Networks loath to cancel series, even weak ones

“Wicked City,” which stars Heather Grace Hancock (from left), Ed Westwick and Erika Christensen, was recently canceled by ABC.

Recently, something happened in network television that is almost unheard-of these days: A show got canceled.

The ABC drama “Wicked City” was the first show of the new television season to get the ax. Industry executives said that was the longest cancellation-free streak to start a season in recent memory.

This is not because of the strength of the freshman class from the four major networks, which includes heavily marketed shows that have failed to draw big audiences, including ABC’s “The Muppets” and Fox’s “Scream Queens.”

Instead, it speaks to a gripping anxiety that has spread throughout an industry where hits are in short supply and network officials are becoming extra cautious about dropping something too soon.

To hear them talk about new shows this year, they sound less like cutthroat executives and more like forgiving teachers: That student may be flunking, but maybe, just maybe, he can turn things around.

“In the old days, you knew by the third or fourth week if a show truly had traction,” said Mark Pedowitz, the president of the CW Television Network. “You’re now looking at seven or eight episodes before you get a determination. You’ll know more come some time by December and January.”

There are several reasons for this. Ratings are down across all of television, creating a level playing field where shows do not have to stand out to survive. In between a few hits and a handful of shows on life support is a vast middle ground where even struggling programs can muddle on.

There are more shows than ever: More than 400 will appear across broadcast television, cable and online services by year’s end, setting a record, and viewers are inundated with options.

Executives want to give an audience time to find a show. And the networks also have access to a sea of data and statistics packed with delayed viewing numbers where, if one looks closely enough, it is possible to find flickering signs of promise.

Glenn Geller, the new president of CBS Entertainment, said in an interview that “in the last couple of years, and certainly this year, you just kind of have to give it more time.

“It’s going to take a little longer to evaluate the metrics,” he said. “The overnights are just not the complete picture anymore, and every viewer counts.”

The only viewers that count significantly to advertisers are the ones that tune in within the first three days of a show’s airing. But those delayed viewing numbers have made executives more hesitant about canceling something that could be poised for a turnaround.

“What if you have a ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘The Office,’ a show that you believe in and, with nurturing and time, can find an audience?” said Warren Littlefield, the former president of NBC Entertainment.

Instead of cancellations, networks have put shows with poor ratings on notice another way this year: by trimming back episode orders. That dubious distinction has befallen “Minority Report” on Fox, “Blood & Oil” on ABC, and the NBC series “Truth Be Told” and “The Player.” It is widely believed that shows whose episode orders are cut are all but finished.

“Wicked City,” however, earned its cancellation. A drama about serial killers set in 1980s Los Angeles, starring Ed Westwick and Erika Christensen, it recorded a woeful 0.4 rating in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic in its third episode last week (that translates to about 567,000 viewers). That was enough to get the show removed outright.

“When you get down to 0.4 rating, the notion of patience goes right out the window,” said Preston Beckman, a former executive at Fox and NBC who spent more than three decades in the industry.

But anything resembling a decent ratings number will give a show some breathing room. Last year, ABC canceled “Manhattan Love Story” on Oct. 24 after four episodes, when the series finale failed to draw 3 million viewers. “Minority Report,” in contrast, lives on this season with an average of 2.1 million viewers through eight episodes, according to Nielsen.

There have been a few standouts in this year’s rookie class. NBC’s “Blindspot,” CBS’ “Life in Pieces” and “Supergirl,” and ABC’s “Quantico” have all performed well, particularly when delayed viewing has been factored in.

But even as executives beg for more patience, there are not many examples to prove delayed viewing makes hits out of would-be bombs. Delayed viewing data, Beckman said, usually proves that “the rich get richer and the poor get a little less poor.

“The networks have talked themselves into, ‘If you wait to get data and the video on demand and the this-and-that, the show that looked horrible doesn’t look as bad,’ ” he said. “I think it has to do with hoping against hope that delayed viewing will turn a questionable show into a renewable show, even though it usually doesn’t.”

Networks are also hesitant to cancel shows because they do not have a deep bench of replacements.

“The fact of the matter is that cancellations are very costly,” Littlefield said. “Most of the time when you cancel a show, and this is more true now than ever, the next thing you throw into that time period is going to do worse.”

And with more viewers consuming their television in one fell swoop by binge-watching, Pedowitz said there’s a greater inclination to give viewers time to play catch-up.

“Bingeing has an impact when you get to the holiday season and people have a little bit more time,” he said.

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