Remember Crusoe? Miss Guided? How about Journeyman? Neither do we. Pardon our cynicism, but if you’re interested in a new broadcast network series this fall, here’s a little advice: Don’t get too attached.
We took a look back at the success rates of debut series for ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX and NBC over the last five television seasons, and the numbers are grim. Statistically, only 1 out of 3 new series will see the light of a second season. Even fewer will last beyond the sophomore slump to season 3.
The worst year for debut series came in 2008-2009, in the wake of the writers’ strike. More than 75 percent of the new series were canceled by season end. Bright spots like Parks and Recreation, Fringe and The Mentalist managed to survive, but the cancellation carnage included Life on Mars (pictured) and Eleventh Hour, as well as a number of returning series.
* ABC leads the pack with an overall renewal rate over 35%. The Lost network also debuted the most series over the past five seasons – a whopping 59. ABC takes creative chances with a variety of genres (FlashForward, Men in Trees), and is willing to give a new series time to find an audience, even if it never really does (Eli Stone).
Then again, this is the network that premiered Cavemen and the SiTC knock-off Cashmere Mafia in the same season. ABC is still a gamble. (And no, ABC, you are not forgiven for canceling Pushing Daisies.)
* CBS, right on ABC’s heels with a renewal rate of 35%, knows its audience well, so much of the programming sticks. Many of the series, however, are formulaic spin-offs of established shows. How many variations on the police procedural air on CBS these days? (The Mentalist, Blue Bloods, the CSI franchise, the NCIS franchise, Hawaii Five-0 … ) CBS is apple pie; it’s a safe bet and you always know what you’re going to get.
* NBC, with an average of 30%, had the lowest single season renewal rate during the ’08 season, picking up just 1 out of 12 new series for a pathetic rate of 8%. But NBC also had the highest single season renewal rate, a staggering 67%, the year before.
The peacock network is quick to flush floundering new shows (Andy Barker, P.I., The Black Donnellys), but boasts several of the most acclaimed comedies on television (30 Rock, The Office). NBC takes risks and when a series wins, it wins big.
* FOX hovers around 28% average renewal. When you have American Idol and Family Guy, what else do you need? The cash cow that is Seacrest and company has allowed FOX some wiggle room to experiment with new series.
Before Glee, the idea of a scripted musical comedy series appealed to a handful of pimple-faced theater students. The network also supported the ambitious series, Fringe, despite questionable ratings. Other new shows that were high on concept were, unfortunately, low on execution, like Dollhouse, Running Wilde, Sons of Tucson, and Lonestar.
Youthful and daring, FOX has become a trend-setter. However, many series lack refinement and maturity, leaving audiences underwhelmed and changing channels.
* Trailing behind the other broadcast networks is The CW, which premiered the fewest series – only 27 – and also renewed the fewest. A new show on The CW only has a 1 in 4 chance of surviving the first season, or a renewal rate of 25%. The CW is still finding itself, clinging to marginally successful tween shows (America’s Next Top Model and The Vampire Diaries), but it hasn’t caught up with the high rollers. It probably never will.
Of course, there really is no predicting what series will breakout in a given year. If networks held that key, we’d all have been spared those two dreadfully-rated episodes of Lonestar. Timing, cultural relevance, advertising and market saturation are as much a factor as a charismatic cast and sharp writing. Above all, audience support is critical.
Successful fan campaigns kept Chuck and Friday Night Lights alive, even when NBC wanted to pull the plug. The gritty cop drama Southland found a new home on TNT. And despite its ridiculous name, ABC’s sleeper hit Cougar Town starring Courteney Cox is thriving.
So, as the 2011 TV season starts this month, tune in to ABC or CBS where odds are slightly in your favor, or roll the dice and hope for the best. Maybe your favorite new series will be one of the lucky freshmen after all.
2010 Pilot Success Rate Survivors
1 CBS 40% Renewed: Blue Bloods, Hawaii Five-0, Mike & Molly, The Talk
2 CW 33% Nikita
3 ABC 27% Body of Proof, Happy Endings, Secret Millionaire
4 FOX 25% Bob’s Burgers, Raising Hope
5 NBC 15% Harry’s Law, The Voice
2009 Pilot Success Rate Survivors
1 NBC 60% Community, The Marriage Ref, Minute to Win It, Parenthood, The Sing-Off, Who Do You Think You Are?
2 CBS 50% The Good Wife, NCIS: Los Angeles, Undercover Boss
3 ABC 43% Cougar Town, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, The Middle, Modern Family, Shark Tank, V
4 FOX 38% The Cleveland Show, Glee, Human Target
5 CW 33% Life Unexpected, The Vampire Diaries
2008 Pilot Success Rate Survivors
1 FOX 38% Dollhouse, Fringe, Lie to Me
2 ABC 30% Better Off Ted, Castle, True Beauty
3 CBS 29% Gary Unmarried, The Mentalist
4 CW 13% 90210
5 NBC 8% Parks and Recreation
2007 Pilot Success Rate Survivors
1 NBC 67% American Gladiators, Chuck, Life, Lipstick Jungle
2 ABC 45% Dirty Sexy Money, Eli Stone, Private Practice, Pushing Daisies, Samantha Who?
3 FOX 27% Kitchen Nightmares, The Moment of Truth, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
4 CW 25% Gossip Girl, Reaper
5 CBS 14% The Big Bang Theory
2006 Pilot Success Rate Survivors
1 CW 50% The Game
2 CBS 43% Jericho, Rules of Engagement, Shark
3 ABC 31% Brothers & Sisters, Men in Trees, Notes From the Underbelly, Ugly Betty
4 NBC 23% 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, Heroes
5 FOX 17% Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, Don’t Forget the Lyrics, ‘Til Death
* TV season from late August-May; summer series not included in our analysis.