Game of Television Shows: How American TV Works

by | May 12, 2014 | All, Reviews

For the American television industry May is the culmination of a nine month campaign amongst various television shows and networks they represent.  Fans take to a various online platforms in order to plead their show’s case, or pray to their patron saint of television.  Television executives get to quench their bloodlust by axing failed or underperforming shows.  A new battalion of shows are called forth from development by networks.  The cyclical development and culling of television programs culminate in presentations known as the Upfronts (the 2014 presentations start the week of May 12th).  During the Upfronts, networks parade their arsenal in front of advertisers in order to acquire the funding necessary to help keep their shows transmitting.  Subsequently, these meetings offer network executives from abroad the opportunity to get an early taste of shows that will be available for purchase in the coming months.

Though there are many networks represented at the Upfronts, this author will focus on the five broadcast television networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and The CW.  The 2013-2014 television campaign was brutal, especially with regard to launching new series.  All five of the networks mounted heavy loses; some networks were able to weather it better than others.  As usual networks issued stays of execution to ratings challenged shows due to a complex combination of issues including internal politics, tax credits, and transmission deals abroad.

ABC (The American Broadcasting Company) started the campaign with one of the most high profile projects on both sides of the Atlantic, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (AOS).  According to ratings and reviews in the U.S. and the U.K., AOS could not live up to the hype.  Corporate synergy (ABC and Marvel are both owned by Disney) and the show’s turning fortunes, following the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, lead to a second series of AOS being commissioned.  AOS will be joined by Hayley Atwells’ Agent Carter, an AOS prequel series set after World War II.  ABC used AOS to launch an entire night of new programming.  These shows were The GoldbergsTrophy Wife, Lucky 7, Killer Women, and Mind Games.  Lucky 7Killer WomenMind Games all three shared the Tuesday 10 PM ‘deathslot’ and were all quickly axed.  American broadcast networks are notorious for removing a failing show before it completes transmitting all of the episodes produced.  Once ABC’s bloodshed ended in early May, only AOS and The Goldbergs (imagine Moone Boy minus the imaginary friend) managed to survived the Tuesday night slaughter fest.  

The new show casualty rate for ABC was extraordinarily high.  In addition to ABC’s Tuesday night lineup slaughter Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (OUATW), a spin-off of Once Upon a Time (OUAT), was also cancelled.  ABC initially planned on using rookie OUATW to bridge the gap between the two halves of OUATseries three.  Instead it was called upon to serve the network in a different capacity, launching ABC’s Thursday night lineup.  ABC rewarded OUATW for its service with cancellation.  The only other new show renewed was Resurrection.  Resurrection, a spring arrival, was based on a novel called The Returned by Jason Mott (not to be confused with the French television show Les Revenants).  Many of ABC shows returning for the 2014-2015 campaign are several series old; Castle andModern Family are heading into the seventh and sixth series respectively.  Two of ABC’s oldest renewed shows are Grey’s Anatomy (coming up on series eleven) and Dancing with the Star (Strictly Come Dancing’s American cousin is heading towards series nineteen).  Though Nashville is only two series old, it is an expensive ensemble show and renewed at the eleventh hour due to negotiations that included tax incentives (according to Deadline Hollywood).

CBS, home of procedural crime dramas like NCIS and comedic juggernaut The Big Bang Theory (TBBT), endured the least number of cancelled shows (new or returning).  How I Met Your Mother finally decided it was time for people to meet ‘The Mother’.  Like the other networks, many of CBS’ new shows (Bad TeacherFriends with Better LivesIntelligenceThe Crazy Ones, and We Are Men) ended up on the sharp end of the cancellation axe.  Mom and The Millerswere the only two novice shows renewed for a second series. CBS confident in its lineup recommissioned much of its lineup (Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, CSI,Elementary, Hawaii Five-0, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Person of Interest, and The Good Wife) for one additional series back in March.  During this same time period TBBT received a massive vote of confidence by earning a three year renewal!  Eventually three additional comedies, 2 Broke Girls, Mike & MollyTwo and a Half Men, were also renewed.  The Mentalist, a show about a ‘reformed’ con man with Sherlock Holmes like powers of deduction, managed to get a stay of execution.  However its creator Bruno Heller is leaving the show to oversee Fox’s Batman prequel, Gotham.

Sleepy Hollow the newest broadsword in Fox’s arsenal was renewed for a second series midway through the 2013-2014 campaign.  In a rare move Fox decided to rest Sleepy Hollow after thirteen episodes, instead of ordering nine additional episodes (the standard practice).  Fox ended the 2013-2014 cycle blooded and bruised but extended renewals to many of its veteran shows: American Idol, Bob’s Burgers, Bones, Family Guy, The Following, Gordon Ramsey’s Masterchief Junior, The Mindy Project, and New Girl.  Glee managed to salvage series five and earn a sixth series (expected to be the final series) following the death of star Cory Monteith in 2013. 

In a move that surprised no one, Fox recommissioned their old faithful battleax The Simpsons for series twenty-six!  New ensemble comedyBrooklyn Nine-Nine also managed to avoid the fate of other novice shows: Almost Human, Dads, Enlisted, Rake, and Surviving Jack.  The axing of Simon Cowell’s U.S. version of The X-Factor effectively ended his relationship with Fox.  Cowell had been in partnership with Fox since his tenure on American Idol.  Quirky sitcom Raising Hope and Family Guy spin-off The Clevland Show were also quietly put out to pasture.

Based on the cancellation notices handed out to new and returning shows, NBC executives are clearly fans of Game of Thrones.  The cancellation carnage and bloodlust ended in the axing of ten shows!  One of the fallen shows was social media darling CommunityCommunity’s demise also ended the dream of six seasons and a movie.  Star power in-front or behind the camera did not lead to successful shows for NBC.  Veteran television sitcom star Michael J. Fox’s self-titled show (The Michael J. Fox Show) was cancelled, but seven episodes did not make it to air.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ interpretation of Dracula masquerading as an American alternative energy provider only lasted one series before being staked through the heart.  Individuals concerned about how Crisis would impact Gillian Anderson’s BBC2 drama The Fall can now sleep easier.  Writer/Director J.J. Abrams lost two of his NBC shows, Believe (co-produced with director Alfonso Cuarón) and Revolution, during the culling.  NBC only spared two comedies Parks and Recreation and About a Boy (based on the 1998 novel by Nick Hornby).  Fortunately Raymond Reddington, lead character on The Blacklist, will continue to spin yarns and manipulate the FBI in series two.  The Voice (American version) continued to serve as NBC’s ratings goliath.  However The Voice will undergo some changes 2014-2015 campaign; recording artists Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams will be joining the judging panel.

The CW, a joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros. Entertainment, faired marginally better at renewing shows than some of the other networks.  However The CW has fewer programing hours than ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.  A large portion of The CW’s schedule contains shows steeped in the science fiction and supernatural genres.  Supernatural, The CW’s oldest show, was renewed for a tenth series but its ratings are on par with younger shows.  Arrow not only managed to avoid the sophomore slump but also laid the foundation for another television show based on a DC Entertainment superhero, The Flash.  Both the Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals will continue to rip out hearts for another year.  One of the most perplexing renewals of the entire process was Beauty and the Beast; the ratings for Beauty and the Beast have been low.  Deadline Hollywood reported that Beauty and the Beast sells well abroad and believes this factored into the show receiving a third series.  Though much of The CW’s schedule remains intact (Hart of DixieReign, and The 100 were all renewed) the network did endure some fatalities.  The Tomorrow People, a remake of the classic ITV program, did not successfully use their powers to strong arm a renewal.  Both Star-Crossed, currently transmitting on Sky1, and The Carrie Diaries, a Sex and the City prequel series, were also not renewed. Nikita ended after an appreciated fourth series; apparently the show sells well abroad.

So what does the entire process leading up to the Upfronts teach fans and (possibly) network executives?  First, Game of Thrones has clearly seeped into the consciousness of broadcast networks.  Network shows live by the Game of Thrones principle “Win or Die”.  Though for many low-rated shows such as Beauty and the Beast, the belief is ‘survive or die’.  The 2013-2014 television campaign proved that stars do not automatically lead to a hit show.  Robin Williams and Sarah Michele Gellars’ father –daughter workplace comedy The Crazy Ones was canceled.  J.J. Abram’s Bad Robot production company sustained several fatalities (Almost HumanBelieve, and Revolution).  However Bad Robot’s veteran drama Person of Interest and rookie sensation Sleepy Hollow easily managed to keep their heads from being lopped off. Blair Underwood’s remake of Ironside (an NBC show) sunk faster than the Titanic.

Third, in a globally connect media sharing world it is clear that fans of American programming are invested in the entire Upfronts process.  Viewers have more access to information, cast, and crew through social media. 

Unfortunately for fans and programming purchasers outside the U.S., the Upfronts may create a situation in which a cancelled show has recently started transmitting in different country.  How can you promote and get your audience to invest in a show that has been cancelled in its native country?  Sky1 is currently facing this situation due to the axing of Star-Crossed and Intelligence.  However this sword cuts both ways, see BBC3’s The Fades or ITV’s Breathless.  The final lesson is that scheduling matters.  Luke, Gary, and Matt often discuss this very topic during The Custardtv’s Podcast.  Scheduling is a universal problem that network schedulers in the U.S. and U.K. are trying to master.  Based on the number of cancelled shows, some programs were tasked with assignments they were unable handle (looking at you AOSOUATW, and The Michael J. Fox Show).  

Contributed by Mo Walker

Maurice Walker

Maurice Walker


Raised in the wilds of the North American television media landscape, discovered British Telly via Public Broadcasting Company (PBS). Favorite American Telly show: Buffy The Vampire Slayer; favorite British Telly show: Morse - enchanted by that red Jaguar and the number of academics involved in murders throughout Oxford.


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