Even in the age of Peak TV, lots of TV shows get canceled. Like today.

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
05.12.16 101 Comments

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The reports of the death of cancellation may have been greatly exaggerated.

At least on the broadcast networks.

One of the odd but welcome side effects of the Peak TV phenomenon has been the TV industry's seeming reluctance to cancel shows regardless of ratings. If a show has any kind of critical or fan following, or there's any kind of marginal financial incentive to keep it around, shows that once would have died instantly – say, AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, or FX's Baskets – now get to return for another season, or more.

Of course, that's happening on cable, where the business model is very different, or on the CW, which already renewed pretty much its whole lineup (save Containment, which was designed as a limited series that could return, but won't), and which often functions more like a cable outfit than an old-fashioned broadcaster.

But for all that execs at the Big Four like to talk about paying attention to non-traditional audience measurements – streaming on their websites or Hulu, shows DVRed long after they've aired – the vast majority of their money is still made on viewing that's either live or close to it, which makes it much harder to keep shows around based on creative accounting, prestige(*), or any reason that's not about cold, concrete numbers.

(*) It's not impossible, though: ABC stunned me by renewing the incredible American Crime – which has awful ratings, but brings with it awards credibility and an ongoing relationship between ABC and creator John Ridley – for a third season.

And that meant that today was a particularly bloody one in the network TV game, with notable series old and new getting the axe across ABC, FOX, and CBS(**).

(**) NBC's only news of the day was the formal pickup of Dick Wolf's Chicago Justice, which mainly prompted Twitter jokes about how shows on other networks would have been safer if they had put “Chicago” at the front of their titles. We'll see if they make all their renewal decisions before their fall schedule is announced on Sunday – they've often waited when it comes to renewing midseason shows – but I'm hoping like hell they order a third season of Carmichael Show, which has quickly become one of TV's best comedies.

All kinds of series were killed. ABC alone dropped the axe on both expensive old warhorses like Castle (whose fans are probably relieved, given that the plan was to do another season without Stana Katic) and newbies like The Family, and said goodbye to two different Marvel series, canceling Agent Carter after two low-rated seasons, and declining for the second time to move forward with Agents of SHIELD spin-off Marvel's Most Wanted, which under ousted president Paul Lee seemed a shoo-in to replace Agent Carter. Other Paul Lee pets like Galavant and Nashville also won't be back – which means we won't get to witness the weird spectacle of thirtysomething creators Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz running someone else's show – while The Muppets improved creatively after everyone had already stopped watching, so it's out, too.

Rather than bringing back one of its little-watched but critically-admired freshman sitcoms in The Grinder and Grandfathered, FOX decided to say goodbye to both, along with Bordertown and the aptly-named Second Chance (which had previously been known as both The Frankenstein Code and Lookinglass). The hilarious Grinder finale ended on another meta moment: Rob Lowe insisting they had stories to last for years and years. But, to paraphrase Mitchard Grinder, what if they didn't? Or, at least, what if FOX had no interest, given the tiny numbers?

Even CBS, which has been far more immune to the implosion of the traditional network TV business model over the last decade, made some aggressive cancellation decisions. CSI: Cyber won't be scaring your grandmother about the Internet anymore, leaving the network without a CSI show for the first time in 16 years. (Though I'd bet money on a new spin-off being developed within a season or two.) And a year after former network chief Nina Tassler insisted the CBS brand had room for a superhero show, the Eye closed on Supergirl, which will at least fight another day at CBS' corporate sibling the CW, where it arguably should have been all along. (Though we'll see how the show looks with a reduced budget and a Vancouver production base.)

Now, fans of many of these shows, and other series still on the cancellation bubble (Limitless, say) can hold out hope on Netflix or Hulu or some other streaming white knight to ride in and order another season, but there aren't a ton of great candidates among today's victims. Agent Carter might seem a natural given the Marvel/Netflix relationship, but Hayley Atwell's already signed to do another ABC show. The Grinder got great reviews, but wasn't around long enough to generate the kind of outcry that might inspire a second life in the digital space. I won't be shocked if a casualty from today is revived elsewhere, but it doesn't seem likely.

The rules of the business are changing rapidly, but it remains a business, and a pretty brutal one, where the numbers still usually say who lives and who dies. It's nice to snuggle inside in the Peak TV cocoon and assume that any show we like will be around for as long as the creative team wants it to be, but that's still not the case even on cable, and it's sure not the case at the broadcast networks. As much as we'd like to see cancellation killed once and for all, it's going to outlive all of us.

What does everybody else think? Did one of today's cancellations sting particularly hard? Was there a show you were pleasantly surprised to see survive? Anything you once loved but were okay saying goodbye to?

Author Profile Picture
Alan Sepinwall has been writing about television since the mid-'90s. He's the author of "The Revolution Was Televised," about the rise of TV's new golden age, and co-author of "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time."

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