What It Takes to Save a Show in Trouble (Hint: Follow the Financials)

Agent Carter
Kelsey McNeal/ABC
Agent Carter

Fans of ABC’s Agent Carter, CBS’ CSI and Fox’s The Following have reason to worry. As the broadcast networks determine their schedules for next season, those shows, among others, are among the active titles that are in danger of heading to the cancellation pile.

Some, like NBC’s The Mysteries of Laura, have better odds than others. The networks announce their 2015-2016 lineups in mid-May, and, according to one studio head, “Every person in my job is doing everything they can to salvage their shows.”

But in reality, there are very few shows that are truly “on the bubble”—industry speak for the limbo where “they’re not a complete failure but not a clear success,” explains one network executive. (Laura, for example, is a bona fide bubble show.)

While many series have already been renewed, others are still waiting for the call. But the fate of many is easy to predict. “Most showrunners have a sense if they’re coming back,” says veteran executive producer Bill Lawrence, who’s confident his NBC comedy Undateable will return. (Here’s why Lawrence is feeling good: The network heavily promoted its return, approved a live episode for May 5, and doesn’t have many other comedies to renew.) “The real bubble shows are the ones that have been flat-out told, ‘We don’t know yet.'”

For those series that could go either way, network executives will look hard at ratings data to see how desirable the audience is (adults 18-49 making more than $100,000 are still key) and whether there’s any opportunity for growth. That includes predicting if some time-shifted DVR and VOD watching can be converted to live viewing, which would bolster the commercial ratings advertisers prefer.

Networks will also review the show’s creative direction and consider if future plot points might attract new audiences (or bring back viewers who left). And they’ll look at the quality of their new pilots to decide if it’s safer to launch an untested series or stick with a low-rated established one. “You want to have a balanced schedule of new and returning shows,” says the network exec. “You only have the capacity to launch so many shows. You need to bring back the familiar to help launch the new.”

But most importantly, key financial considerations determine whether a network keeps a middling series in play. If the network’s sister studio owns the show, executives could face pressure from corporate bosses to save it, particularly if there’s lucrative backend money still to mine. If the series is nearing syndication (which brings in millions of dollars) or is a hit internationally, a studio may be willing to shave a few hundred thousand dollars off the fee the network pays to license it. A studio unaffiliated with the network may even trade partial ownership in the show for an additional season. Sometimes a sponsor comes in to help reduce costs (as Subway did when the sandwich shop rescued NBC’s Chuck from cancellation in 2009).

Still, the studio head says, “financials work only if you believe in the quality of a show” and are confident it has the creative steam to generate enough episodes (around 100) for syndication. “Otherwise, you’re far better off letting a show be canceled after a second season.” Relationships won’t save a show, but don’t hurt. If a network is leaning toward renewing a show anyway, the fact that it comes from an important producer you want to stay in business with might put it over the top. The same is true if the network’s advertising department is pushing hard to save a show.

What about the fans? A passionate audience is nice, as are awards. But they won’t save a show if the economics don’t work. “I’ve never seen that discussion be brought into the scheduling room in an overt way,” says the network exec.

Shows can also be picked up by another network, as was the case with Lawrence’s Scrubs and Cougar Town. This year: Should Fox decide to cancel The Mindy Project, the show is close enough to syndication that NBC (which produces the sitcom through Universal Television) will find another home for it. Networks have also lately been willing to bring dying shows back for one quick, short wrap-up season. Even though CBS’ CSI appears to be on its last legs, there’s a movement inside the Eye network to give the show a quick, proper send-off (perhaps in midseason), given its legacy as the show that helped make CBS a procedural powerhouse.

Lawrence is blunt about the reality of being on the bubble. “If you’re a show that is super expensive, owned by a studio not connected to the network, and you don’t have a passionate core fan base, you’re not really a bubble show,” he says. “You’re done.”

Another point to give showrunners hope: there’s always room for at least one bubble show to pop back onto the schedule. Says the network exec, “Nobody goes into the scheduling discussion saying, ‘We have too much good stuff.'”

Here’s our take on the likely fates of the broadcast networks’ scripted primetime series.

Already Renewed!
How to Get Away With Murder, ABC
2 Broke Girls, CBS
The Big Bang Theory, CBS
Madam Secretary, CBS
Mike & Molly, CBS
Mom, CBS
NCIS: New Orleans, CBS
Scorpion, CBS
Bob’s Burgers, Fox
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fox
Empire, Fox
Gotham, Fox
The Last Man on Earth, Fox
New Girl, Fox
The Simpsons, Fox
Sleepy Hollow, Fox
The Blacklist, NBC
Chicago Fire, NBC
Chicago P.D., NBC
Grimm, NBC
Law & Order: SVU, NBC
Arrow, The CW
Beauty & the Beast, The CW
The Flash, The CW
Jane the Virgin, The CW
The 100, The CW
The Originals, The CW
Reign, The CW
Supernatural, The CW
The Vampire Diaries, The CW

Looking Good
black-ish, ABC
Castle, ABC
Fresh Off the Boat, ABC
The Goldbergs, ABC
Grey’s Anatomy, ABC
Last Man Standing, ABC
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC
The Middle, ABC
Modern Family, ABC
Nashville, ABC
Once Upon a Time, ABC
Scandal, ABC
Secrets and Lies, ABC
Blue Bloods, CBS
Criminal Minds, CBS
Elementary, CBS
The Good Wife, CBS
Hawaii Five-0, CBS
NCIS: Los Angeles, CBS
The Odd Couple, CBS
Person of Interest, CBS
Bones, Fox
Family Guy, Fox
The Mindy Project, Fox
Undateable, NBC
iZombie, The CW

Too Soon To Tell
CSI: Cyber, CBS
A.D. The Bible Continues, NBC
The Night Shift, NBC
One Big Happy, NBC

On Life Support
American Crime, ABC
American Odyssey, NBC
Forever, ABC
Galavant, ABC
Agent Carter, ABC
Cristela, ABC
Resurrection, ABC
Revenge, ABC
Battle Creek, CBS
The McCarthys, CBS
Stalker, CBS
Backstrom, Fox
The Following, Fox
Weird Loners, Fox
About a Boy, NBC
Constantine, NBC
Marry Me, NBC
The Mysteries of Laura, NBC
The Slap, NBC
State of Affairs, NBC
Hart of Dixie, The CW