There are plenty of reasons why a network cancels a series, usually related to low ratings but sometimes other factors are involved as well. But then there are those cases where the cancellation of a series seems almost certain from the beginning and the network itself appears to be working toward it getting the ax. We saw an example of this last year with FOX’s Almost Human (more on that at this link) and for the 2014-15 season we saw it yet again with The CW’s The Messengers. That series was subjected to a late season start (delayed all the way to an April 17th debut), was scheduled on low viewership Fridays without a strong lead-in, and received minimal promotion from the network. Its premiere tied for the lowest rating ever for a scripted series on the broadcast networks (the other was also a CW entry: 2013’s Cult) as it pulled only a 0.3 rating in the 18-49 demographic based on the overnights. And then its numbers sunk further leading the network to cancel it after only three episodes had aired. The Messengers wasn’t yanked from the schedule or moved to a low-viewership night or cast to a Summer burn-off run, though, because it appears to have started out in its burn-off run (over half its episodes will air June and later due to its delayed start). So by all appearances, The CW seemed to resolved themselves to this show getting cancelled before it even aired which leads to the obvious question of why?
Part of the reason may have been that once the series was produced, the network executives viewed the finished product and just did not like what they saw. But is that really a reason to just dump the show that they have poured so much money into? I have seen the first two episodes so far, and have to admit that I am not thrilled with the series. But it’s not a complete disaster that demands an immediate ejection from the schedule. I can think of other shows that stumbled in their first year or two before finally finding their footing (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 are two clear examples of shows with weak first seasons that went on to become sci fi classics). Does it really make sense to throw the millions of dollars they have already spent on The Messengers out the window before giving it a chance? I would guess that the thirteen episodes produced for the first season totaled at least $20 million, possibly much more, and that’s a lot of money to flush before giving a show even an inkling of a chance. Sure, The CW has a pretty packed schedule for the 2015-16 season with quite a number of returning entries pulling much higher ratings. But The Messengers could have been considered as an option for the Summer schedule where it could have paired up with equally low-rated (and mystifyingly uncancellable Beauty and the Beast) before just kicking it to the Network Executioner.
In many ways, this is an example of how the old-school networks are just not adapting to the changing times (though, I would say that the CW is ahead of the older-school Big Four: ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC). In another age (when competition was not as high), the networks had stacks of cash in their vault that they could burn through while looking for the latest hit (and sci fi shows all too often found themselves on the burn-end of that equation). But with the ever-fracturing audience and the many platforms viewers can choose from to watch shows now, things are getting much tighter. But the old-school networks (and several of the cable channels) have not come to grips with that yet. They still follow out-dated practices when deciding which shows to renew or cancel, even though the costs of those decisions can be more painful these days. Streaming service Netflix seems to be rubber-stamping all its originals for a second season and Amazon and Hulu appear to be following close to that pattern as well. Even Syfy has shown a tendency to stick with shows, renewing Dominion, Helix, and 12 Monkeys despite moderate to downright poor first year numbers. And even if The Messengers has stumbled quality-wise out of the gate, a second season could give it some time to course correct (and The CW has been very patient with other low-rated shows like The 100 and non-genre entries Reign and Jane the Virgin).
There could be other factors driving the cancellation as well. Perhaps The CW is not on the best of terms with the show’s studio (Warner Bros. who coincidentally also produced Almost Human but who owns part of The CW) or production company. Perhaps they feel their are irreconcilable creative differences with the show’s producers. Perhaps it went over-budget too often in its first season. Perhaps the alien overlords ordered them to cancel the show (that’s actually the answer that makes the most sense if you ask me). But it also seems, when this much money is involved, that they would find a way to work through all of this. And if they can’t, they could try and sell the series to another network or venue (allegedly there were other parties interested in Almost Human, but FOX blocked any deal for it to move).
Now maybe in the current market the network’s can still get their money back on these short-lived shows through streaming deals for the reruns plus international syndication and DVD sales. And maybe that’s what drives the attention-span-challenged entertainment industry from sticking with one property if it is not pegged as a success out of the gates. But it still seems like The CW mishandled The Messengers from the start (as FOX did with Almost Human), and it sure looks like bad business. If anybody out there in the entertainment industry has some insight on this, we would love to hear from you. But as it is, the small group of fans following The Messengers will have to come up with their own ideas on how the series would have continued once it wraps up its thirteen episode run (and I don’t want to hear any revisionist network double-speak that it was always planned as a limited run series).