Are Quality Shows Doomed on Network TV?

Evil Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist Prodigal Son
Paramount+; NBC; Fox

In an age where streaming and cable seem to be in a competition to one-up each other with fresh-out-of-the-box shows, network television somehow seems to be moving in the opposite direction. We only need to take a look at the most recent fate of a number of broadcast series, as the last TV season comes to a close. NBC axed the musical drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (despite our passionate plea for them to renew), as well as the network’s newest sci-fi offering Debris, leaving the more established Lost-inspired Manifest on the bubble. Fox’s serial-killer procedural Prodigal Son has also bit the dust, while the Silence of the Lambs sequel, CBS’ Clarice, remains on the bubble (and may be moving to streaming), and the demonic Evils long-awaited second season moves to Paramount+. These are all shows that put a significant twist on the more traditional drama or procedural, and they can’t seem to gain traction. What is going on here?

It’s not like there are a plethora of fascinating and risky shows that have been renewed lately, and this group just didn’t make that cut. Indeed, the fall 2021 schedule is bloated with procedural franchise fare (the exception to this seems to be the CW, which has made its trademark in putting out weird shows). NBC may possibly be the worst culprit with two full nights of Dick Wolf shows — the Chicago shows (Med, Fire, and P.D.) will take over Wednesday nights, while the various Law & Orders dominate Thursdays. NBC even moved all of its comedies to midseason to make room for this. ABC’s fall schedule at least still has a bunch of returning dramas that are beloved by fans.


Clarice on CBS

Of course, there’s no one reason why each of these shows suffered their fate. Clarice may offer us the most clarity, as the big marketing push was occasionally misguided, and the choppy scheduling didn’t help. One misstep here was a Super Bowl commercial that didn’t even include any footage from the actual show, and instead just had a lot of imagery of lambs (I’m not kidding), failing to give viewers a good sense of what the show is. With the series off the air several weeks in between episodes, it never built up enough steam to have a strong fanbase. Viewers just don’t seem to know that this show exists.

Prodigal Son may have had a similar problem, where despite a stellar cast (Catherine Zeta-Jones!!!) and a big hook as its premise, Fox never seemed to know how to market it. TV has seen a number of quirky police consultants pass through over the years (Psych, Monk, etc.), but one with a serial killer for a father is definitely new. And yet, despite consistently good buzz, the series ratings dropped in Season 2.

The Most Painful Cancellations of the 2020-2021 TV SeasonSee Also

The Most Painful Cancellations of the 2020-2021 TV Season

At least half ended on such major cliffhangers that it's unbelievable fans won't find out what's next.

Zoey’s also took a small ratings dip in its sophomore season, and yet with its big splashy musical numbers, one could easily see it thriving on a cable channel. The folks who make this show, as well as its stars, have made it clear they’re not done yet, and are actively shopping around for a new home. One thing the series has going for it is a dedicated fan base that already had the hashtag #SaveZoeysPlaylist trending at #1 on Wednesday night, the night the news of the cancellation broke.

Zoey’s situation raises an interesting question: do networks just not know anymore what to do with shows that aren’t straight procedurals, sitcoms, or reality TV? Would Zoey’s have been a huge hit had it been put out by a streaming service or a cable network from the start? We’ve seen it before, after all. Lifetime’s You (admittedly not a network show) flew under the radar until it landed on Netflix and support for the disturbing stalker drama exploded. In that case, it seemed people genuinely weren’t aware of the show until Netflix had it, despite a big marketing push from Lifetime prior to its premiere.

Victoria Pedretti Penn Badgley You Season 2 Love Joe

You on Netflix

So, if that’s the case, are people just not paying attention to what’s airing week to week, and only to what they can binge? Many streamers’ recent pivot back to weekly episode drops proves otherwise – just look at the recent sensation that was WandaVision. Cable seems to be doing alright as well — *cough* Mare of Easttown. So maybe people just forget at this point that the networks do carry more than just your standard cop procedural and essential reality TV like the Bachelor franchise.

In that case, the solution may be to double down – lean further into the more risky, creative shows that they’ve become afraid of. They may not have a choice. As people start to automatically look to streaming and cable for their twisty dramas, sci-fi/fantasy epics, and horror slowburns, network TV may just do what everyone already thinks it will – die. (The time-traveling DC’s Legends of Tomorrow made a crack on a recent episode about how in the future network TV is hanging on by a single show. “Network TV is still alive?” says an incredulous Nate.) Ambitious shows can’t be a rarity on network television; they need to be so common that people can’t help but pay attention to whatever’s happening on there. It doesn’t help when the one off-beat show that seems to be doing well, Evil, gets moved to streaming as well (even if in this case it may have been moved to try to convince viewers to subscribe to Paramount+).

It’s true, procedural franchises like NCIS, FBI, Chicago, and Law & Order (with three shows each) are nice and reliable. But if the networks continue on this trajectory of playing it safe, they won’t be able to complain when they look around and realize that all of their viewers are gone, because it will be their own faults.