Tube Talk: Cancellation axes swing early in new season

October 6, 2010

By Paula Hendrickson
Contributing Writer

The new TV season was barely two weeks old before the cancellation axes began swinging. Fox was the first network to cancel a new series. Shocking, I know…they waited two whole episodes before yanking Lone Star. Next on the chopping block was ABC’s My Generation, which had the misfortune of airing opposite The Big Bang Theory on CBS, Bones on Fox, and Community and 30 Rock on NBC—all very strong, popular shows.

I understand the economic realities behind such quick cancellations. As expensive as TV shows are to produce, networks stand to lose far more money in ad sales based on low-rated shows. Despite decent, if not glowing, critical reviews, Lone Star’s debut only drew 4.1 million views (the lowest rating any major network shows got that night). A week later, viewership dropped to 3.2 million.

Low ratings don’t mean a show is bad any more than higher ratings mean a show is good. (For instance, the critically panned Outsourced is getting decent ratings thanks to a cushy timeslot in NBC’s Thursday night comedy block.)

Lone Star’s central character was a con man, and antiheroes can be a hard sell to mainstream audiences. No wonder so many people think the series was better suited to FX than Fox.

Basic cable has been littered with antiheroes since The Shield first brought Vic Mackey to our screens. Other cable antiheros include Dexter’s serial killer title character; Breaking Bad’s meth-making Walter White; Weeds’ drug-dealing Nancy Botwin; Rescue Me’s acerbic, alcoholic firefighter Tommy Gavin; Nurse Jackie’s pill-popping title character; Damages’ amoral attorney Patty Hewes; even Mad Men’s womanizer Don Draper…and those are just a few characters that sprang to mind.

After NBC canceled the cop drama Southland, TNT picked it up. Could a similar thing happen with Lone Star? Perhaps. Will it happen with My Generation? Probably not, since it didn’t generate the same kind of buzz.

Another NBC series on deathwatch is J.J. Abrams’ Undercovers. It’s a frothy, fun show. I enjoy it, but still find myself comparing it with Abrams’ groundbreaking spy series, Alias, and Undercovers comes up lacking. I hope Undercovers improves and finds an audience, but its fate may well be sealed by this week’s ratings.

How quickly a network cancels a show also depends on what they have lined up to replace it. Lie to Me has performed solidly for Fox, and pairs well with House, so there’s little risk in substituting it for Lone Star.

Everything can’t become an instant hit. Luckily, networks weren’t always so quick to cancel. Many classic TV series started out slowly and built audiences over time: All in the Family, Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld, even M*A*S*H, to name but a few.

My suggestion: If a promising new show hemorrhages viewers, test it out in another timeslot for a week or two and see if it improves. If it doesn’t? Then go ahead and cancel it.

Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Send in your suggestions to tubetalking-paula@yahoo.com.

From the Oct. 6-12, 2010 issue

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