Tense Time For ‘Bubble’ Shows

Mar 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When 7th Heaven debuted in 1996, it was one of The WB’s lowest-rated shows that fall and anything but a slam dunk to be renewed. Then in the first quarter of the next year, its female teen ratings showed growth. And network executives liked where it was headed creatively.
Although it averaged only 3.2 million total viewers that first season, The WB took a chance and brought it back for a second season. That patience paid off. Today it is in its seventh season and is one of the network’s highest-rated shows in young demos, averaging 7.2 million total viewers a week.
Knowing when to have patience and when to pull the plug is a tricky business. Going into the final stretch of this season, executives at every broadcast network face similar decisions about shows on the ratings bubble-shows that perform fairly well but aren’t obvious keepers.
With ratings erosion on broadcast networks during the past few years, raw ratings numbers don’t tell the full story and so network executives have to look at a slew of other factors in making their decisions. “There’s no magic number for renewal,” said Mitch Metcalf, senior VP for program planning and scheduling at NBC. “There really never has been. We look for all kinds of internal signs, not just what the rating is and retention is. Is there improvement on either measure? We look at the demos very finely. We look at not just 18 to 49 but the upscale index. Is the show gaining traction with $75,000 or $100,000-plus [income] viewers?”
Rusty Mintz, senior VP of program scheduling at The WB said showing momentum-whether in ratings or creatively-is a key ingredient as to whether a show warrants another season.
Some shows don’t have to wait. ABC gave early pickups last month to seven series, including two that were considered by many to be on the bubble: Life With Bonnie and Less Than Perfect. Season-to-date, Bonnie has averaged a 4/10 in adults 18 to 49 and Less Than Perfect has averaged a 3.7/9. After being off the air for several weeks, both came back with original episodes last week and lower ratings-Bonnie scored a 3.0/7 and Perfect had a 2.8/7. Lance Taylor, senior VP of current programming at ABC, said he wasn’t concerned because after a stunt-filled February sweeps, he believes viewers will return and the series will bounce back.
Mr. Taylor said ABC made the early pickup because the series were on track creatively. “In each case we saw a series that was deserving of future episodes, that there was an interest in seeing where these characters went,” he said.
Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior VP, director of broadcast research, at Initiative Media, said ABC’s early pickups were “less about how successful those shows are and more about ABC wanting to indicate to the industry that they are committed to stability in their schedule.”
“They were a little premature in jumping the gun with it, but it also says they’re committed to developing talent,” she said. “Stability is not a bad thing on a network schedule. It was an OK move on their part.”
Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic planning for Fox Broadcasting Co., said another factor in renewals is whether the network believes in a show and is willing to say, “Putting aside the ratings, this is a good show. This show deserves to be on our schedule.”
Last year, 24 garnered critical praise and a Golden Globe Award for star Kiefer Sutherland. But it was never a breakout hit, averaging 4.2/10 in adults 18 to 49 for the season and 8.6 million viewers. Fox believed in the show and its innovative real-time concept and brought it back. This season 24 is up 31 percent in both measures, with a 5.5/13 demo and 11.3 million viewers. The last original episode that aired finished as the No. 2 scripted series of that week.
Executives have to juggle the risks of retaining a freshman series vs. those of trying a new series. Often it might be more cost-effective to give the freshman another shot. “A new unproven show will usually be estimated lower [in ratings and share] than something we already know, but there are exceptions,” Ms. Koerner said.
Fox’s Friday night lineup of Fastlane and John Doe could be considered bubble shows. With Fastlane averaging a 2.9/8 season-to-date rating in adults 18 to 49 and Doe averaging a 2.7/8, they’re not considered hits. However, Friday has been difficult for all the networks and on March 7, Fox won the night in adults 18 to 34 with those shows. That makes the decision on those shows anything but black and white. Earlier this season, NBC canceled Providence even though it was winning its time slot in adults 18 to 49 (season average: 3.0/10). It was replaced by Mister Sterling, which premiered smartly but is now averaging a 2.7/9. Fox last year canceled cult favorite Dark Angel, which averaged a 2.8/9 rating in adults 18 to 49, and replaced it this year with Firefly, an expensive show that averaged 2.0/7 in demos and was canceled.
“Every network can look at shows they canceled and say in all likelihood we would have been better off keeping that show rather than replacing it,” Mr. Beckman said. “The instinct of programmers is the next show is a hit when the reality is the next show’s got just as much chance of failing.”
Network executives tend to like to bring shows back when they can because it’s difficult to gain awareness for new shows in a cluttered marketplace. They can point to shows such as Cheers, Seinfeld and Hill Street Blues, which all started slowly but then became major hits.
“We want these shows to succeed because bringing in a new show is an incredibly expensive process,” said NBC’s Mr. Metcalf.