticipated by him).

It’s got nothing to do with “the new way we watch TV,” or “networks wanting to take extra time to decide” or any other nonsense you may have read in the TV media. Instead, it’s almost certainly due to new contract terms that make it financially advantageous for networks to end the production of doomed shows earlier than they would have in the past.