I got the news from Shawn Ryan about FOX canceling “The Chicago Code” pretty late in the evening East Coast time, so I didn’t have much time to process the larger massacre that was going on at the network last night, in which every bubble show FOX had left – not only “The Chicago Code,” but “Human Target,” “Lie to Me,” “Breaking In” and “Traffic Light” – were all told their services wouldn’t be required for next season.
On one level, the Tuesday night bubble bloodbath was surprising. FOX doesn’t announce its fall schedule until Monday, and while some cancellations and pick-ups will leak in the days leading up to a network’s upfront presentation, you don’t usually hear about all of them (including a few other new series pick-ups) this far in advance. And while it’s not uncommon to see a network pop most of its bubble shows, to get rid of all of them? Very strange.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. FOX renewed both “Raising Hope” and “Fringe” a while back, and without those early pick-ups – one or both of which I suspect FOX execs may be questioning in hindsight, given what’s happened to each show’s ratings since – they’d have been on the bubble right along with “Chicago Code” and “Breaking In.” So you can look at it as FOX picking up two of its bubble shows, and for a season when they already have a bunch of real estate committed to both returning hits (“House,” “Bones,” the Sunday cartoons) and to a pair of high-profile newbies in “The X Factor” and “Terra Nova.” When you only program two hours a night, there’s simply not a lot of room for marginal performers, which is what all five of the canceled series were.
“Chicago Code” got a huge marketing campaign during the football playoffs and Super Bowl, as well as one of FOX’s better timeslots (or what was once one of its better timeslots, but I’ll get back to that) on Mondays after “House,” and it didn’t even premiere to good numbers. Some of the comments to last night’s post suggest the show’s creative growing pains chased people away, but not enough people turned up in the first place. “Human Target” came back for a second season (after being an iffy renewal to begin with) with a creative makeover none of its small cadre of fans liked. “Lie to Me” had cycled through a bunch of showrunners (including “Chicago Code” boss Shawn Ryan, who had an especially lousy Tuesday) without ever developing into more than a hole-filler. (Its finest moment, business-wise, may have been stopping the bleeding caused by the disastrous two-week run of “Lone Star.”) “Traffic Light” was losing far too much of its already small “Raising Hope” lead-in. The only one doing decent numbers at all was “Breaking In,” and it’s easy to look at those ratings as 100% artificially inflated by airing after “American Idol.” Had FOX brought it back next year in tandem with “Raising Hope,” it could have easily pulled in “Traffic Light”-level numbers. (Still, it’s the most surprising of the five, by a lot.)
I’ve seen a lot of anger towards FOX on Twitter, on this blog, and elsewhere in the last 12 hours, and it’s understandable. None of these shows were highly-rated, but all had their fans, and nobody wants to see a show they liked get canceled – let alone this many at once. Phrases like “All FOX ever does is cancel good shows” abounded.
But here is what I’ll say in FOX’s defense, even as I’m sad that my two favorite network pilots of this season – “Lone Star” and “The Chicago Code” – both failed in the same FOX timeslot (again, more on that in a bit): FOX takes chances. FOX tries the kinds of shows the other broadcast networks simply won’t. Because of the institutional legacy of “The X-Files,” for instance, FOX has continually tried to make science-fiction work in primetime to an extent that none of its competitors will try. Though the names of the people in charge of the network change, FOX consistently puts on shows that have more ambitious concepts than anyone else in broadcast. Yes, they canceled “Lone Star,” and “Firefly,” and “Arrested Development” and far too many other great (or potentially great) shows in the last decade alone, but they put those shows on the air in the first place, when NBC, ABC and CBS likely wouldn’t have.
The sad truth of the TV business is that most new shows fail, and that failure rate only gets higher when you try shows that aren’t exactly like 16 other shows on TV. When you swing for the fences, you strike out a lot more often than when you just try to hit a single. And while many fine FOX shows have died in the cradle, the network also gave us three seasons of “Arrested Development,” and they’re going to give us at least four seasons of “Fringe.” Four seasons of “Fringe.” That is, given the show’s ratings, both ridiculous and welcome.
Shows get canceled. All the time. But if you decide en masse you’re turning your back on the biggest risk-taker left in broadcast TV, then that decreases the chances that the risks will continue, and then we’ll only get even more reality, more straight-forward, generic procedurals, etc.
And the other thing that occurred to me while pondering this mess is what a tough year it’s been in general for the networks. The only breakout hit on any network has been NBC’s “The Voice.” ABC could justifiably cancel every single new show it debuted this year and no one would be shocked (though “Body of Proof” and a couple of the comedies will likely survive). Pre-sold shows like “Hawaii Five-0” and “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior,” that in years past would have been instant hits, have either done just okay or outright struggled.
You can blame some of this on what was a fairly dismal crop of new shows – where even the best pilot in “Lone Star” was one that had everyone questioning whether the show would be any good within 3 or 4 weeks (due to the ratings, we never had to worry about that) – but at the same time, it seems like this was the year when a lot of the rules the business used to rely on stopped working.
One of the fundamental tenets of scheduling is that you turn a new show into a hit by putting it on after a pre-existing hit, but nothing FOX has put on after “House” since the end of “24” has done any kind of number. Putting “Suspect Behavior” on after the original “Criminal Minds” hasn’t worked the way that teaming up the two “NCIS” shows did last year. Promotion during sporting events has always been an iffy concept, as it’s a borrowed audience and most of the people watching football on Sunday have no interest in watching dramas or sitcoms on Monday and Tuesday, but now it seems to have no effect at all. Again, FOX poured a ton of money and airtime into making people aware of “The Chicago Code,” and very few of those people ever bothered to watch it.
Maybe it really is all about the shows. Maybe people just didn’t want to watch a cop show starring Jennifer Beals and a relative unknown in Jason Clarke. Maybe “Suspect Behavior” has struggled because “Criminal Minds” fans don’t like the new cast. Maybe “No Ordinary Family” would be coming back if it hadn’t quickly squandered an interesting premise. And maybe if next season’s rookies are better – and goodness knows, I am going to hear the phrase “We had our best development season ever!” far more than I care to during the upfronts next week – we’ll see some actual out-of-the-box scripted successes.
But this has been a rough year, and the FOX bubble bloodbath was just a symptom of that much larger problem.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org