Syfy’s supernatural drama series Haven just kicked off its fourth season and its ratings are already suggesting that the show may not survive into a fifth year. I have had several fans of the show ask why I am predicting a possible cancellation for the show, so I will take this opportunity to take a quick look at the cancellation threat for returning shows in general using Haven as my starting example.
First and foremost, the survival of television series these days is heavily determined (as it has been for the past half century and more) by the monolithic Nielsen Company that reports the ratings which measure audience size. The primary number focused on these days is the rating in the 18-49 demographic because that is the group that most advertisers target and these sponsors rely on the measurements to determine which shows to buy advertising time on. You can read a bit more about how the ratings work at my FAQ and also over at TV by the Numbers.
The simple fact of the matter is that the higher the ratings number, the better. But also–since different networks have different viewership levels–where a show is in relationship to other programming on the network is an even better indicator. For example, Haven’s fourth season premiere on September 13th pulled a 0.4 rating in the 18-49 demographic (which equates to roughly half a million viewers in that age range). That number would be disastrous on one of the Big Four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC) which look for a score of at least 2.0 or higher to consider a show’s performance acceptable (though that level continues to erode each year). Even on the fifth place broadcast network The CW or several of the high profile basic cable channels (TBS, TNT, FX, AMC), that number would be below acceptable levels.
Syfy, though, is one of the lower rated basic cable channels and that number is a bit off, but not completely down the drain, and that’s where comparison to other shows on the networks comes into play. Over the past few years, it has appeared that a 0.5 threshold is the minimum acceptable number for a scripted series produced by the Syfy (which does not include Canadian imports like Continuum and Lost Girl, more on them below). Recent shows whose average has slipped below that 0.5 mark have ended up getting cancelled, such as Sanctuary which was truncated after four seasons and Alphas which received its walking papers after two seasons. Going back a few years, some shows that were at that level or higher got cancelled such as Stargate: Universe and Eureka, though both of those are more expensive productions than the ones mentioned above. And this last season, Warehouse 13–which was once the network’s flagship show which they touted as one of their most watched ever–averaged only a 0.5 rating and received notice that it would end its run after a shortened six episode sixth season which will air in 2014. With Haven currently only averaging a 0.4 rating across the first two episodes of its fourth season–and the numbers typically slide as a season progresses–it’s prospects seem somewhat grim when looking at recent history.
It is worth noting, though, that for most returning shows there comes a point where the ratings are not as strong of a driving factor as long as they are at least adequate. As a series starts to increase its episode count, it becomes more attractive to the syndication market where it will play in reruns. However, that market is looking for a minimum threshold of episodes that would allow the show to be aired for potentially several months on a weeknight basis without repeating itself. According to the TV by the Numbers guys, this sweet spot is generally at 88 episodes, which is typically four full seasons of a broadcast network run. And what we have seen in recent history is that if a series makes it into its third season, then typically the network has essentially rubber-stamped it for a fourth (short of a total ratings collapse) because that gets it to a syndication-friendly episode count and that is when the show starts to generate some decent returns on investment. That is what kept Fringe alive through five seasons despite its steep ratings declines and that means that this season’s Once Upon A Time, Grimm, and Person of Interest have a decent chance of making it to their fourth seasons.
However, the syndication market is not nearly as much of a factor as it once was as many of the channels that once had a heavy schedule of repeats are now clamoring for more original programming (mostly in the form of reality shows). And even when the syndication factor does come into play, it takes longer to kick in for a cable series because they typically only have around thirteen episode seasons, thus taking 6 seasons or more to approach the 88 episode threshold. DVD sales are a factor as well, but don’t contribute too much to the bottom line (neither, yet, do online downloads). Sales to foreign markets can be a contributing factor (that has kept Nikita alive on The CW) and actually these have more of an influence on lower cost cable shows like Haven.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether a network can make money (or sees future revenue potential) by keeping a show on the air. If money from advertising (which is dictated by the ratings) and franchising as well as future sales to syndication and/or other markets do not look like they will bring a series into the black, often the networks decide to cut its losses on move onto the next show in their pipeline. Some shows, though, can get by with low ratings because they are relatively low cost for a network. This is true with reality shows (which sadly generally have higher ratings) as well as productions a network may have purchased from another market. Syfy currently airs the Canadian shows Continuum and Lost Girl which are products of the Showcase channel up north. Their ratings are low (though Continuum did average a 0.4 score in its second season) but the network does not pay as much for them. And if Syfy did drop them, they could still continue in Canada (we saw this previously with The Listener and Saving Hope both of which aired one season each on NBC then continued their runs in Canada).
I do believe that Haven is a relatively low cost series as well as it is not heavily sfx driven, but unlike the Canadian imports, Syfy takes all the financial risks associated with keeping it going. And if it’s not making money for them now and they do have a reason to believe it will in the near future, the chances of it them cutting ties with it increase. Based on recent history, and short of a significant ratings upswing, I see Syfy either cancelling this one after the current season (like they did with Sanctuary after its fourth year) or giving Haven a shortened fifth season to wrap up its storylines like they are doing with Warehouse 13 (as a kind of preemptive gesture to stave off a “Save My Show” campaign).
Can Haven be saved? There’s always the possibility, but it’s a longshot. Shows like the original Star Trek, Roswell, Jericho, and Chuck were kept alive by fan campaigns, but none lasted long after that initial surge of fan support (and the networks almost always insist that the campaigns were not what swayed their decisions). If Haven fans do want to mount an effort to keep the show alive, I suggest tactic that I have not seen tried before but that I think has a decent chance of of causing some waves. And that is organizing an extensive campaign to download the episodes from sites like Amazon.com or iTunes for the $2-3 they charge. This appeals directly to the bottom line and–let’s face the facts–that’s what drives network decision making. If the fans could get 50 to a 100 thousand downloads per episode (and go back and do the same with past seasons) and also let Syfy know what they are doing, this could be a game changer. For what I believe is a relatively low cost series like Haven, this might be enough to keep it afloat for a few more seasons. There’s no guarantee, but it seems like a better use of your money than sending something like nuts (Jericho) or hot sauce (Roswell) to the network or spending a ton of money on advertising like fans of The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Legend of the Seeker did. The other bottom-line driven option is to do what Chuck fans did and appeal to one of the show’s major sponsors (Subway in the case of that show) and buy up their products en masse. That won the series another season and a half.
In any case, the economics of television suggest that Haven’s chances of seeing many more seasons on Syfy are slim. But a strong show of support from the fans could keep it alive or carry it into another venue like Netflix or Amazon. Unfortunately, it all comes down to the bottom line and the dedication of the fans or the quality of the show is not necessarily enough to keep it alive. But a well-organized and efficiently targeted campaign could win it another season or two.
Why Were They Cancelled?
The Plight of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television in the Face of the Unforgiving Nielsens and Networks
Ever wondered why your favorite science fiction and/or fantasy show disappeared from the television schedule, never to deliver anymore new episodes? The reason why, most likely, is that it was cancelled because its ratings were low. And this book looks at those many cancelled sci fi/fantasy shows as well as the Neilsen ratings and television networks that dictate their fates. Available now for only $1.99 on Kindle from Amazon.com.