When is the Right Time to Pull the Plug on a Long-Running Show?

TV Network Scheduling Sweeps
Ward Sutton for Variety

With the broadcast upfronts around the corner, the major networks are tasked with making crucial decisions regarding the fate of series new and old for the 2015-16 season.

Given the massive increase in the volume of primetime television shows, it’s tougher to decide whether to stick with reliable long-running programs or take a gamble on something new that could become a binge-worthy hit. Since viewers have more choices, networks may be less inclined to stick with older shows just for the sake of stability.

“In the platinum age of quality and choice, broadcasters have to be more aggressive about letting go of the past,” said producer and former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.

But viewers aren’t the only ones distracted by so many options. Actors are demonstrating a new willingness to bow out of successful series. Showrunners, in order to better shape a program’s long-term storytelling arc, also have been more proactive in setting limits on the number of seasons a series will run. Of course, that kind of planning is still a luxury in an environment where the failure rate remains above 80% for all new entrants.

“Grey’s Anatomy,” now in its 11th season, lost lead Patrick Dempsey, whose Dr. Derek Shepherd — better known as McDreamy — was killed on the April 23 episode of Shonda Rhimes’ medical drama. Before his sendoff, Dempsey had publicly spoken about leaving the show. ABC is sure to renew the sudser, which drew 11.6 million viewers this season, though Dempsey’s departure will necessitate new storylines and probably new characters to fill the void. “The possibilities for what may come are endless,” Rhimes said.

The trend of showrunners to limit a program’s life stems in part from the growth of serialized drama, which puts a premium on pacing and plotting the climax of major storylines. ABC’s “Lost” was a forerunner by necessity, given its intricate mythology.

Others are concerned about quality control in general. Lena Dunham, creator and star of “Girls,” has talked with HBO about completing six seasons of the half-hour dramedy. But she’s not certain she’ll go beyond that.

“I think America has a tendency to push shows past their due dates,” Dunham told Variety.

“Lost” alum Carlton Cuse recently revealed he doesn’t intend on continuing his FX horror series “The Strain” more than five seasons. Another HBO hit, “Game of Thrones,” may also be soon approaching its final days, despite its place as a pop-culture phenomenon and ratings juggernaut.

“We’ve got a very definitive idea of how much longer it is, and we’re getting there,” “Thrones” writer David Benioff recently told Variety. Though Benioff, along with writing partner D.B. Weiss, fully recognizes fans would flock to the series for years to come, he admitted, “The idea that we’re going to try and stretch it out by an extra couple years just because we’re all having a good time doing it and people are making money off it just feels like it would be a betrayal.”

The intensity of the competition across broadcast, cable and digital outlets is a key factor in determining whether or not to renew. “The landscape has changed, particularly with so much original content on the table,” said Littlefield, who earned an Emmy last year for FX’s “Fargo.” Calling the new shows smart and complex, he added: “They’re really appointment television. And by and large, they’re all going out to the same coveted 18-49 demographic.”

Littlefield sketched out the ways to measure success: audience levels and ratings, plus the creative potential left in the tank. There’s also an economic consideration. As shows get older, above-the-line costs grow significantly. “Hit shows are far more expensive than new shows,” Littlefield said. “In the past, there was a tendency to pay up as shows became more expensive to hold onto.”

For instance, “Castle,” now in its seventh season at ABC, is a solid performer that the net wants to keep on its slate, but it won’t happen without major tweaks on the call sheet. Series creator Andrew Marlowe is stepping away from season eight, as is David Amann, who replaced Marlowe this past year as showrunner. Meanwhile, star Nathan Fillion reached a deal for another season, but his co-star, Stana Katic, has yet to sign on again.

Littlefield noted a natural tendency among programmers to avoid risk if a show is still delivering respectable numbers. But he recalled his own decision to pass on ordering more episodes of “L.A. Law” after the legal drama completed its eighth season in 1994. NBC wound up filling the timeslot with “ER.”

“More than ever before, there needs to be something that truly merits (a show) holding on,” Littlefield said.

NBC handed an early-season-17 renewal to “Law & Order: SVU,” while CBS has yet to pick up “CSI” for season 16.

Yet network execs fretting over renewal/cancelation decisions can take heart in the safety net provided by another hot trend in TV programming: Pulling the plug on a well-loved franchise these days only starts the clock ticking on the opportunity to bring it back as an “event” series.

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  1. Rena Moretti says:

    But is there REALLY an increase in the number of scripted shows..?

    With the proliferation of reality shows and the “old” networks killing whole nights of programming in favor of re-runs and programming more and more news, game and reality shows, is there really more volume to choose from?

    As for the quality, it is hideous and it’s a joke that Warren Littlefield be talking about a Platinum Age (apparently Golden isn’t good enough any longer)

  2. Riff says:

    The last time I saw Warren Littlefield, he was on TV’s former #1, now #2 (both literally and figuratively) morning show, “Today,” with Debra Messing, currently the star of TV’s soon-to-be-cancelled “The Mysteries of Laura,” at the time the star of TV’s soon-to-be-cancelled “Smash.”

    Just in case I am not the only one thoroughly tired of Mr. Littlefield’s fanciful fables starring him as the grand savior of 30 Rock, yes, Warren, you gave NBC “ER” in 1994. In case you may have forgotten, you also gave them “The Cosby Mysteries,” “Earth 2,” “Sweet Justice,” “Madman of the People,” and “Something Wilder.” And Martin Short’s show which you cancelled after 3 weeks for no reason whatsoever. In case you may have also forgotten, you didn’t even want “ER” until it tested through the roof. Twice. Now sit down and listen up and listen up good, because I’m only going to tell you this once. The days of you network idiots going to the upfronts with ten (or even eight) new shows, most of which you scheduled idiotically, most of which had no business on the air to begin with, half of which you couldn’t even properly support because you tried to put a new schedule together with ten new shows all premiering in September, are OVER. The days of you guys throwing out every single borderline show you had in order to do so are over, as well. It was dumb back then and it’s braindead now. At this point in time, the networks have succeeded in driving away pretty much every single last shred of their audience that is left to drive away, we are positively disgusted with the leftist swill Hollowood is churning out by the truckload under this toxic, corrupt, lawless administration, we are absolutely livid with the numbers we have to wake up to and act like they are even remotely acceptable to us, and until the audience tells us themselves that they’ve had enough, we are going to continue with every single veteran on the air that 1) isn’t propaganda, and 2) keeps a reasonable amount of its audience from last year. Should “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” have ended a decade ago? Yeah, probably, it should have. Unfortunately, alas, with the current lunatics in charge of the asylum, we had no faith whatsoever in any of their abilities to replace it with something remotely watchable, or even simply something without any agenda. (Shocking thought, I know. Entertainment without any agenda. Gosh, perish the thought at the Peabrain Network, right?) Thus, it continues. You, however, can stay cancelled.

  3. Jeff Ammons says:

    I’m surprised this article didn’t mention the Simpsons.

  4. As much as I love supernatural… it’s time to pull the plug.

  5. Nik Feralo says:

    Long running? How about any length of time? The networks have several issues now to contend with.

    1) As viewers, we’ve been emotionally invested into shows that had story arcs, which when the plug was pulled for whatever genius reason, left us hanging. A perfect example is Kyle XY. I met the lead, Matt Dallas in 2009 shortly after the show was cancelled. I asked him what happened and he stated one day they showed up to work and were told to go home. The actors were just as dumbfounded as the fans when wondering the wrap-up of the story arc. As it turned out, the producers did a “mini-wrap-up to answer quite a few unresolved cliffhangers on the last season DVD.

    Several other shows met their fate in the same manner – cancelled by major network execs not in touch with the fan base: Jericho, Heroes-coming back by the way, Arrested Development, V, The Event, Roswell, Invasion, Surface, Eli Stone, The Forgotten, The Last Ship…just to name a few. Can we say Star Trek?

    2) Knowing how the major networks treat shows without regard to the fans, it is difficult as a viewer or fan to get emotionally involved these days no matter how good it appears. Besides, there’s some great entertainment on cable, internet, and non-major networks. The number of very well written, acted, and produced shows on A&E, SyFy, TNT, USA, HBO, Showtime, and Starz have not only supported long-run series, but have a large following that refuses to watch ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

    3) A lot of the shows are cancelled due to ratings. Jericho comes to mind as the show was cancelled at a major unresolved cliffhanger by CBS execs very out of touch with the following the show had. Over 20 tons of nuts, thousands of letters and emails were delivered to the CBS studio heads in support for the series. As a result, CBS ordered additional episodes of Jericho, enough to resolve the story arc.

    The ratings were not that great, but the fans that came out and showed unprecedented support and passion for a television series illustrated the numbers were very inaccurate.

    The Nielsen television rating system is very outdated, especially since the advent of DVRs/OnDemand and the internet. In order to stay accurate and relevant, the system will need to include phones, tablets, computers, televisions, cable boxes–and the DVR abilities of those boxes that can record a half dozen simultaneous channels. The issue then becomes what to count? My household has three people, but three cable televisions – two capable of recording four channels each, three iPADs, two iPhones, one Android device, three laptops, and two desktops for a total of 20 possible rating devices for the three people. At the most, three different channels can be watch at any one time by the individual. How do we count that?

    My two cents on this as I subscribe to the fact that network television is a thing of the past for many of us, who had something we were watching suddenly yanked away….not once…..not twice…..

    • Rena Moretti says:

      The problem is that the “fan base” of all those flop was tiny.

      The networks are suffering from renewing so many flops, not from cancelling them.

    • Greg says:

      Nik, you make good points. You must not be from around here.

      • Nik Feralo says:

        Thanks Greg. Actually, I’m very close to the subject matter and live in the Palisades.

  6. guest says:

    Here’s hoping ABC will decide to let Grey’s bow out as gracefully as possible at the end of season 12. The endless possibilities Shonda speaks of is such a joke, seeing as this season alone the show as relied heavily on flashbacks and has recycled more stories than one can count.

  7. BobC says:

    Just glad Law & Order SVU has been renewed. Always great stories and acting.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Warren Littlefield is a well respected legend in television, and I have been hearing about him since I was in high school. I am now well into middle age. I think on issue the producers and nets may have in connecting with the tastes, interests and viewing habits of the current population is that we keep looking to the legends for their take – perhaps some fresh voices and viewpoints could help explain why, how and what people watch. You wouldn’t have to rely on surveys, statistics and research if some of the younger people actually watching had more of a say in what we see.

    • Mark says:

      Warren LIttlefield is as well-respected a legend in the TV industry as he is a globally-adored female supermodel. Can I have some of what you’ve been smoking since high school?

    • Pam says:

      I’m not sure that the younger people watching all the crap on television (yes, that is why there is so MUCH crap) are the right people to judge program quality. Programmers are accommodating them just fine but let’s not program just to their taste. Programmers need to remember that it is still the older audiences that are spending the bulk of dollars in the economy and not the youngsters who think that the WWF is just SO COOL!

      • Rena Moretti says:

        … : Except that younger demos are not ‘coveted” except by PR flak looking for a reason to tell us their flops are really hits…

        Viewers is the coin of the realm, but the press accepting unthinkingly that 18-49 is “all important” has played a role in helping the dismantlement of the US TV industry.

      • ... says:

        The reason the demo is so coveted is because younger people watch less television and tend to have less brand loyalty. If I were in the advertising department at some major company, why would I pay that much extra to reach an audience I could get for much cheaper? Why would I pay premiums for primetime shows that skew really old when I can reach that audience in daytime for much less money?

    • Anonymous says:

      Littlefield put on Suddenly Susan and was never respected.

  9. sailordude says:

    Is 11 Million a big TV number now? Doesn’t sound very big. Maybe because it’s for ABC.

    • Nate says:

      Yes, its a big number for any of the broadcast networks anymore. Some shows, like New Girl on Fox, struggle to get even 3 million.

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