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Low Ratings, Behind-the-Scenes Turnover Felled ABC’s ‘Designated Survivor’

Designated Survivor” had a tough second season ratings-wise, but the drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as the Commander-in-Chief was still seen as having a decent shot at winning a third term on ABC — until the ax fell on Friday.

The show, from Mark Gordon Co./Entertainment One and ABC Studios, had been a strong draw for eOne in international markets, an important factor these days in the survival of any scripted series. And Sutherland is the kind of name-brand star that broadcast networks like to have in their sizzle reels.

But “Designated Survivor” was handicapped almost from the start by a revolving door of showrunners. Entertainment One had lined up drama veteran Neal Baer to take the helm of season three, which would have made him the show’s fifth showrunner. Sutherland per his contract had veto power over showrunners and had approved Baer. Sources say Baer had been busy this week meeting with writers to assemble a new staff before the word of the cancellation came down.

Another factor that may have played a part in ABC’s decision to pull the plug was the fact that Sutherland’s contract called for production of the show to move to Los Angeles in season three, after two seasons in Toronto. Such a move would have raised the cost of producing a show that was already on the higher-end of budget for broadcast dramas.

A source close to the situation said Sutherland was frustrated by the creative twists and turns that the series took — shifts that were no surprise given the number of changes behind the scenes. David Guggenheim created the political drama about a cabinet member who becomes President under duress after a terrorist attack takes out the previous President and the rest of his cabinet. But given the rotating lineup of showrunners, the show zig-zagged from being a political thriller to a more earnest look at the struggles of Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman and his family amid the fishbowl of living in the White House.

“Designated Survivor” earned a straight-to-series order from ABC, in part because of the profile that Sutherland brought to the show. Amy Harris was tapped to serve as showrunner but she was replaced by Jon Harmon Feldman before production began on the first season. Jeff Melvoin took over from Feldman about halfway through season one. Keith Eisner then came on board when the show was renewed for its second season and stayed at the helm throughout, although the search for showrunner No. 5 for the anticipated third season began several months ago.

From ABC’s perspective, the fate of “Designated Survivor” was sealed by a ratings plunge in season two and its loss of traction in delayed viewing. In its first season, the show regularly registered triple-digit gains in Nielsen’s live-plus-7 ratings, but this season it has averaged 8.6 million viewers and 1.7 rating in adults 18-49 in L7, compared to 12.1 million viewers and 2.9 in adults 18-49 in season one.

In the absence of a clear narrative road map for a third season and declining poll numbers, “Designated Survivor” couldn’t recover from the loss of its base. Like politics, primetime TV is a fickle business.

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