Conventional wisdom holds that sweeps periods, especially those in November and May, are the final shot for struggling new shows to show that they've got what it takes to keep viewers and advertisers.
These days, arguably, making it to sweeps is quite the achievement for shows, as the beginning of the 2011-12 season has already seen many casualties before the Halloween pumpkins begin to rot. Perpetual also-ran NBC made "The Playboy Club" the first canceled show of the season after only three episodes, while its "Free Agents" managed to stay on the air for four weeks. "Charlie's Angels" (ABC), "How to be a Gentleman" (CBS) and "H8R" (the CW) also faced early demises.
Early cancellations of shows are nothing new, and there are plenty of shows that get weak ratings still on the air. However, it seems as though there are more vocal critics of networks canceling shows before they find their footing. After "The Playboy Club" was canceled, star David Krumholtz fired off a rant on Twitter, ultimately tweeting (before deleting) "NBC fucked up. Retweeet that shit." Many viewers of the show, based on comments I've seen online, said that after a weak pilot, the show was beginning to find its footing.
So, here's the ultimate question: Are networks jumping the gun by not giving under-performing shows a chance? Or, are they acting smart by making room for shows that may fare better?
One could argue that both the Nielsen ratings system and the traditional network scheduling format are now out-of-date. Nielsen skews heavily toward older audiences (as it doesn't record college residence hall TVs), which likely hurts new, creatively risky shows that older or conservative audiences may shy away from (such as "Arrested Development"), and with TiVo, smartphones and VOD services, it's much easier for people to watch shows at their own leisure. With "The Playboy Club," the show was canceled within 24 hours of its third airing, which doesn't give a lot of opportunities for people to catch up, or a lot of buzz to build. In the not-so-recent-past, networks allowed shows like "The Office" to grow into cash cows after being dismissed in the onset. Could these canceled shows have grown to become hits? Audiences will never know (let's be honest ... we can probably say "no" to "H8R"). Additionally, canceling show after show reflects badly upon a network. Fox and NBC in particular seem to have a reputation for this, which means that viewers may be less likely to try new shows until they're safe bets for renewal, which doesn't bode well for shows from the get-go. Being less antsy on the big red cancellation button shows stability. Maybe a weak show won't make six seasons and a movie, but it may make it past episode three.
When looking at new media, networks may have a different perspective. DVR viewings may help the long-run ratings, but it won't help get advertisers to stick around or gain immediate buzz. How many times have you taken a "wait and see" approach to shows? Waited to see if the reviews would be good, waited to see if the show would be canceled, waited until it was on DVD? It's easier to watch shows on one's own schedule now, but in a culture where it's important to have the newest, shiniest products, networks really can't let shows languish in ratings and ad revenue limbo to see if they catch on, especially if the show is currently an expensive and high-profile risk (as "The Playboy Club" was). Let's not forget that new media makes it easier for bad press to spread. I don't know how many times I've read advanced reviews or watched leaked pilot episodes that helped me to think negatively of a show. How is a show supposed to move on from that?
As someone who often watches shows that met what may be seen as an untimely demise, I tend to side with the first theory, but the second certainly has its merits, especially as the networks try to adapt to new media. Is there a blanket "yes" or "no" answer, or is it circumstantial? Leave a comment with your thoughts.