In the Too-Much-TV-Era, there are quite a number of shows (genre and non-genre) competing for viewership and we are seeing more and more one-season-and-out entries because it is increasingly difficult to find and hold an audience. But those shows that do manage to survive and make it into a third year, seem to typically be sticking around for about a five-season run that is in the 40 to 70 episode range. This looks to be a similar trend to “syndication stretch” that we are seeing with the broadcast network shows. In that case, a show that has made it into a third season and will total around 66 episodes by the end of the year is pretty much guaranteed a fourth season renewal because that gets it to the 88-ish episode count that the syndication market prefers (where a show really starts to turn a profit). That guarantee may be contingent on if the network owns the show and will reap the profits of the syndication sale, but we are typically seeing third season shows getting that fourth year nod.
It is not working quite the same for the cable entries and there is definitely not the same level of guarantee, but that four to five season threshold does appear to be a measurable trend. I don’t believe it is tied to a syndication run because the 40 to 70 episodes we are seeing for these shows comes up short of what that market prefers. But I am guessing that this gets the shows to a binge-worthy episode count and perhaps makes them more attractive to the streaming services. The network/studio may be able to sign a better deal with the streamers at this episode count level, so the economics may be dictating that the show remain on the air through four or five seasons even if its viewership is moderate to low. As with the broadcast net entries, the ratings may not be as important for a third season show because once it rounds this apparent cable syndication stretch it will turn into a more profitable property. I don’t have any hard facts supporting this for the cable shows, but the trends we have been seeing the last few years seem to suggest there may be some truth to this.
Here is a list of seven cable shows that ended in 2015 or later with four or five seasons, and each of them went into (or is heading into) their final season knowing it was the last (as opposed to getting cancelled without the chance to wrap up its storylines):
Continuum (Syfy) 4 Seasons, 42 Episodes
Falling Skies (TNT) 5 Seasons, 52 Episodes
Haven (Syfy) 5 Seasons, 78 Episodes
The Listener (ION) 5 Seasons, 65 Episodes
Lost Girl (Syfy) 5 Seasons, 77 Episodes
Orphan Black (BBC America) 5 Seasons, 50 Episodes (Final Season Airs 2017)
The Strain (TNT) 4 Seasons, 40 Episodes (Final Season Airs 2017)
All of those shows were low to moderately rated (or saw their numbers drop off in later seasons), but all managed to stick around for at least four seasons and 40 or more episodes. A possible addition to this list is TNT’s The Last Ship which finished up its third season this past Summer and has been renewed all the way through to a fifth year. My guess is they will approach its fifth season as its last unless viewership starts to trend back up. MTV’s Teen Wolf is a possible inclusion as well–it is heading into its sixth and final season–but it had larger episode counts per season and is likely eyeing a syndication run.
There are three shows over this time frame that made it to a third year, but were not given the chance to continue beyond that. Of those, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and Syfy’s Defiance were rather expensive and were struggling with their viewership. HBO’s The Leftovers saw its already moderate numbers drop off notably in its second year, but at least got the third season to wrap up its storylines (which will air in early 2017). It does look like MTV’s Scream could join the three-season-and-out club seeing as its third-year order will only be six episodes, but that is not certain at this point.
Beyond those, all of the relatively recent low to moderate rated cable have ended after one or two seasons or survived to four or five years. We will be getting a good test of this three season threshold over the next year as we have quite a number of these cable entries at or entering the third-year mark. These include Killjoys, Dark Matter, Z Nation, From Dusk Till Dawn, Stitchers, Salem, and more. Of course, shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story are not in this group because they are top performers that are even doing better than many of the broadcast network entries. But for the low to moderate rated cable genre entries, it appears that if they survive to a third season then more likely than not they will stick around for four to five total. The sample size is not too large at this point, but we will see how the trends hold up with the shows mentioned above.