Cancellation Watch Column:
Where do your numbers come from?
The ratings numbers that I report generally in my Cancellation Watch column come from the Show Buzz Daily and TV by the Numbers sites, but they originate from the Nielsen Company (more on them below). I also get some numbers from other industry sources like Hollywood Reporter, TheWrap, and Deadline Hollywood, etc.
How often does the Cancellation Watch column run?
The Cancellation Watch ratings roundup post which has the full rundown on the Monday thru Sunday numbers from the prior week will come out once a week on Tuesday (or Wednesday if there are ratings delays). And throughout the week I might do additional Cancellation Watch posts with breaking news and/or comments on interesting developments, premiere/finale numbers, etc. At the Cancellation Watch Twitter Site, I post the latest ratings when available which is usually the morning after a show airs for the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, and NBC) and the afternoon after for the cable channels (the numbers for Friday cable shows are available Monday afternoon). During the regular season, I will be putting out (usually on Wednesdays) the Scorecard posts that compare a show’s performance vs. its network’s benchmarks.
What is the Cancellation Alert status that you report?
This measures the likelihood that a television series will get cancelled. Here are the four levels:
Renewal Likely – These shows are performing well enough in the the ratings and/or their networks tend to renew rather than cancel, thus they appear to be likely candidates for renewal (not factoring in unforeseen circumstances).
Renewal Possible – These shows are performing well enough that it is more likely than not that their networks will renew them. But there are no guarantees.
On the Bubble – These shows have mediocre to low ratings results or there are other circumstances that put their future in doubt making them a toss-up for renewal or cancellation.
Cancellation Likely – These shows are performing poorly and/or their networks appear to have lost faith in them and they are likely headed to cancellation.
I assign these statuses while a show is active (currently airing episodes) and they generally reflect the ratings performance and/or the stance that the networks have taken on them (i.e., shifting a show to Fridays or Saturdays or out of Prime Time mid-run is a bad sign).
For the streaming services, I typically assign the Renewal Possible status while a show is airing because they provide little data to gauge the performance of their shows.
How do you decide the Cancellation Alert status for a show?
The ratings are the main driving force, but I take into account several factors including the relative ratings, the show’s network, the night it airs on, how many seasons it has completed, social network activity, and more. There’s also a bit of gut feel thrown in there as well.
Why do some shows with lower ratings have a less severe Cancellation Alert than others with higher ratings?
This has to do with the factors mentioned above. The two most important things to look at for a show are its ratings and the network it airs on (and if it airs on Fridays, it is usually given some slack). Shows that air on the Broadcast Networks are usually held to the highest standards and as recently as the 2014-15 season needed to average a 2.0 rating or higher in the 18-49 demographic based on the overnights to be safe (a 1.5 or higher should be enough if they air on Fridays). Shows that aired on the fifth place network The CW have had much lower ratings and could typically get a renewal with a 0.7 ratings average or higher. Shows on the cable networks like Syfy have recently survived with ratings as low as the 0.2 level. In the current Ratings-pocalypse environment, though, these numbers are sinking lower and shows like ABC’s Agents of SHIELD was renewed after only averaging a 1.2 rating in the 2015-16 season. It’s hard to tell if the numbers have bottomed out yet (probably not), so stay tuned to this site to see how they trend in the coming season and beyond. But the fact is that the ratings level a show needs to sustain itself can vary by network and by the night it airs.
ABC, FOX, CBS, and NBC. These are the old school broadcast networks that air on the “free” airwaves, three of which outdate the relatively newer cable/satellite channels (FOX came into existence in 1986). These have typically been the most watched networks and usually the highest rated programs air during the Prime Time hours on these channels. They once had a monolithic hold on the weekly evening hours of programming, but the last few years the cable channels have been challenging their prominence with shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, etc. But still, they are considered the most influential of the television networks even if that status is definitely waning.
The “fifth place” network (thus dubbed because it consistently comes in fifth place among the five broadcast networks) is a partnership between CBS and Warner Bros. Studios and broadcasts a limited number of Prime Time hours aimed at a more select audience (younger skewing with a previous focus on female viewers though the network has been expanding its demographics). Shows on this network are held to lower ratings standards and can usually survive these days with around a 0.5 average score (and sometimes even lower). UPN and The WB were the previous “part time” broadcast networks, but they merged to create The CW in 2006.
This refers to a show’s ratings numbers in comparison to the other shows on the same network during the same season. I could tell you that Syfy’s Killjoys has a 0.2 average rating based on the overnights in the 18-49 demographic, The CW’s Arrow has a 1.0 average, and FOX’s Almost Human has a 2.0 rating, but without proper context you can’t judge whether those are good or bad numbers. The fact is that Killjoys and Arrow were both renewed in the 2014-15 season with those numbers, but Almost Human got the ax in the 2013-14 season with the higher numbers. Each network has different thresholds it expects its shows to perform at and you have to base a show’s performance on where it stands in relation to the other shows on its network. The TV by the Numbers guys track this closely for the broadcast networks with their Renewal/Cancel index and my Scorecard also factors this into the mix. There are other factors that come into play as well, but this is a typically very reliable way of determining if a shows ratings are considered good or bad for its network.
Why should I care about your predictions on whether a show will be cancelled?
Because you want to know if your favorite shows will be cancelled or renewed, and I have been writing the Cancellation Watch column for ten plus years now and have typically been quite accurate with my predictions throughout the season. More often than not, the instances where I predicted wrong (Galavant, Stitchers, Beauty and the Beast) have generally had extenuating circumstances involved or they were just flat out anomalies.
The Nielsen Ratings and How They Impact Whether a Show is Cancelled or Renewed:
Why do science fiction and fantasy shows get cancelled?
The simple reason: because the Nielsen ratings are low for these shows suggesting that they do not have a very large audience watching when they air live (many sci fi fans will debate this point).
What are the Nielsen Ratings?
The Nielsen Company measures audience viewership of television programs based on a sample of households. The overnights or same day numbers–the stats that the networks watch the closest–come from device or individual meters in a selected group of households and the viewership of this sample is extrapolated out to the larger audience.
What is a rating point?
A rating point represents 1% of the estimated total number of households with televisions for a given season. For the 2014-15 season, Nielsen’s estimate is 116.4 households (they re-evaluate this each year), so one ratings point would represent 1,164,000 households. The rating measures the total number of households that tuned in for a show at any given moment.
What is a share?
This is a similar measure to a rating point, but it measures the total households watching a show during its timeslot.
Because the networks want numbers right away (even though the claim they don’t), the Nielsen Co. tries to crank them out as soon as possible and the first round of numbers is not fully scrubbed for things like overruns or preemptions in certain markets, etc. These numbers are slightly less accurate, especially with sporting overruns, so Nielsen delivers a second round of numbers that are referred to as the “finals”. Usually the change is not that significant, just a few tenths of a point at most. But then for some shows, going from a 1.0 rating to a 0.8 or vice versa can actually be a notable variance. The final overnights have been the most influential on whether or not a series is cancelled, despite what many people at the networks may tell you.
Didn’t CBS Boss Les Moonves say that the Overnights are “Worthless”?
Why yes he did, and other network executives have had made similar claims. But then Moonves’ network cancelled Limitless after the 2015-16 season despite that fact that it saw significant delayed viewing gains and was the ninth highest rated show for CBS that season based on Live+7 viewing. The lesson learned? Don’t believe what network executives tell you!
Are the Nielsen ratings a fair way to measure a show’s audience?
There’s plenty of debate around that as well as how representative the Nielsen’s sampling process is. Many people–including the network executives–acknowledge the flaws in the system, but no viable option has stepped up to replace it (though possible alternatives are emerging). And the Nielsens are currently working toward revamping their system (they have added a Twitter Ratings chart), though change usually comes pretty slow.
This actually depends on the show and the network. For Prime Time television, the 18-49 demographic is considered the key group to appeal to because they (allegedly) respond the best to advertising and have the most purchasing power in the house (again, allegedly). That’s the audience that the networks and sponsors watch the closest and the one that I typically focus on in my Cancellation Watch column. In some cases, a narrower target audience might be the focus. Like with shows geared to toward younger viewers (Star Wars: Rebels), young males (Supernatural), or young women (Vampire Diaries). In other cases, total viewership may play a more important role, as we have seen with CBS the last few years (Person of Interest had a huge total audience through much of its run but lower numbers for the 18-49 range). But for the most part, performance in the 18-49 demographic drives network decision making more often than not.
Why are the ratings so important to the success of a show?
They (allegedly) point the networks and the sponsors toward the shows that have the highest viewership. Advertisers want to buy commercial time for shows that have a strong audience, and the money from these adds is what covers the productions costs for a series (more so for the broadcast networks than the cable channels). If a show does not have decent ratings, then sponsors won’t want to buy add time or will want a discounted rate and that severely impacts the revenue stream needed to keep the series going.
How is DVR viewing factored into the ratings?
These are added after the fact, usually several weeks after the show has aired. In some cases, DVR viewing can significantly improve a show’s rating, especially those that air on Fridays. And quite often low-rated shows have posted notable gains when their delayed viewing is taken into account. But the fact is that the networks and sponsors have typically given much less weight to these numbers (despite what they claim) since people usually fastforward through the commercials when they watch the recording. Remember, those commercials pay for the shows. And while you might see the networks releasing PR statements touting the DVR gains of this show or that one, that’s mostly just spin and typically has little to do with keeping a show on the air. Starting with the 2014-15 season, several of the networks have claimed they will put more emphasis on the Live+3 and/or Live+7 numbers (which means the show was watched within three and/or seven days of its original broadcast). But Forever and Constantine both posted significant DVR gains, yet both got cancelled (more on that at this link). For the cable channels, delayed viewing appears to have had more of an impact on whether a show is considered a success in the last few years. That is because many of the cable nets have a different financial model that often includes international partnerships and financing (more on that below). In these cases, the total audience–with DVR gains–is as important or more so than the overnight ratings.
What about internet viewing at places like Hulu and a network’s website?
There is a lot of debate on this and it still appears that Nielsen is not factoring these in or not giving them much weight if they have the stats. These streams run with commercials, but fewer than the live airings and from what I understand sponsors pay a lot less for these spots. So even if a show has high viewership on the internet, it’s not generating nearly as much revenue as the live broadcast. And they can’t be factored into the overnights because the networks and Hulu typically do not make an episode available online until the day after its live broadcast or later. So if they are included, I would assume that they get factored into the DVR numbers.
What about episode downloads?
This is an interesting option for people to view episodes of a show, and it’s the one that I personally believe has the most chance of changing the current model. I haven’t seen too much in the way of numbers around episode downloads, but I’m guessing that this is one means that fans could target to help keep a show alive. Purchasing episodes represents a direct revenue stream for the networks, and if large numbers of fans buy episodes, that could potentially help keep a low rated show afloat. I also believe that pre-funding a season is a viable means to keep a show from getting cancelled (more on that at this link), but haven’t seen this proven yet.
This is becoming more important, but more so to the cable channels than the broadcast networks. Since the ratings continue to decline with the ever-fractured audience, networks are looking to these stats as another means to prove that their shows have developed an audience. But then it is hard to track this because Nielsen only releases very limited stats on social network activity and other companies that have tracked the data have been pushed out of the field by the Nielsen Goliath. But I do know that for shows like Stitchers on the Freeform cable channel and Scream Queens on FOX, “stickiness” on the social nets has been cited as important to their renewals. It is all very nebulous at this point, and tracking well on the social nets is not necessarily a guarantee of survival. The other problem is that there is no way for the networks to translate this into revenue at this point. A low-rated show like Syfy’s Haven or NBC’s Hannibal might receive a lot of attention on the social networks, but does that convince sponsors to to buy advertising time? It may help with some advertisers who are looking to market to select groups (the assumption is that much of the social activity is driven by the younger crowds), but I’m not certain how much of a factor it is at this point. Still, it’s an option for measuring audience engagement and it has helped keep some shows alive or even to save shows (like The Expanse and Lucifer) and I believe we will see this become more important of a driving force in the coming seasons. More on that at this link.
With the ever fractured viewing audience leading to declining ratings (more on that in the next topic), the broadcast networks and cable channels are looking for other sources of revenue to supplement and/or replace advertising dollars. This usually comes in the form of international financing as well as partnerships with international channels and/or the streaming services. The international financing usually involves investors from overseas who have an interest in first-run syndication of a series worldwide. Shows that have benefited from this include Hannibal (NBC), Beauty and the Beast (CW), and Under the Dome (CBS). In addition, international channels have partnered with U.S. networks to share production costs and they will typically air the show simultaneously (or pretty close) in each country. We have seen that with the British Channel 4 partnering with AMC on Humans and the the Canadian Space Channel partnering with Syfy on Dark Matter and Killjoys. And the streaming services are getting into this as well, working out deals for exclusive streaming of episodes after the live broadcast on television. CBS partnered with Amazon on Under the Dome and Extent and the same network partnered with Netflix on Zoo. This doesn’t keep the shows on the air indefinitely (the latter three have all since been cancelled), but it has allowed many of these shows to last longer than if they had to rely on the Nielsen ratings alone.
What is the Ratings-pocalypse?
The Peak TV era has given us a glut of original scripted shows on the broadcast networks, cable channels, streaming services, internet, etc., and the obvious impact is that the ratings number are experiencing a severe decline. The broadcast nets are currently renewing shows at levels that would previously have assured cancellation, while the cable channels keep “ratings noise” shows going that are pulling 0.2 scores based on the overnights or below. This will only get worse in the current environment with so many new shows available for viewing, and the eventual bursting of the bubble could lead to major changes in the current television landscape (more on that at this link).
Why do science fiction and fantasy shows get cancelled more often than other shows?
Do they really? I’ve not run the numbers on that, but I don’t know that they get cancelled a lot more than other shows, that has just been the established perception among genre fans. The fact is that most new shows get cancelled each year, regardless of the genre. But then historically science fiction and fantasy shows have rarely been strong performers in the ratings, either. You can see the numbers behind that at this link.
Where can I find out more information about the Nielsen ratings and how they have impacted science fiction and fantasy shows over the years?
TV by the Numbers has a good, concise overview of the Nielsens at this link, and you can read more about the ratings and how they impact network decision making along with a survey of cancelled sci fi shows over the years in my book Why Were They Cancelled? The Plight of Sci Fi TV in the Face of the Unforgiving Nielsens and Networks
That’s a pretty sneaky way to plug your book . . .
Yeah, it’s pretty shameless. But it will only set you back a few bucks and it’s been getting some pretty good feedback. You can check it out for a good overview of how the Nielsen ratings work and how they have led to the cancellation of many science fiction and fantasy shows over the years.
Additional Information of Note:
On the broadcast networks, a series typically runs twenty two episodes for a full season which will carry the show from Fall through Spring with minimal repeats (when you factor in the Winter hiatus). But for the first half of the season, most shows are initially picked up for thirteen episodes. This is almost always the case with new shows, and sometimes the case with returning shows. If the ratings look good for a show during the first month or so of the season, then the network will give it a “full season order”–sometimes this is referred to as picking up the “back 9” episodes–to give the series twenty two total episodes. Sometimes a show might get one or two more episodes or sometimes a few less (the latter generally if it has high production costs). And in some cases, if a network is very happy with the ratings performance of a show during one season, they may place a full season order for the next year, meaning that they commit in advance to the full twenty two episodes instead of starting with just thirteen. This isn’t an ironclad guarantee, though. The series will have a scheduled break in its production, and if it starts out the year by struggling in the ratings, the network may elect to halt production of the second half of the season.
This is typically the way the cable networks role (and the streaming services as well). They order less episodes to keep productions costs down and have a longer hiatus between seasons. It’s just a money thing because they don’t have the same budgets available to them as broadcast networks. Of course sometimes the broadcast nets order a reduced number of episodes for a series, and this is also a factor of controlling costs. FOX only ordered thirteen hours (the two hour pilot and eleven additional eps) of Terra Nova, and if it had continued for a second year, they probably would have kept the episode count the same. They did the same thing with Sleepy Hollow for the 2013-14 season. More on this in the next topic.
What is a “Limited Run” and or “Event” series?
In the last few years we have seen a wave of what the networks call limited run/event series. The indication is that these will run for only thirteen episodes or ten or six or whatever the initial order is and then wrap up their storylines. But it is really just a sneaky way for the networks to test a concept without having to admit failure if it doesn’t pull in a large enough audience. If the numbers don’t justify bringing it back, then the show ends after its “limited run” and the network claims that was the way they planned it. But they always have a backup plan in place to continue the show if it does well during its limited run. CBS’ Under the Dome and FOX’s Sleepy Hollow are examples of “limited run” series that continued for multiple seasons. And USA’s Dig is an example of one that did not continue beyond its initial run even though no official cancellation was announced and series creator Tim Kring claimed that he had ideas for further seasons. As the TV by the Numbers guys put it, “limited run” means that the show has less episodes than the typical order, but not necessarily that it will be limited to one season.
Possibly. It depends on how long the show has been running and just how low its numbers have gone, among other things. Once a series has survived a full season of twenty two episodes, then the network starts to eye a possible syndication run which is where the big money can be made. However, the conventional thinking these days is that a show has to have at least 88 episodes (four full seasons), if not a hundred or more, to make an attractive syndication package. That allows the show to run Monday through Friday for four months or more without repeating itself. So the closer that a show gets to that magic 88 episode number, the better the chances that a network will keep it going despite low numbers. If a show’s numbers start to tank during its second season, there’s a much better chance that it will get axed, because by season end it will only be halfway to that 88 number. However, the recent thinking is (championed especially by the guys at TV by the Numbers) that if a series gets picked up for a third season then that means that the network and the show’s studio are pretty much ready to rubber-stamp a fourth season (short of a ratings collapse) because by the end of the third year they are much closer to having an attractive syndication package to offer (I refer to this as making it through the “syndication stretch”). We saw a clear example of this in the 2015-16 season with low-rated Agents of SHIELD on ABC and The Originals on The CW. Note that this trend applies primarily to the broadcast network shows that have had three twenty-two episode seasons because cable shows typically only have thirteen episode seasons and it takes a lot longer to get to that 88 episode threshold. It also helps if the network owns the show because they will reap the profits, but even if they do not, the show’s studio will likely cut the licensing fee to next to nothing in order to make it attractive for renewal. And shows that have already achieved or surpassed that 88 episode mark, already have almost a guaranteed syndication stint ahead of them, so additional seasons tacked on to their initial run are pretty much gravy for the broadcast network and the studios as long as the series is not a complete ratings turkey.
Why are shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and The American Horror Story out-pacing the broadcast networks in the ratings?
This is a relatively recent trend and the thinking is that these cable channels have successfully tapped into the niche audiences out there that have proven to be a force and/or that they are delivering the quality, challenging television that the broadcast networks often fall short of because they aim for broad appeal. And the fact is that the ratings for old school broadcast nets have been dropping regularly over the past years and the successes of AMC and FX and other cable channels has definitely been establishing the beachhead for breaking the dominance of the Prime Time Schedule by CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX. If the cable channels start to pull off some more hits like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and The American Horror Story (and the non-genre entries like Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad), we could see a significant change to the Prime Time television landscape in the coming years.
Still have questions? Email me at cancelledscif [at] gmail [dot] com
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.