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What Really Determines a Show’s Renewal Chances?

BY Jennifer Griffin

Published 6 years ago

What Really Determines a Show's Renewal Chances?

Picture the scene. Your favorite TV show is likely to be canceled/looking for a new network or streamer to call home. In an online plea to fans, the show’s plucky/desperate showrunner reaches out to fans, urging them to watch tonight’s episode on YouTube TV or Hulu Live, as Nielsen counts those views as viable ratings figures. You were considering live-watching tonight’s episode on TV, adverts, parents and all, but now you’re wondering if you can kick back in another room from your family and stream it instead. You want to save your show, but where is the best place to make your view count? 

The (maybe) surprising answer is that unless you are a Nielsen family, it won’t matter where you watch your favorite show. Only Nielsen families watching TV — or streaming their selections via Hulu or YouTube — count towards ratings.

While the big 4 — Hulu, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV — offer a broad choice of streaming options, it’s only Hulu Live and YouTube TV that are currently part of Nielsen’s metric system, as per their 2017 announcement. So while a service like YouTube TV might feature a slew of familiar shows from broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and The CW, unless you are are being tracked by Nielsen, your viewing habits won’t count. 

As fewer people than ever before now watch non-sports broadcast TV shows, and of that smaller group, many opt for delayed viewing or streaming, the old chestnut about whether Nielsen truly offers a reliable system for tracking viewing habits inevitably becomes a re-discussion point every year during renewal and cancelation season.

However with Nielsen dominating the metrics market, and likely to do so for some time to come, perhaps the more pertinent question fans should ask about the likelihood of seeing their show stick around for another season is this: What contributes to a show’s cancelation or renewal chances?

The answers to that question are, thankfully, more straightforward.

  1. Is your show is produced by an outside studio? For example, the canceled Lucifer (recently revived for 2 further seasons season on Netflix) was produced by WB, but aired on FOX. Sony Television meanwhile produced NBC’s Timeless, which was also canceled earlier this year, and as I write is still cancelled but for a 2 hour wrap up “movie”. As viewership declined over time, networks like NBC and FOX who license these shows from outside studios sought to recoup losses. Sometimes they attempt to do so by raising the license fee, or by seeking to own a percentage of the show. If a deal between the outside producer and the network can’t be struck, the network will always choose to cancel the show over losing money. It’s then up to the studio to try to shop their product elsewhere. (In reality, the true product is you, the live audience … but that’s a conversation for another day.) If the studio is “in house” e.g. ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, produced by ABC Studios, there are no such tricky negotiations to be had, and a higher chance the show will return, unless ratings are terrible. Which brings us to …
  2. How well is your show doing compared to other shows in the same demo, on the same network?As we all know ratings are any network’s bread and butter. Ratings create ad revenue, after all. However, what matters most is how well your favorite show is doing — not against other shows on other networks, but against other shows on the same network. (So yes, all those weekly ‘ratings race’ articles are nonsense after all.) Add up the ratings for all the scripted shows on a network, and divide by the number of shows. You’ve got yourself a “scripted average.” Shows that score above a network’s scripted average are practically guaranteed a renewal. In fact, a show can fall to as low as 20% below the network’s average and still get renewed. Any less, and the network is likely to cancel. (That said, shows airing on Friday can be renewed with ratings that fall up to 30% below their Sunday through Thursday counterparts! So seeing your show moved to a Friday night slot doesn’t always mean the end.) If you’re interested in learning what the scripted average was for each network in the just completed 2017/18 broadcast season, and how each show measured against it, SpoilerTV keeps a decent set of stats.
  3. What is the show’s syndiction status? In case you’re not aware of the term, syndication = selling reruns to another network or channel.
    Although syndication doesn’t really benefit the network (unless they part own the show), it does benefit the studio who make it, so studios will hope their shows stick around for the long term. Shows that have already reached syndication status are less likely to be renewed. Shows in their second and third seasons falling below that all important 100 episode threshold, are more likely to stick around until their episode count hits the magic number (usually 100 episodes) — as long as their ratings are ok.

What doesn’t matter when it comes to renewal or cancelation? According to the number crunching cynics among us the answer is: Save our show campaigns, furious tweeting in the direction of alternative networks, airplane banners, sending networks bulk novelties to represent your displeasure, etc. etc. etc.

Your show may be renewed or even picked up by another network or streamer while these activities are happening, and the showrunners and actors involved may even directly attribute your efforts to a pickup that occurs alongside your activities, but ultimately, your show’s fate has probably been decided before you even knew it was in danger.

TV continues to be a fickle numbers business.

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