In 1993, CBS’ detective show “South of Sunset” premiered to such abysmal ratings opposite ABC’s “Home Improvement” that it was yanked after one episode. Moreover, breaking news prompted the network’s Los Angeles station to preempt the telecast, meaning the Beverly Hills-based drama went south without being broadcast anywhere near the boulevard from which the show derived its name.
Flash forward, and one of the fall’s most ghoulish annual rituals — guessing what will be the first TV programs to get canceled — has taken on a different complexion. Because today, low ratings don’t always tell the full story regarding what’s going to wind up on a slab.
Delayed viewing is a significant factor in muddying the picture, with programs sometimes receiving unexpected bumps thanks to DVR data that doesn’t come in ’til a few weeks after air. But even that aspect only scratches the surface of TV’s survival equation, which encompasses a show’s ownership, production costs and ancillary deals, such as international financing or sales to streaming services.
As a result, the raw next-day rating, once a pretty fair arbiter of viability, frequently doesn’t reveal much about a program’s contribution to the bottom line. In addition, third parties like Netflix and Hulu have further complicated the calculus by sweeping in and rescuing low-rated series that have been on a few years, or (in the case of the Emmy-nominated “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) pilots that the original network hesitated about airing at all.
In other words, in this age of marauding zombies, what once could be written off as a dead show walking occasionally turns out to have unexpected life. And without knowing the whole range of deals and considerations surrounding a property, the numbers really can lie, even without resorting to the public-relations spin or creative accounting for which Hollywood is known.
CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler addressed some of these issues during the TV Critics Assn. tour, noting how ratings for the network’s summer thrillers “Zoo” and “Extant” were almost irrelevant in relation to their profitability, thanks to lucrative streaming deals. Similarly, she noted that CBS makes money off shows like “Blue Bloods” and “Elementary” thanks to syndication and international demand, even though the Tom Selleck drama in particular attracts the sort of geriatric audience that traditionally represents a tough sell to advertisers.
Clearly, the press — which usually isn’t privy to all the arcane details of these arrangements — hasn’t caught up with the shifting dynamics. Take “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” which AMC surprisingly renewed for a third season. While the ratings hardly appeared to justify such a move, the Revolutionary War drama benefits from enough European loot that the network likely faced scant downside in giving the series continued liberty, not death.
Networks have sought to encourage greater restraint instead of drawing knee-jerk conclusions, citing the need for increased patience. Yet they haven’t provided much concrete information that would foster a more sophisticated view, and can’t resist crowing loudly at the first sign of success (witness Fox’s giddiness as last year’s “Empire” numbers rolled in — and up), which makes it harder to believe them when they insist there’s no need to panic when the Nielsen scorecard isn’t nearly as favorable.
Throw in the digital-age demand for immediate information, and the temptation remains strong to judge series based on opening-night numbers. Besides, after a summer’s worth of promotion for the major networks’ new-program onslaught that begins this month, poor initial turnout at the least suggests a notable lack of enthusiasm.
So if the premiere rating’s lousy, the odds still say a show likely will go the way of the dinosaur — or “South of Sunset.” But lacking the full picture, don’t start digging in the great TV burial ground just yet.