A season of few hits, but even fewer cancellations

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Seven weeks in, and the networks have yet to cancel a single show. What's going on?

In a season marred by a total lack of breakout hits on the networks, it’s no surprise that NBC’s "Blindspot" scored the first renewal for 2016-17. It follows "The Voice" on Monday, which remains a magnet for the key demographics. (Despite what you may have read, lead-in still matters.) But perhaps even more surprising is that not one of the 19 new network series has been handed its walking papers yet. Normally by now we have two or three.

Last year, ABC sitcom "Manhattan Love Story" was the first to go, having sealed its fate after showing the lead actor barfing in the pilot. That cancelation took place on October 24, 2014, after just four episodes. The year before, it was unlucky ABC drama "Lucky 7," which exited on Oct. 1, 2013 after just two episodes. If I went back 30 years (don’t worry … I won’t), I could list early casualties like this in every season.

Yet in 2015, nothing is getting canceled. Don’t be fooled — there are way more flops than hits this season. But rather than cancel underperforming shows, the new norm seems to be trimming the episode orders and just burning off what remains. To date, five struggling series — "Blood & Oil" (ABC), "Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris," "The Player" and "Truth Be Told" (NBC), and "Minority Report" (FOX) — have had their episode orders reduced.

The reason, in a word, is cost. It has to be cheaper to reduce the episode tallies and run whatever is left rather than burn them off in the summer or simply never air them. Like I’ve always said, low-rated series still have some viewers, and I actually think this is a more congenial way to bid adieu to a flop. So I predict this is one of many new maneuvers we will soon be seeing on behalf of the broadcast networks.

By next season, I expect the traditional 13-episode order will become a thing of the past. In fact, it’s already happening. This season, NBC proved that the number 13 is not etched in stone when it ordered just 10 episodes for live variety hour "Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris" (which was cut to eight and concluded on Nov. 3). And with episode tallies being slashed right and left (including upcoming NBC sitcoms "Telenovela" and "Superstore," and Fox drama "Second Chances"), networks don’t need that many initial installments to determine if a show is a hit or a miss. Just think of NBC sitcoms "Carmichael," which was renewed for a second season, and "Mr. Robinson," which was not. Both received an initial six-episode order this past summer. That’s all it took.

Fewer initial episodes will also mean a shorter traditional season, with a typical back-nine episode pickup for any freshman series also expected to fall short. ABC, for example, announced a full season order for the revival of "The Muppets," but it actually only ordered three additional episodes. Even Fox’s "Empire," the biggest new hit in years, will only produce 18 episodes in this second season. And that takes us to the next new maneuver: breaking up one season into two.

Cable, which does not produce as many episodes per season as the broadcast nets, is already known for doing this. Think FX dramas "American Horror Story" and "Fargo." It makes the season seem longer and brings more attention to the product in two cycles. Reality competitions like "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" have long used this tactic, of course. But billing most scripted series as their fall season-enders in the vicinity of Thanksgiving through Christmas (when encore telecasts and holiday-themed specials always step in) makes the return of these shows in January and February seem like an event rather than just another episode. This is a smart idea, actually.

Since less is sometimes more, fewer episodes per series could also result in a higher quality product. Not a bad thing if you ask me.


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