Primetime bar for success is getting lower

Now that primetime is one big bubble, it’s become a lot harder to handicap TV’s biggest losers.

The primetime bar for success is now so low that TV’s ever-growing middling class — those series that hover around a 2 rating in the demo — still can’t tell for sure whether they’re in danger.

The May upfronts are still three months away. And a lot can happen between now and then, as a crop of new and returning midseason shows bow this March, and then network execs catch a first glimpse of this year’s pilot crop.

But as they start to map out their season finales, many of broadcast’s comedy and drama producers don’t have a clue about the fate of their shows — and ratings only tell part of the story.

Shows that once upon a time would have been too low-rated to even consider a pickup now get early renewals. And others manage to get 11th hour reprieves that have nothing to do with ratings, and everything to do with renegotiated license fees.

“It’s not black and white the way it used to be,” one network exec said. “There’s no magic number, and there’s no single metric that really answers the question. You have to approach these decisions with the reality of just how tough an environment it is.”

In a flurry of renewals last month, the networks already have committed to new seasons of shows that weren’t shoo-ins based on their ratings — such as ABC’s “The Middle” and NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”

That’s made for fewer bona fide bubble shows than usual, as many series that normally would have been on the fence come May already know their fate. A stronger than usual fall at the nets — again, thanks in part to that lower success threshhold — also equals fewer question marks, as the nets opt for the series devils they know.

“The bar keeps lowering and the dreaded churn factor is always a consideration,” says one network exec.

Indeed, webheads increasingly go by the mantra that sometimes it’s better to stick with a low-rated show you believe in, than go with a new show that might perform even worse — and might also be a creative disaster.

“Parks,” after all, has grown into a fave among critics, while “The Middle” reps the kind of family comedy that ABC has staked its revived comedy brand on.

Then there’s also the deals they can’t refuse. Fox sold its soul to the comedy devil in picking up the much-maligned “Til Death,” thanks to a sweet deal in the form of a reduced license fee from Sony Pictures TV. And last year, the high cost of shows like “My Name is Earl” and “Samantha Who” had more to do with their cancelations than ratings.

All things being equal, net execs tend to favor fare produced by their sister studios. They’re also increasingly flattered by rabid fans, who might push a show already teetering on renewal firmly into the “renewal” camp. In recent years, that includes “Chuck,” “Dollhouse” and “Jericho.” (Of course, “Dollhouse” and “Jericho” didn’t fare well in their sophomore frames.)

“You just know what you’re up against in terms of trends, and it’s so hard to get new things going,” one exec said. “You just know that you could be in a world of hurt with that next unknown new show. The odds are so stacked against you.”

When it comes to bubbles, the nets appear more willing to cut bait on aging series, which is why “24” and “Numbers” are more likely to disappear than some newer but lesser-performing shows. Not only are older shows more expensive to produce, but there’s little chance of a growth story — and execs are sometimes just ready to move on.

In some cases, series have been given early word that they won’t be continuing, allowing producers time to wrap up storylines and go out with a big finale.

That’s the case of “Ugly Betty,” which won’t be returning beyond this year. (Last year, ABC did the same thing with “Life on Mars.”)

Among other nets, the biggest questions at CBS include sitcoms “The Old Adventures of New Christine,” “Gary Unmarried” and “Accidentally on Purpose,” some of which hinges on whether Eye decides to expand Wednesday to four comedies.

With “Numbers” the most likely to exit — so much so that star David Krumholtz has already been cast in a new pilot — it’s doubtful Eye would want to drop a second Friday night series, so “Medium” (which CBS swiped from NBC last year) is probably safe. “Cold Case” barely survived the hatchet last year; it might be tougher this year.

At ABC, a lot is riding on the returns of “FlashForward” and “V” in determining those shows’ fates. “Castle” is looking stronger, while “The Deep End” and “The Forgotten” are not. “Scrubs” and “Better Off Ted” soon will likely learn that resurrections don’t happen twice.

NBC has more holes to fill, which could be good news for “Chuck.” And since the Peacock owns “Heroes,” don’t count that sci-fi entry out yet. (But don’t count it “in” just yet either.) Between “Mercy” and “Trauma,” just one will likely return. So far “Mercy” appears to be more likely. “Law and Order” appears to be the show that may never die, although it’s unlikely to ever get a full-season order again.

Fox may be ready to let “24” go, as it could use that show’s valuable real estate. But much will depend on the economics of bringing it back — or how likely another network might pursue it. “Fringe,” “Lie to Me” and “Human Target” all firmly reside on the bubble.

At The CW, netlet’s attempt to revive “Melrose Place” doesn’t seem likely to last beyond this year.

Of course, come March and April, a whole new crop of bubbles will likely emerge at the nets — making for a tougher time around the network scheduling boards.

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