Low-rated TV shows can’t defy gravity

DVRs, diminished expectations complicate the calculus in deciding what survives

Every TV season triggers a media scavenger hunt to identify new trends, only to witness some of them proven wrong at breakneck speed.

Two related themes to quickly emerge from this fall are DVRs have changed everything, and networks — suddenly content to settle for lower ratings — have become more patient in wielding the executioner’s ax. “What does a series have to do to get canceled these days?” asked a Salon piece a few weeks ago. “The new normal for ratings — low, very low — seems to be precipitating a new normal for patience.”

Like a lot of attempts to chart the next evolutionary phase in TV’s model, the premise has a kernel of truth, surrounded by creamy layers of nonsense.

True paradigm shifts seldom happen overnight. So while the networks have been slower to yank under-performing new programs, their perceived acceptance of mediocrity merely represents postponing the inevitable, not preventing it.

The DVR doubtless plays some role in this, since data covering the first seven days a program airs lags a few weeks behind the initial telecast, throwing a monkey wrench in demand for instant analysis and snap judgments. With so much delayed viewing, it’s not preposterous to think a show (particularly one scheduled opposite an established hit) could exhibit genuine promise meriting a second chance — or if nothing else, a longer look — in playback mode.

That said, it was pretty clear early on “Partners” and “666 Park Avenue” were unlikely to survive into 2013 and “Animal Practice” would be euthanized. Networks might not be in as much of a hurry to excise struggling shows, but there’s scant evidence with something like “The Mob Doctor” of a new-found desire to throw good money after bad.

It is true networks are learning to live with lower ratings — an inevitable by-product of viewers’ plethora of options. Reading about the death of “Dallas” star Larry Hagman reminds us we’ll likely never see another drama produce the kind of “Who Shot J.R.?” moment that simultaneously galvanized such a wide swath of the country.

By virtually every measure, this has become a more niche-oriented age. The happy fallout from that has been not only to cultivate great shows but make them viable on channels perfectly willing to get by with a couple million viewers. With apologies to a slogan the Trio network coined to help recycle reruns, “brilliant” and “canceled” no longer automatically go hand in hand.

Even perceived hits can be relatively narrow cultural phenomena. “Sons of Anarchy” does fine for FX, but when Entertainment Weekly put the dark drama on its cover, many newsstand gawkers could be forgiven for thinking “Sons of Who?” Lena Dunham has garnered Emmy nominations, a lucrative book deal and controversy over cutting a video to support President Obama, but most conservatives harrumphing about her political excursion have almost surely never seen an episode of “Girls.”

Frankly, real patience remains the province of pay cable, where HBO has stuck with programs like “Treme” and “Enlightened” under a mysterious formula that’s as much art as science. And even that has limits, as evidenced by Starz’s cancellation of “Boss” — which the network picked up for a second season, questionably, before the first premiered.

The popularity of multi-night reality shows — with programs like “Dancing With the Stars,” “The Voice” and “The X Factor” each occupying three hours a week — has also swallowed up real estate and reduced the number of new fall programs, particularly in vulnerable, high-risk timeslots.

Networks shouldn’t be credited with striking out less, in other words, just because they took fewer at-bats.

Despite such wrinkles, the major broadcasters — who remain, after all, the main focus of the fall — still mostly abide by the old rulebook. Ratings can be meticulously dissected and concerns about lead-in retention downplayed, yes, but ultimately, they’re not in the business of marketing coffee-table books nobody reads.

DVRs and diminished expectations have complicated the calculus in deciding what survives, but the wispy latticework of spin, hope, intuition and testing (now there’s an appropriate anagram) has only slightly altered the ad-supported world’s fundamental principles.

For all the forces reshaping TV, at least for now, there’s still no defying gravity.

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