TV Show Cancellations: Then, Now and in the Future…

Traditional TV networks are declining, Online only services are ascending. In the modern connected world in that we live, where a TV show will have a global audience – I put it to you that TV networks are fast approaching a tipping point. By deciding the ultimate future fate of their established shows (Agent Carter, Person of Interest etc) based upon US viewing figures and other US domestic data points – They are rapidly going to hit a point where they will not be relevant enough to survive.

Here begins a lengthy (mostly UK-centric) post about TV shows, the American/Canadian networks that commission them and again taketh away!

Some of our favourite TV shows have fallen and joined the great TV repository in the sky where great shows go to when they become no more. Over the last 24 hours, cuts have been made by ABC and CBS in the States to such fan favourites as Agent Carter and Galavant (ABC) – whilst the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off Most Wanted will now not see the light of day. Supergirl has been kicked out from its parents network CBS, but has found a home with a kind relation in The CW. (Over the coming days, even more TV shows will have their fates announced!)

There were plenty of other shows that have also been cut, some good, some ok and some bad. I hope that the cast and crew from all of these shows fall on their feet running and aren’t out of work for too long. I’m not going to list all of the shows that have been cancelled, that isn’t what I want to talk about here. I want to instead explore my thoughts on it in a more general, long term international (but from a British viewpoint) view.

Currently, American TV shows are commissioned by a Network – ABC, CBS, NBC etc. They will then be aired on the TV channels of that Network in the US (or Canada). The network that owns the rights to that show will then seek to sell it to other networks in other international regions – UK, Australia, Middle East etc. Once that show has sold – it will then air in those international markets days later than the US broadcast, but more often much, MUCH later (weeks if not months in some cases). The lag between the US broadcast and International broadcasts is extremely frustrating to Intl viewers nowadays (It’s a major cause of online piracy!), but it wasn’t always such an issue – Before the Internet connected us all.

Then (For historical context…).

Back in the 1980’s, I like most people outside the US became fascinated with certain US produced TV shows. The A Team, Knight Rider, Buck Rogers (In the 25th Century), Mork & Mindy just to name a few from my own personal experience.

These American imported shows were completely different to the domestic shows served up to us on the four (Yes, FOUR) British TV channels available to us. These shows aired haphazardly with no regard for episode order (This could lead to some intense shouting discussions as the more observant viewers in a household couldn’t understand why Character A was in Dire straights by the hand of Villain B – when Villain B had been killed off weeks before!), and sometimes only the same twenty or so episodes might air (TV channels not wanting to buy more than they had to), these were the dark days before the light – when a TV show might tell a single long story in an arc over many episodes. I was born in 1980, so I only came to notice all of this towards the end of the decade.

In the 1990’s, things began to improve for the non-US viewer. The choice of TV channels exploded in the 1990’s here in the UK. Satellite and cable TV services came into our homes and literally struggled to fill their airtime with content. Suddenly we started to see more American TV shows than ever before, we were spoilt for choice. The original terrestrial TV channels would continue to bring in US content too, but continued to treat them badly. It wasn’t unusual for a show to air each episode on a different time-slot, on different days with weeks or months in-between – sometimes STILL out of episode order! This might have worked in the 80’s, treating each episode as if it were a stand-alone story that could fill schedule gaps ad-hoc. But this wasn’t the 90’s, It was the dawn of episodic story telling. The story arcs sometimes weren’t very deep or complicated – but they were emerging, especially in genre focused shows such as Buffy, Babylon 5, The Visitor.

Poor handling of American TV shows would continue from and beyond the 1990’s into the new millennium (2000’s). Some shows that were successful – received better treatment by their UK broadcaster than others. Buffy for example, received fairly good treatment with a (mostly) consistent time-slot and (most, but not all) episodes broadcast in the correct order. Others such as Early Edition were not treated anywhere as well. I remember enjoying the first few episodes of Early Edition in a fairly reasonable Saturday afternoon/evening time-slot. Then it moved around the schedules – seemingly at random, some episodes aired at 2am! Then it disappeared. I only ever got to see the first ten or so episodes. (Basic research for this post tells me there were actually 90, that’s NINETY!!! episodes of this show that I never got to see! (yet)) Similar treatment was given to other shows such as Northern Exposure, The Pretender, Sliders, Prey, Earth: Final Conflict and many more. The opposite could also be true for a TV show imported from the Americas. Space: Above And Beyond aired on UK TV on satellite TV. It received heavy promotion at the time and was well received by geeks like me. But years passed before I learned it had been cancelled by Its original American (*cough* FOX * *cough) based network. The same would be true for other shows on other UK channels such as Brimstone, John Doe, Now and Again and Firefly. All shows that were cancelled by their American networks, often with International viewers uninformed of their demise. (The rise in Internet use in the 2000’s would later change viewer awareness of a shows fate outside America!)

The new millennium was also the first decade that most people would start to binge-watch a TV show. DVD boxsets became a growing and popular way for people to consume the TV shows they loved without having to dance to the badly fiddled tune of TV broadcasters. TV shows had previously been made available on VHS (sometimes) but were relatively expensive and space consuming. (I religiously bought every Star Trek DS9/Star Trek Voyager tape as it was released in the UK on VHS for YEARS!)

DVD boxsets were some of the first nails in the coffins of traditional TV networks. Many people (myself included) would avoid watching a show on TV and instead wait until the DVD boxset of that season was released. Episodic story arcs were then easier to follow (without weeks between chapters) and the rise of binge-watching began.

Now (…and the future!).

Today, globally – more and more people consume their favourite TV shows on-demand. Either through catch-up TV services operated by TV broadcasters such as iPlayer, HBO Go, or Hulu, Online only streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Wuaki TV positively encourage binge-watching.

Netflix as an example is available to everyone on the planet (except for China and North Korea), and such services are quickly becoming the most relevant platform for TV like content. Netflix and Amazon both commission their own original content as well as buying up the rights to traditional network shows. The content they commission themselves can be sold to all regions at the same time. No geographic restrictions, no time lag between countries getting new episodes first!

In my own opinion, there are only two reasons those traditional networks still remain popular enough to exist:

1. Live TV broadcast content* – Live Sports, News, Talk-shows and the like don’t really fit into the on-demand business model that Netflix and Amazon operate… Yet**! (Netflix are already experimenting with the Talk-show format)

2. Legacy TV Viewers – People who watch traditional TV broadcasting networks are likely to be older, sometimes less tech savvy. The size of this TV audience is going to only get smaller and smaller as the years progress. (Smart TV’s – TV’s with an easy to use digital interface that can access on-demand services can only speed up the decline.)

Traditional TV networks know this already. That’s why they are all racing to offer their own on-demand services. CBS for example is pushing their CBS All Access service. If you’re resident in the USA – you can pay a monthly fee to stream all of the hottest shows from CBS past and present. But they still operate regionally. I can’t watch CBS All Access here in the UK. American friends cannot watch BBC iPlayer in the US.

The more that entities such as Netflix, Amazon and others create their own content, will mean that in the future regionally locked TV networks will start to struggle. They will have fewer domestic viewers as time passes, make less money of Intl sales of their own home-grown TV shows as those Intl broadcasters will have the same problems. Fewer viewers/Rights Sales will mean smaller budgets and equal poorer quality and/or fewer shows. The only shows they might sell to their global online rivals will be popular and established shows – The very shows that the TV networks are currently hacking away from production! Not every show is going to be popular in the US. But in Intl markets, they might find a huge following.

In conclusion, the bad news is that we’re losing more great shows to the great TV repository in the sky once again. The good news is that in ten or more years, The TV networks that make these decisions will be joining them. Instead we’ll be bemoaning the decisions of Netflix or Amazon or some other similar service for not renewing a show. But at least those guys will have accurate global viewing figures when making those decisions!

 

*Some TV networks are seemingly pushing towards a greater emphasis on Live broadcast content – NBC for example has been commissioning Live entertainment TV shows and one-off specials such as Undateable Live and The Wiz. Fox also experimented with Grease Live. (Thank you to @stellamortis on twitter for pointing out a correction here!)

**It’s only a matter of time before Netflix, or Amazon launch a service comparable to a Live broadcast. Launch/buy their own 24/7 News stream or Sports pay per view options. WWE, the wrestling media empire has already launched their own on-demand service that does something similar.

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