The Changing TV Landscape: Will Sci Fi TV Shows Still Get Cancelled When the New, Better Viewing Models Take Over?

By | September 4, 2015

Would Firefly have had a long life on Netflix or Amazon?

In this series, I have looked at several models of television viewing (at this link), such as Roku, Netflix, and Hulu, that I believe will eventually replace the increasingly outdated advertising and ratings driven broadcast and cable models.  But when this television utopia does emerge where the audience is not required to sit through advertisements for their viewership to count and they can watch shows when they want and the ratings will be based on actual views not a flawed sampling by a company still pretending it is the 1960’s . . . will sci fi TV shows still get cancelled?

And the answer to that is quite simply . . . Yes!

As long as there are television shows produced for people to watch, then at least some of those very shows will get cancelled at some point, whether a sampling of the audience is measured or every single viewer is counted.  Because sometimes television shows just don’t register with an audience, sometimes they are promoted poorly (though the new models will at least make poor scheduling a moot point), sometimes they start off strong then taper off and the audience loses interest.  For any of a number of reasons, people stop watching television shows and if the audience is not there then the networks, productions companies, studios, streaming services, etc. have little incentive to to keep shelling out money for a show that has too few viewers watching it.  And of course you will still have network executives as part of the formula who will continue to make decisions that cause us to bang our heads against the wall.

The good news is that cancellation/renewal decisions will be driven more closely by solid numbers in these new models.  Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. know exactly how many views a show is getting (though they have been less than willing to share those stats) and they also know how to tie those to the bottom dollar.  So the influence of the increasingly meaningless overnight ratings supplied by the Nielsen company (and I believe those numbers are influence heavily by passive viewing these days, more on that at this link), which have dictated the fates of television shows for so many years, will continue to wane as the television landscape evolves.  Of course, the Nielsens have entrenched themselves into the entertainment industry, so don’t expect them to go away, but I do believe we will see a major shift in what they report and how it impacts the fate of a show.

But still, shows will get cancelled and that will include entries in the sci fi / fantasy genre.  Some will disappear after one season, some after two or more, but cancellations will not go away and fan campaigns will still arise to try and save those shows.  But those shows will be the ones that not many people are watching or that the audience gave up on, so I doubt that the attempts to save them will have as much weight.  Still, some of these shows will be diamonds in the rough that just didn’t succeed in finding an audience and down the road we will look at them as the ones that got away.  But that’s life in the fickle entertainment industry.

Another thing that I think we will see is shows wrapping up sooner than they might have done when the rules of the old model were applied to them.  For the broadcast networks, and to some extent the cable channels as well, the goal of the game is for a show to get to at least the 80 episode mark and preferably to 100 and beyond.  That episode count makes a show attractive to the syndication market where it can air daily in reruns for several months without repeating itself.  And it has been the syndication sales that have brought in the big profits for the scripted shows, which typically barely break even or operate in the red during their initial runs.  But the old school way of watching shows during their encore runs appears to be dying out in the new environment of on demand viewing and binge-watching.  And partnerships and international financing has been brought in to offset the initial hit of the production costs (more on that at this link).

In the new environment, three to five seasons of around twelve episodes each might be enough and the show will be allowed to go out on its own terms.  That is closer to the model that European television shows follow, and I believe it is a good way to go.  There are many shows that have a decent concept, but not necessarily strong or versatile enough to sustain it for 80 or more episodes.  I believe (and I know that many sci fi fans agree) that it is much better for a show to run 30 to 50 episodes and then wrap up rather than stretch it too far or get cancelled and leave the viewers hanging.  And I believe that the new models will afford shows the chance to to go out on their own terms rather than face the Network Executioner, even if they do end sooner than originally intended.

There’s a lot of change coming over the next few years and I believe that a wave of cancellations will be hitting relatively soon in response to the current bubble environment.  But when that settles down and one of the new models emerges as the dominant viewing platform, then I believe we will see less cancellations.  And those that do occur will be more strongly driven by hard data and will likely be less contested.

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