T Dog’s Think Tank: It’s canceled! Or is it?

"THe Muppets" is a ratings joke, but the joke's on us" it got picked up for three more episodes. (ABC)
“The Muppets” is a ratings joke, but the joke’s on us: it got picked up for three more episodes. (ABC)

Networks now playing games with viewers

Remember a few years ago when radio was tagged as a dying medium?

Now you can give the title to broadcast networks’ prime-time TV programming.

As more and more viewers are shifting to streaming services to watch their shows, the Big Five certainly aren’t giving a reason for viewers to stick around – renewing shows with a 1.0 adults 18-49 rating and instead of canceling shows, the nets are now “cutting the episode orders”, with gives lame-duck shows a chance to complete their airings- even If it means losing more viewers in the time slot, week after week.

You can hear media buyers just partying in the streets over this. “Since when does a 0.9 adults 18-49 merit a full-season pickup?” one media buyer fumed to Media Life regarding Fox’s renewal of The Grinder.

For the first time in recent memory, we are now in November and there isn’t one freshman prime-time show canceled.

Call it “The Jericho (or Lonestar or Playboy Club) Effect” – networks don’t want the negative publicity associated with officially canceling a program these days – no matter how bad it is. Networks canceled the above-mentioned shows early and faced criticism from TV critics and viewers, despite the small audiences they attracted. In Jericho’s case, fans sent CBS bags of peanuts to the network (the show did return to the air, only to bomb again.)

Yes, it makes no sense that a universally-loathed program like Truth Be Told would get its episode slashed to ten instead of just yanking the show, but the networks aren’t taking any chances.

This means once the episode orders run out, that’s it. What little fans of the show will pester the networks on when the show is coming back, but hope they go away.

There is precedent: Fox yanked soap Pasadena after a few episodes in 2001, put on hiatus and never was heard from again. NBC never officially canceled Deal Or No Deal when it disappeared from the network in 2009, although the syndicated version was officially canceled a year later.

What you are seeing here is basically the new realities of linear (or “live”) television – more and more viewers are time-shifting or putting off watching shows (thru streaming services, DVRs, etc.) for many reasons – and they keep increasing. For one, blame lifestyle changes: many viewers are coming home from work later (in addition to going to work earlier.) Yes, those days when can you clock in at 9 and clock out at 5 are over – well, for most of us (not yours truly.)

And then there’s competition from other linear programming – programming that’s actually live. The presidential debates have drained viewers away from prime-time programs, drawing 25 million viewers an airing. The Chicago Cubs’ playoff run has also siphoned away viewers – even a hot show like Empire wasn’t immune to Cubdom. In fact, Cubs’ playoff games far and away drew more viewers than any prime-time show in the Chicago market, even outdrawing the pitiful Bears. All this did was push more and more viewers to the DVR or streaming services.

But the overall consensus is, this year’s new shows have been creative disappointments. Despite a huge marketing push, The Muppets revival has fallen flat, and its new format just doesn’t work. Scream Queens is doing well among young females, but the show seems like one of those forgettable late-night theatricals WGN-TV airs overnights on the weekend.

Heroes:Reborn actually has held its own in the ratings, and the show’s quality has been mixed at best (I’m just as surprised as you are.) And while Supergirl flew out the gate in its premiere (3.1 rating), there is no guarantee viewers will stick around. Meanwhile, nine new shows were picked up for either extended episode orders or the full season.

And as more viewers exit live prime-time television viewing, more and more marketers are using C3 and/or C7 data to accurately measure audiences.

All in all, it just goes to show you how pointless traditional ratings are these days. With shows like Grandfathered getting renewed with a 1.0 rating, what difference does it make? The fear is network prime-time might up like the first-run syndicated business when it comes to ratings – no one will care. A lot of syndicated programming earns a sub 1 rating and somehow keeps getting renewed. For instance, magazine series OK TV is in its third season and is earning a 0.3 household rating. Right This Minute is still chugging along despite no clearances in New York City and Chicago, the first and third-largest markets, respectively.

And don’t ask how Comics Unleashed, with its bargain-basement ratings, remains on the air.

We’re not far off from the day the only way a show can get canceled is achieving a 0.0 rating – or as they say in the biz, “hash marks”. And even that may not be enough. You know the business is in trouble when the major networks are asking Byron Allen – the man who knows how to keep programs with a 0.2 rating on the air – for advice.

It’s exactly what Barnabas said on Dark Shadows when someone threatened to kill him: “You can’t kill me – I’m already dead.”

No kidding.