Saturday, May 16, 2009

Get ready for Bizarro Upfront Week

Upfront Week, when the broadcast networks all announce their fall schedules, doesn't begin until Monday(*), but already reports are starting to leak about what shows, both new and old, have gotten pick-ups.

(*) For those wondering, the schedule is Fox on Monday, ABC and NBC (which only did half an upfront earlier this month) on Tuesday, CBS on Wednesday and the CW on Thursday.

I'll deal with the new shows when the upfronts actually start, but what's been really strange -- and very gratifying -- is the number of good but low-rated series that appear to have survived to next season...

ABC has apparently picked up "Better Off Ted," in addition to ordering a ninth season of "Scrubs" (with Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke being in six episodes, Donald Faison, Neil Flynn and John C. McGinley being regulars, and other deals to be hashed out later). Fox picked up "Dollhouse," which may be the lowest-rated network series to ever get renewed. While the CW itself appears to have no place for "Reaper," CW affiliates seem to like the show enough that they'd like to see it go into syndication so they can air it on what it will be their CW-less Sunday schedules. And while no one has actually reported on a "Chuck" pick-up yet, that now sounds like it's simply a matter of hashing out the numbers.

It's like the networks all got together and decided to reward every single Save Our Show candidate, no matter how poorly-rated. At this rate, the only bubble shows that may not come back -- like "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case" on CBS or "My Name Is Earl" on NBC -- won't be due to ratings, but cost.

Mo Ryan suggested yesterday that these pick-ups might reflect a new kind of thinking at the networks, where the broadcast ratings aren't the only factor. ("Dollhouse" gets a significant bump, for instance, once DVR and Hulu viewing is factored in.) But I also wonder if the bad economy, and the splintering TV audience, might also make the networks reluctant to let go of even some of their more marginal performers. Simply put, these shows are the devil they know. "Chuck," for instance, may have drawn mediocre ratings on Monday nights, but "Deal Or No Deal" did dramatically worse in the timeslot a week later. The idea that a new show automatically has a better shot to draw viewers than a marginal returning series may not be the case anymore, and in this scary environment, a steady number is a steady number.

Now, I'm not going to be chasing scoops like Ausiello, or the guys at the trades, since the official announcements are coming soon, anyway. But I'll have the full press releases when they come out, and analysis shortly thereafter.

Should be a very strange week.

59 comments:

ArC said...

"Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is a quality show on the bubble (not yet renewed) and if I was being really honest, probably more of a long shot for renewal than "Earl"...

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ah, yes, Terminator is almost certainly not coming back. But the Save Our Show survival rate is still abnormally high this year.

BIL said...

Alan, do you know why (according to reports) Judy Reyes hasn't been asked back for Scrubs 9th season? Is it a matter of money? Carla may not be as flashy as the Janitor or Cox, but I've always thought she was a wonderful character and Judy Reyes is a great actress.

Josh said...

Definitely strange times, but these are the kind of weird moves that I'm fully behind. If only a certain network had been so generous with Arrested Development, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Firefly, or many others. Either way, I'll take these shows coming back.

Turtle said...

Any hope for The Unusuals? I really love that show.

Anonymous said...

Remember when 7th Heaven aired its series finale and then came back for an awful and completely unnecessary 11th season? I guess the folks behind Scrubs don't.

Jen said...

I'd be really interested to find out how the networks present the pickups of these marginal shows to the advertisers (if they discuss it at all). It seems like the majority of the shows we're talking about here are to some extent "niche" shows, but with extremely high quality (relative to some other network fare: reality genre, procedurals, etc.) that attracts a pretty distinct audience. Many of the shows also seem to produce relatively stable numbers as you point out. The viewers seem to fall in the coveted demo and there's a lot of dvr and online viewing at work, which in some ways can be viewed as a socioeconomic factor.

I'm very curious as to how advertisers tend to view these presentations and whether any of the networks address these factors as being part of their rationale.

MPH said...

We'll I'm so glad I got so invested in an otherwise wonderful Scrubs "series finale". Can't people ever learn to leave on top? George Costanza did,

Callaghan said...

Turtle (and anyone else interested) - Noah Hawley (creator of the Unusuals) announced on his Twitter feed today that the show won't be coming back for a second season.

Bummer. It wasn't perfect, but I really enjoyed it. Four episodes remain this season.

Brandon said...

Re: Dollhouse being so low-rated:

As I recall, Cheers was ranked dead last in its first season.

Chris the TV Sage said...

I really wish someone would produce numbers when they claim Cheers was the lowest-rated show on TV in 1982-83.

LA said...

Is Neil Flynn a slam dunk for Scrubs next season? I thought he was the male lead opposite Patricia Heaton in The Middle which I read was picked up.

Ben said...

No numbers but here's a mention of Cheers being rated dead last:

http://www.tvparty.com/80nbc3.html

Andrew said...

Is Neil Flynn a slam dunk for Scrubs next season? I thought he was the male lead opposite Patricia Heaton in The Middle which I read was picked up.
He is. I believe McGinley, Flynn, and Faison agreed to return as regulars only if their respective pilots aren't picked up, so Flynn presumably won't be returning to Scrubs, although they might still be able to work out some sort of guest appearance deal since The Middle is an ABC show.

Jordan said...

I'm really happy about better off ted, not so much about scrubs (the ended it so nicely). I remember (and I could be wrong here) that 30 Rock wasn't in the top 100 shows its first season.

Jake said...

I'm still over the moon about Dollhouse's renewal, even if they're going to have to slash costs for a show that didn't seem to have that high a budget to begin with. Still, WB cut Angel's budget for its fifth season, and that turned out to be the high-water mark for Joss' career.

And as happy as I am that Amy Acker is finally getting some work now, I'm a little worried that Happy Town is going to take the most interesting character and the best actor on the show almost completely out of the equation.

Anonymous said...

Josh, Fox might be evil, but they did give Arrested Development 2 a 1/2 seasons on awful ratings.

Anonymous said...

Alan:

What's he status of "The Unusuals"? I haven't seen any word on it. And, BTW, what's your opinion of the show?

Thanks.

Kensington said...

Yeah, I, too, want to defend Fox on the matter of Arrested Development.

Face it, as far as the ratings contended, nobody was watching, and yet the networks gave it multiple years to click. Then, even when the time came for them to pull the plug, they gave the showrunners enough notice that they were able to compose a conclusion.

The Scrubs thing is just weird, though, especially if the rumors I've heard are true about them turning the show into a more conventional sitcom, studio-bound with a live audience.

But the Dollhouse renewal makes me downright giddy. It's like if Wonderfalls or Kingdom Hospital had gotten surprise renewals five years ago.

Anonymous said...

Alan:

I was surprised to hear about My Name Is Earl being in trouble. What are the odds, relatively, to it returning? I have the same question about Cold Case.

David said...

Wow.

Dollhouse, Castle, Chuck, Better Off Ted and Party Down.

I am shocked and incredibly happy about all 5 of those shows. Fringe and Scrubs aren't too far behind either.

What an AMAZING few days of news!

Linda said...

I've been thinking along exactly the same lines you are, in terms of the economy and audience splintering. I think it's actually starting to sink in that the networks' problems are more fundamental than "we need to keep shuffling in new stuff that's just like the old stuff and will struggle just like the old stuff struggled for many of the same reasons." Why would NBC believe they can do better than "Chuck" with something they haven't even tried yet? Is Fox really struggling on Friday nights because there's something wrong with "Dollhouse"? In the current climate, I have to think the unpredictability of new stuff would make you substantially more likely to just be like, "Eh, we've got a better chance of finding new ways to make money with 'Better Off Ted' than we do of finding something that will do better."

I also wonder whether there's any emerging sense that as networks try to distinguish themselves in a really crowded landscape, there might be an opportunity to try to stand out by being known for supporting quality, kind of like the old "Proud As A Peacock" and business, you know? If I'm NBC, I'm thinking I'm going to find a marketing angle to be like, "Look, we're the network that found ways to bring back [hopefully] both 'Chuck' and 'Friday Night Lights,' and we did it partly because we believe that when in doubt, you should make something good." It wouldn't be true, really, but it might work.

Anonymous said...

I want to defend Fox's track record in general. You can't be in a position to kill a lot of good shows unless you're putting a lot of good shows on the air in the first place. I'm pretty convinced that whether any show finds an audience is mostly a matter of luck, so the fact that the other networks haven't killed as many good shows as Fox says more about their relative ability to develop good shows than how evil they are.

Eldritch said...

Alan Sepinwall said...
Ah, yes, Terminator is almost certainly not coming back
.

I really don't understand the economics here. How does the lower rated "Dollhouse" get renewed while the higher rated "Terminator,.." is not? Both ended strong. What other factors are in play?

Meanwhile, I'm thrilled that "Better Off Ted," "Dollhouse," "Lie To Me," and even "Castle" are being renewed. :-)

(The wistful me still wishes "Wonderfalls, "Dead Like Me," and "Greg, the Bunny" could be renewed.)

Josh said...

Quickly, re: Arrested Development, the show was certainly given two and a half years, though with all the timeslot jumps and frequent breaks, the show didn't have consistent time on the air. Dollhouse will presumably have a straight run of 13 weeks on the same night (if not the same time) as its first season. The ratings may not be much better, but consistency does help a bit. Also, AD's ratings, in its final season, were almost double those of Dollhouse, so...OK, I'm still bitter about the show being cancelled.

This news, though, is too much happy for me to taste that I can be too bitter. Never have I been happier for so many executives ignoring Nielsen ratings.

hara said...

Is this the TV critics equivalent of the trade deadline or NFL draft?

Lame comparison, I know. More important: Is Chuck and Dollhouse going to be going head to head now? Both Friday I assume but what about timeslots?

Anonymous said...

Well, every year the nets renew at least one low rated but critical darling; at the first glance, the only difference is that everyone picked one.

But at second glance, I see that all of the shows are big with youth, and heavy with online views, and I think that the nets have all picked these shows to be demographic guinea pigs - a lot of research into just what their audiences actually are in alternative media, etc. Suddenly those Friday slots most will end up with seem only half punishment, and half part of the testing criteria (slot no one watches live = even more online data points).

(As far as I know, Priveleged is still rumored to be not dead, so even CW could get in on the action.)

Anonymous said...

I've heard that Terminator's just a lot more expensive to make than Dollhouse is (and reportedly they agreed to slash costs like mad for Dollhouse to come back).

Also, Terminator's on its second season, while Dollhouse is on its first. Perhaps Fox think the Whedon super-fans can get some legs for the show in the second season, while Terminator got a second shot and didn't really catch on.

Anonymous said...

The under-reported truth about Arrested Development's pathetic treatment by FOX was that it was kept alive because of the critical acclaim, but the reason it was so poorly promoted was because Rupert Murdoch personally HATED the show. (This was mentioned in Bill Carter's book Desperate Networks.)

Basically, it wasn't in anyone's best interest to be the network exec responsible for boosting the show's ratings by promoting it in ways that might actually get more people to watch. No sense in being held responsible for prolonging the life of a sitcom the big boss despised-- it's certainly no way to get advance one's career.

Mitch Hurwitz has said that the only reason they got a third season was that FOX had a new president, Peter Ligouri, who didn't want his first official act to be axing AD, fearing he'd be crucified for it in the media. So they gave them a final season, but did everything they could to ensure that its ratings continued to plummet. Even when they got Oscar-winner Charlize Theron for a 5-episode arc, they didn't promote it one bit.

So, while it's great that FOX kept the show around for 52 episodes, the myth that the show failed because "no one" watched it sort of masks the fact that the show was terribly mishandled in terms of both scheduling and promotion. FOX essentially allowed it to slowly starve to death, and replaced it with a series of quickly-cancelled and quite awful sitcoms that no one even remembers now, all the while AD continues to be a top-selling hit on DVD, years and years later...

That's why the Dollhouse decision might well turn out to be a smart move. It's a show with a tremendous potential to grow-- early word of mouth was poor, and I'll bet a lot of people passed on it, thinking it would be cancelled quickly and they didn't want to get attached only to have their hearts broken. Once it comes out on DVD, I'll bet the audience for Season Two will grow. But FOX needs to make sure that it takes advantage of the growing word-of-mouth when it season two is about to start...

Daniel Walters said...

Maybe... just this once... everybody lives!

Oaktown Girl said...

Totally stoked about Better Off Ted, still holding out hope for Reaper in syndication. I need my Ray Wise devil...so bad, yet so good!

Eldritch said: (The wistful me still wishes "Wonderfalls, "Dead Like Me," and "Greg, the Bunny" could be renewed.)El - I'm right there with you on Wonderfalls and Greg the Bunny. I have both on DVD, but sure wish I had more than just one season of each. And The Job would also be at the top of my wish list.

J said...

Yay, Ted. Now let's get Portia an Emmy nomination. And the show some eyeballs.

Carfgonna said...

Fox is absolutely nuts.

Cancel Whedon's brilliant Firefly, but renew Dollhouse?

They've got it so, so opposite.

Kent said...

Very interesting news about Reaper. I really enjoy the show, sort of a testosterone-addled Buffy, and would love for it to continue. It would probably do much better in syndication given it's treatment by the CW. I can't think they're complete jerks due to them keeping Supernatural on the air long enough to develop, but I think they have no idea what they're doing. First they cancel Veronica Mars, then because of Gossip Girl, they start canning everything that isn't for adolescent girls aside from their Thursday lineup.
I'll be surprised if the network survives more than two more seasons.

LoopyChew said...

Dammit, as much as I've started enjoying Dollhouse, I really want to see what happens next in the Terminator saga! There's no chance the new movie will allow for renewed interest in the franchise?

Jordan said...

Dollhouse is OK, I guess, but I really love Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I have only watched TSCC on regular TV once. I watched the first season on DVD rented from Blockbuster, then the second season online. I loved the fact that it was on the FOX website because I could watch it on my schedule.

After I heard TSCC was due to be canceled I started a Facebook group to help save it and within the last two weeks 500 people have joined. There are fans from all over the world and they are all shocked that FOX is threatening to cancel the show, as am I.

I hope that the executives at FOX don't think Dollhouse is an adequate substitute for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

srpad said...

Yay for Better off Ted! Easily my favorite new comedy in a long time

Boo for Terminator. With the movie coming out and almost cerainly being huge, you think Fox would wnat to glom on some of the movie's box office and drumb up excitment for a related TV show.

The Scrubs news is bitter sweet. This past season was so good and the Finale was such good closer, I kind of wish it was ending. But still, it's new Scrubs!

I assume HIMYM is a lock? If so, wouldn't this be the first season that was so?

Eldritch said...

Kent said...
... about Reaper. I really enjoy the show, sort of a testosterone-addled Buffy..
.

Reaper is more like goofy fun. If you want testosterone-addled Buffy, then that would be "Supernatural."

Alan Sepinwall said...

Not to get too off-track on the subject of Arrested Development, but Fox did air it for most (if not all) of its second season Sundays at 8:30 after The Simpsons, which was the network's best (and really only) launching spot for a young comedy.

I'm not saying there wasn't a lack of promotion, or other mistreatment, but the show did have a chance to find an audience. And the audience rejected it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about everyone else, but I feel more comfortable with the idea that Rupert Murdoch is evil and wants to take away everything that is good in the world. But that's just me. Perhaps Fox only renewed Dollhouse because Whedon has pictures of Hannity, O'Reilly (with his loofah) and Beck doing something illicit. Possibly with Colmes watching and not being allowed to participate.

Okay. Okay. Delete this if you want.

Jake said...

@Jordan

After I heard TSCC was due to be canceled I started a Facebook group to help save it and within the last two weeks 500 people have joined. There are fans from all over the world and they are all shocked that FOX is threatening to cancel the show, as am I.Well, in fairness, the campaign to save TSCC didn't compare to the massive Save Dollhouse campaign. Hell, that started pretty much before the show even premiered and built to a frenzy in the final few weeks when the show bothered to get good enough to deserve saving.

But either way, fan campaigns didn't get Dollhouse renewed: the potential to turn it into at least a modest profit-earner. Compared to TSCC, Dollhouse costs peanuts, and there's a way for them to cut costs without making things look awful (you can't half-ass the metal endoskeleton and explosions and such). With the ad increase and the budget cuts, not to mention the fact that a lot of people might buy the DVD now knowing that there will be a second season, Dollhouse just might work, though not well if it stays in the Friday slot.

I hope that the executives at FOX don't think Dollhouse is an adequate substitute for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.I don't think they view it as a substitute for TSCC in terms of "oh, well, they're all nerds," but TSCC offers a much smaller chance for a profit margin. Someone mentioned that it had better ratings than Dollhouse, but that really isn't true: Dollhouse had consistently higher ratings (sometimes close to and over a million more) up until the end of March, when TSCC started overtaking it by negligible amounts -- certainly not enough to make a bigger profit over the much cheaper Dollhouse. Incidentally, this is where DH started to hit its stride, so either by that point people were sick of waiting for it to be a proper Whedon show, or Fox wasn't so far off in getting them to dumb down the early eps for everyone.

The biggest difference that TSCC got over DH was with season finales, but they did not air the same week, and when DH ended, it's probably fair to say that the primary audience (aka the Whedonites and the geeks) were attended the much-hyped, ecstatically reviewed Star Trek reboot.

I'm far from saying that TSCC is a bad show -- I like it a lot, though I did fall quite behind early in the season -- but it makes pretty solid financial sense that it would get the boot over DH.

Matt said...

Apparently, the other big thing (besides Whedon's willingness to costcut) with Dollhouse was the ancillary numbers--Hulu, DVR, DVD preorders, etc.--which are apparentlyexcellent--unsurprising, given Whedon's tech-savvy and borderline fanatical audience and the time slot.

Terminator was given (at least initially) a far better timeslot, a massive promotional launch, and a bunch of advantages--expectations were high.

HIMYM is a lock because this was its highest rated season ever, and because they have a very rich syndication deal which guaranteed 100 episodes, which they'll get to this year.

The other bubble shows that are dying are all expensive because of a combination of long runs, largish casts, and don't bring in the ratings to justify it.

Elyse said...

This is wonderful news, but it also saddens me - if only Pushing Daisies had lasted until this point! The renewals for Better Off Ted and Castle make me think that ABC might have given Pushing Daisies another chance as well.

Matt said...

Daisies had ratings even worse than Castle and Better Off Ted, and was also EXTREMELY expensive to produce, with complicated effects, makeup issues, and elaborate sets.

srpad said...

RE: Arrested

As much as I loved the show, blaming Fox is rewriting history. As Alan said, it aired after the Simpsons. They also gave it the coveted post-Idol slot at least once. The show was great but it just wasn't for everyone. It would have thrived on cable where the audience numbers would have been acceptable.

Look on the bright side, we got three seasons and a true finale. Better than many good shows, such as, (to bring this back around to being on topic), apparently, Terminator.

Anonymous said...

Remember when 7th Heaven aired its series finale and then came back for an awful and completely unnecessary 11th season? I guess the folks behind Scrubs don't.

It's not exactly the same situation. The idea of continuing Scrubs beyond Zach Braff's contract was talked about publicly months before the finale aired. The 7th Heaven renewal was last-minute, based only on the ratings of the supposed series finale, which were generated out of the desire to say "good riddance!" rather than any desire to see it continue.


As for a new season, some of the new Scrubs interns appear to have been created to be cartoonish foils for the existing characters. In the next season, there will likely be more of a focus on interns. If they can become more than their caricatures, fine, but if not, they ought to pretend they never existed, and rewrite and recast. (Keep Eliza Coupe regardless.)


Arrested Development had a favorable time slot, and would have failed, even with "proper" promotion. Far too many of their jokes were "inside" jokes or call-backs to things many people hadn't seen. If you're trying to GROW the audience, you can't have your new viewers saying "I don't get it" because they hadn't seen previous episodes. To make matters worse, for their willingness to try to watch the show, those new viewers were then dismissed (by original viewers) as "too stupid."


I don't know about everyone else, but I feel more comfortable with the idea that Rupert Murdoch is evil and wants to take away everything that is good in the world. But that's just me. Perhaps Fox only renewed Dollhouse because Whedon has pictures of Hannity, O'Reilly (with his loofah) and Beck doing something illicit. Possibly with Colmes watching and not being allowed to participate.

Whatever gets you through the night.

Grunt said...

Much as I adored Pushing Daisies it was a miricle we got 24 episodes and I am grateful that we got them.

Re: Arrested Development -- look, I was the target audience. I watched the first several episodes and thought to myself "my, that is an amusing concept." but I never once laughed out loud. That's why FOX cancelled it.

Finally, didn't Scrubs do a 3 camera episode? I distinctly remember Sarah Chalke in a push-up bra with a laugh track?

Mark B said...

The Scrubs episode ("My Life in Four Cameras") was an over-the-top parody of the idea that on "traditional" sitcoms, problems are always resolved happily.


They "committed to the bit" with other sitcom tropes, such as an excessive laugh track, increased boobage, a reliance on sex jokes, medical mix-ups (dating back to "The Honeymooners"!), and raising money through a talent show.


Anonymous said...

One other thing to consider is that Dollhouse is essentially an internal project for Fox, because Fox Studios produces it. Terminator is an external project, produced by Warner Bros. Fox sees all of the revenue generated by Dollhouse merchandise and repeats, but not by Terminator. So they'd naturally be inclined to keep their own show airing first.

I suppose the same logic can apply to Chuck, unfortunately (also produced by Warner Bros. for NBC).

Kensington said...

"Okay. Okay. Delete this if you want."Yes, please, or does the ban on political talk not apply to liberals who want to moronically bash Fox personalities for no apparent reason?

Anonymous said...

Sigh. I had hoped Dollhouse would get canceled, thus prompting Whedon to create a show with a workable premise. I think that the Save Our Whedon Show people reflexively rooted for Dollhouse despite the fact that it is a really bad show. Would a show with such an awful premise, a terrible lead, and bad writing garner support without Whedon's name and occasional guest appearances from his past show's alumni?

Anonymous said...

I know Cheers. I watched Cheers for years. And Dollhouse is no Cheers.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone's claiming Dollhouse is on the level of Cheers in anything but a ratings scale, but why is it so important to some that networks cancel shows they hate? If you don't like it, don't watch it. Dollhouse certainly has some fans (check out Mo Ryan's blog) who appreciate the writing, premise, and most performances.

Matt said...

Dollhouse finally figured out how to make it work about 2/3 of the way through the season, with flashes before then, rather than being "This week, on NINJA SKILLS!" (borrowed from Alan's interview with Joss). It's still weaker than Firefly and Buffy, in part because it's so relentlessly dour (though Tudyk's first episode helped on that point) and lacking in snark. (I haven't seen Angel.)

Craig Ranapia said...

I don't know about everyone else, but I feel more comfortable with the idea that Rupert Murdoch is evil and wants to take away everything that is good in the world. But that's just me.Probably not just you, but I find it rather hard to believe. The Simpsons has been routinely extracting the urine from the Evil One and all his works for the best part of twenty years, and he didn't intervene to take it off the air. Because it makes truckloads of money.

It could be possible that great as AD is, it just wasn't financially viable while piles of crap just keep going like the Energizer Bunny on crystal meth. Who said life was fair? :)

Anonymous said...

why is it so important to some that networks cancel shows they hate?The issue is one of credibility. When fans lament and call for the renewal of bad shows, future efforts to save good shows lose credibility. If we keep trying to save mediocre shows like "Dollhouse" or "Drive" or "Jericho," that threatens future efforts to save the next "Arrested Development" or "Chuck. Alan has written on several occasions that the Jericho folks nearly ruined the save our show campaign model when they succeeded and then watched the show in FEWER numbers upon its return than they did when it aired. Just because a show features an actor who was in the same zip code when a Buffy episode was filmed does not mean every show he is in thereafter needs to be renewed.

Baylink said...

Amazingly, no one has yet commented here that Ausiello and others are calling the Chuck pickup official as of 8pm Sunday.

Now, if they can just avoid "third season of Star Trek"/"Space Shuttle Enterprise"ing us.

Interesting that those two are tied together like that, isn't it?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Chuck renewal post here.

timb said...

The Scrubs news is awesome. I've been watching this past season on my DVR and the laughs keep coming.

Oh, and Kensington, I feel soory for you that you can't escape political irrelevance on a pop culture blog, but dial it back a bit, eh