Ask Matt: The Cancellation Blues, Finales, and Other TV Matters
Jason Clarke and Matt Lauria
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Question: The recent cancellation of almost all of Fox's bubble shows seems to stem at least partially from a lack of "shelf space," since they don't program shows in the 10 pm/ET hour. My question is, why not? There must be a story here, though being 22, I haven't been watching adult-skewing prime-time shows long enough to remember it, so please enlighten me. I am disappointed that they weren't more patient with The Chicago Code, which I've really enjoyed this midseason. In light of the fact that Glee was such an odd choice for the post-Super Bowl slot, and hasn't been able to significantly increase its audience as a result of the extra exposure the game provided, I have to wonder if putting the Chicago Code pilot behind the game would have been more beneficial in the long run. But The Chicago Code was worth it, so thanks for that recommendation. Hopefully the finale brings some kind of resolution, even though they surely had it in the can before the axe swung. — Jake
Matt Roush: While there may not be a sense of actual finality to the premature end of The Chicago Code, my understanding is that it won't leave you hanging in the classical sense. So I hope it will feel satisfying — though of course there's no satisfying the TV fan this time of year who sees a favorite show or two (or more) snuffed out as a new schedule gets set. More on that below. Fox has particularly been in the crosshairs since news got out that so many of its marginal shows were getting cut (Lie to Me and Human Target as well). The question always arises: Why don't they make room for more and program at 10/9c? That's just not going to happen. The network, which is still relatively young compared to the Big Three, built its economic model around a limited two-hour-a-weeknight schedule, and given how much trouble ABC, NBC and even CBS some nights have had in successfully programming the 10/9c hour over the last few years, the odds are greater that one of these networks will eventually abandon the third hour of prime time (when many of us are playing back shows from earlier in the evening) than Fox will ever consider programming that hour. Besides, many Fox affiliates make a bundle on the early late news and aren't going to give that time back. Finally, regarding the Super Bowl decision: Putting Glee there was a coronation of a pop-culture phenom. Chicago Code got plenty of promotion during the game. For all of its merits (and I'm a fan), I'm just not sure Code was a great fit for this network.
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Question: Love reading your column and your take on everything TV-related. I'm sure you will be bombarded this week with angry letters from fans upset about the slew of cancellations. In light of that, please allow me to take the opposite tone and thank the networks for when they do come through. Thanks, Fox, for picking up the terrific Fringe for a fourth season, when you could have easily added it to your cancellations. Thanks, NBC, for instead of canceling Chuck like I was pretty sure would happen, you renewed it for a final season, allowing a great show to be able to plot a real ending. As a lover of television, I could never swear off a network because a favorite show was canceled. If I had sworn off Fox after Terminator: TSCC was canceled (one of the more painful cancellations for me in the past several years), I wouldn't have Fringe now. The same goes for ABC canceling Pushing Daisies but now I have Modern Family and Cougar Town to enjoy. Yes, I will miss Lie to Me and Human Target (V, No Ordinary Family and The Event not so much), but I look forward to seeing the new crop of shows in the fall. — Carolyn
Matt Roush: Swoon. Can I just say how gratifying it is to read something like this when the tone of so much of my mail right now (as Carolyn predicted) is either mournful (which I understand) or vindictive. Anger and annoyance are only to be expected when a show you're attached to gets canceled, but Carolyn's view is not just refreshingly optimistic, it's also pragmatic. If you're a regular reader of this column, with all due respect I don't seriously believe the frequent threat to boycott a network because they just took off a particular show. (Fox got the worst treatment in my mailbag last week; now that it's becoming clear what NBC and ABC and the rest have junked, they'll probably get their fair share of abuse, too.) Fox at least had the gumption to take a risk on a few of the season's more distinctive shows. The failure rate of TV is perilously high, especially in a season as lackluster as the one now ending, and my feeling is that any network that aired (however briefly) something you liked deserves another look next season to see what they have up their sleeve next. By the time fall rolls around, if any new shows are lucky enough to have the buzz of a 24 or a Glee or a Modern Family, it doesn't matter what network is carrying them. If we're intrigued, we're going to check it out. And hopefully a few of them will become hits. But yes, given the bloodbath of the last week, how much of a miracle does Fringe's renewal look like now?
Question: What is it, exactly, that networks look for as far as what shows to keep? What kind of ratings do they think their shows are supposed to be getting? Do they think every show will get over 10 million viewers? With so many channels and options, I can't imagine why they believe that every one of their shows would be having enormous numbers. I was surprised to find that I am quite bummed about the cancellations of The Chicago Code and Lie to Me. I knew I liked the shows but I didn't realize how attached I really was until they were officially canceled. I knew one or the other more than likely wouldn't survive but it still surprised me. I don't know a lot about ratings so I was looking around the net for ratings numbers and as far as I can tell, the latest ratings for Lie to Me was 7 million people, which is not that much lower than the latest ratings for House (7.9 million), so why is one canceled and the other stays on? I suppose it's my fault for getting attached to Fox shows, since they only seem to have 10 hours of prime time programming a week (since Sunday is all the animated shows and all the networks have evidently designated Saturday as DVR catch-up night) and they don't have a lot of wiggle room. Considering that some of their shows are a little long in the tooth (and Hugh Laurie may not want to do House after next year), shouldn't they keep some of these shows with established fan bases on the backburner or as midseason replacements?
I think I'm going to go back to my old rule of not watching shows in the first season. I made that rule as a teenager when three shows I liked were canceled around the same time and I should have just stuck to it. Oddly enough, I am smack in the middle of the 18-49 demographic, I generally watch shows in real time and I don't even change channels all that much during commercials. I actually buy things I see in ads quite often. I'm every advertiser's dream and I still can't watch shows I like. Ah well, I suppose it's a good thing I like to read so much. — Deanna
Matt Roush: OK then, see you in a year, I guess. Not to challenge anyone's sincerity, but as I've said so many times before, if you enjoyed Lie to Me and The Chicago Code, aren't you glad you saw how ever many episodes were made than not to have experienced the show at all? (Especially Lie, which made it through three seasons, even if two of them were of short duration.) To address your flurry of questions as concisely as possible: Not every show needs to be a monster hit to survive. (Just look at Fringe.) It depends on the network, the time period, the network's needs in balancing drama, comedy and reality on the schedule and, perhaps most critically, what the network is developing that they may believe will make more noise. I believe the writing was on the wall for both Lie to Me and Human Target when neither show got a full-season order this year. But like Deanna, I'm frankly surprised that none of these shows earned even a short order as a potential backup should there be another Lone Star disaster on the horizon.
Question: I always get reflective as the network TV season winds down, and I have realized that there is one show that I look forward to more than any other. And that is Community. This season has been amazing! The image from early in the season that is ingrained in my mind is the chase scene in the blanket fort city. Especially when the chase was interrupted by a parade with the explanation, "They filed the proper permits!" And the paintball ending is PERFECT. As opposed to the wildly disappointing 30 Rock, which I barely smile at, never mind laugh at. What are the highlights of this season for you? — Andy
Matt Roush: There were so many high points this season, and what I appreciate so much about Community is its adventurous streak. You never know what to expect. I loved the high-concept episodes — the Halloween zombie parody, the "My Dinner With Andre" mind-blower, the animated Christmas special inside Abed's head — but I think the standout for me was one of the simpler stunts: the lockdown in "Cooperative Calligraphy," when everyone in the study group came under suspicion for stealing Annie's pen and the action never left the room. But honestly, Community is one of the few network shows that I'll consider watching again this summer in repeats, to see what I missed the first time around.
Question: You commented the other week that viewing during the summer was lower and so the networks couldn't afford big production costs on new programming. Well, who is to say that this is actually true? I know the main reason I watch less network TV during the summer is because it doesn't exist!! I find myself watching plenty of programming on USA, FX, TNT, HBO and Showtime, etc. In a world where many people have DVR capabilities that they use even during the "regular" season, how can you make the argument that there are fewer viewers for summer? Also, as a kid, I remember I was allowed to watch more TV during the summer because I didn't have to get up early for school the next day. So when it comes to the younger demographic, doesn't viewership go up? — JJ
Matt Roush: This isn't just my argument. It's a fact of network TV life. And what you're describing is a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. If the networks scheduled the summer as aggressively as they do the fall through spring, trying to compete with the logjam of cable originals, we might see an uptick in viewership. But they don't. They settle for mostly cheesy wall-to-wall reality, largely conceding the turf to cable networks, which are busy promoting what are often their most popular signature series (The Closer, True Blood, any number of USA shows). It is also a generally accepted fact that in daylight savings months, even now but especially in the summer when families plan vacations and school is out, overall regular viewership goes down, especially for the networks, in part because of their long-standing tradition to coast through summer, prioritizing and saving their biggest guns for the fall. That said, this summer of TV is absolutely bananas in terms of original content, but most of the significant action is still going to be on cable.
Question: A question about the season finale of Justified, which I just loved. Something I thought of immediately, but haven't heard anyone talk about: What did Winona tell Art to make him change his mind about helping Raylan? Did she tell him she was pregnant with Raylan's baby? Or that she was the one that took the money out of the lock-up earlier in the season, and Raylan just tried to help make it right? And if it is the latter, does she spend next season in jail? Season three can't get here fast enough! — Tom
Matt Roush: I think Art already has a pretty good idea what went down with Winona and the money. That's one of the reasons for his falling-out with Raylan. I'm not sure we'll ever know for sure why Art and his troops came to Raylan's rescue, but I'm pretty sure it had little to do with what Winona said or didn't say and more to do with the general level of mayhem going down that day as the Bennett-Givens-Crowder feud reached its tipping point. Kind of hard for even a U.S. Marshal with a grudge to ignore.
Question: I was surprised and disappointed that Fringe ended the season with Peter evaporating into thin air at the end of the episode. I was sad when Olivia got shot in the head, but I thought the funeral scene was beautifully done. I was thrilled to see the two sides come together with the ability to cross worlds. The problem I have is: How do you trust a show that can change history at its leisure? They are going to have to go back and change history some more to get Peter back, right? So what is the best we can hope for, that one day they pass each other on the street but don't recognize each other like The Butterfly Effect? Also, the ratings for The X-Files went down when Mulder was floating in limbo, and Fringe can't afford for the ratings to go down. That said, I applaud a show that can make you feel so much in one episode, and I hope it stays on for a long time. For credibility's sake, you could always leave Peter off the show and find John Scott on the other side for Olivia to be with. What do you think? At least we only have six more weeks until True Blood comes back on. I am looking forward to the witches! — Susan
Matt Roush: Peter's disappearance is nothing like Mulder's (or more to the point, David Duchovny's) departure from The X-Files, which should have been that series' stopping point. (Are you listening, The Office?) I have no idea how they're going to explain the "Peter never existed" twist, or what its impact will be in either universe's timeline, but the one thing I will bet on is that Joshua Jackson won't be absent from Fringe for long. You do bring up a good question about trust when a show takes this big a leap, but Fringe has pretty successfully reinvented itself season to season, and I've enjoyed each new season more than the last, so I'm not going to doubt them now. But I fear that even if Joshua Jackson came back as David Duchovny, there's not much Fringe can do to fix its ratings deficit. At least expectations on Fridays are fairly low, and even if next season turns out to be the last, I trust Fox will let them do the show their way, ratings be damned.
Question: With the end of the Stargate franchise this week, you have to go back a couple of decades before finding a season without a serious space-themed television series. During the times of the Treks and the Gates, we also had Farscape, Babylon 5, and although I was never a fan of the Galactica reboot, I will acknowledge its existence. Anything over the horizon for us wannabe space travelers? — Deon
Matt Roush: The one I'm most excited about is Syfy's Battlestar Galactica prequel, Blood and Chrome, which goes back to the action of the first Cylon war. If you didn't embrace Galactica, though, I'm afraid it looks like pretty slim pickings, because most of the fantasy/sci-fi projects I'm aware of are relatively earthbound.
Question: I do not think the problem this season with Brothers & Sisters was the storylines but the rushing of the storylines. It is a hard balance to keep intrigue without taxing the whole viewership (aka Cristina's forever journey back on Grey's). I would say that B&S has rushed storylines this season, like they are a crime show and have to solve a case in an hour. Add that to the fact that Calista Flockhart all but disappeared, it places the brunt of the drama to a few of the Walker clan. I agree with Frank's recent rant, though; I am sick of long-lost or unknown family members floating to the surface. If there ever was a right time for a show to ride into sunset, it might be this show's time. — Amy
Matt Roush: Couldn't agree more, and I do think ABC made the right call in letting this one go. The wedding finale actually felt like a series final bow, with Nora looking out at her brood on the dance floor and quoting George Eliot: "It's never too late to be what you might have been." The extended Walker clan more or less was in a happy place for the moment, and the thought of another season of contrived melodrama for them to scream at each other over bottles of wine was enough to send me to the liquor cabinet.
Question: LOTS of people that I know constantly have their TVs tuned in to stuff that's just a waste of time. When Justified is on, they'll be sorta watching a millionth repeat of an episode of Law & Order. Or they'll frequently tune in to Minute to Win It (paying little or no attention as it prattles on) but not have a clue about Breaking Bad. They'll watch ANOTHER episode of ANOTHER CBS spin-off procedural (texting and surfing the net while it drones on) but not know a thing about Luther or Sherlock. I think that most of them just use TV as white noise—tuning in to the familiar and unchallenging, and then ignoring 80% of what's on, instead of focusing on the entertainment in front of them and actually ENJOYING it. SO MANY people are constantly multi-tasking in front of the TV (my definition of multi-task: to do MANY things badly and nothing well) that they miss out on a cornucopia of brilliant entertainment. What's your take on the future of quality programming in light of the interest, attention spans and programming choices of SO MANY viewers today? — Paul
Matt Roush: One of the great things about TV these days is that there is so much of it — too much, really — that there's something for just about everybody, including those who'd just as soon watch a lot of nothing. I judge TV, but I try not to judge those who watch whatever brings them pleasure, and it's very true (even in my own family when I go visit) that the TV is often on just for the noise, a lulling endless continuum of HGTV house-hunters and Food Network chefs. Not everyone wants to be stimulated and challenged on a nightly basis, but thankfully, those who do have outlets like FX, AMC, the premium channels, PBS Masterpiece and the occasional mainstream winner like The Good Wife to bring us joy. Without being too Pollyanna about it, I do believe quality TV of all types (including, gasp, reality) will endure and is always going to be an option, but I do share your concern regarding those who can't put down the phone or look away from the computer long enough to truly appreciate when something truly astounding is happening in front of them on TV. Focus, people! Watch now, text later.
Question: It's hard to ignore it. Season finale time is here, and on every TV site they talk about it, give spoilers or tell us which shows will or won't be back, and that last part is what I want to ask about, I know for most shows the decision to cancel or keep it is made in May, but why so late? The reason I ask is because many shows end the season with a cliffhanger so people will be speculating during the summer what will happen, will the character live or die, so people will come back for the next season. Then after the cliffhanger is aired or the finale is already filmed, the network decides to cancel the show, and people are left with the cliffhanger which will never be solved (unless they make a TV movie). Don't you think they can decide earlier to keep or cancel a show to give the people that make a show the chance to build in an ending, to finish with a closure instead of open endings? How is it that cable networks like HBO and TNT can renew a show just after the second episode ever aired and the big networks always wait until the sweeps are over? Don't you think it's better to tell people as soon as possible? By the time they decide to cancel shows these days they have already green-lit some new shows, these new shows have to start production, so they hire the people they need, so what happens to the people that work on a show that gets canceled? I'm not only talking about actors, but people behind the scenes. How easy or hard is it to find work when you know your work is done in May and other shows aren't hiring because it's too late to start hiring when you already need to be in production?
A second question: I know many spoilers are given about shows, also previews to season finales with big announcements, "a beloved character is going to die." Let's take NCIS for example, if two people are going to die in the finale, now you have people going, "I hope it's not Gibbs, or I hope it's not Tony," a week later you read on the Internet that Mark Harmon and Michael Weatherly have renewed their contract for years. To me, that means that I can assume that these characters won't die because why would they get a new deal for three years if they are going to die in the finale, and it's not a show about zombies. Don't you think announcements like that are maybe better announced when the season is over, so not to take the fun of speculating away from the viewers? — Evan
Matt Roush: So many questions, such limited space. Much of this is just common sense. Depending on the network and the show and the scheduling, some decisions simply can't be made until the network sees the results of its development and weighs the potential of a new series over how the current show is performing (and how long it has been airing, which becomes a matter of cost as well as ratings). The notion that a network would decide to cancel a show early enough to let the producers craft a suitable ending seems to ignore the fact that most duds don't make it to the end of their initial episode orders. For long-running shows on the bubble or midseason shows that may have produced the bulk of its episodes before the reviews and ratings come in, it's usually up to the show-runners to decide how much of a cliffhanger to put in their finales. They know how it works, and that they may not get the good or bad news until too late.
HBO tends to renew many shows after a single episode because, for all intents and purposes, they've already decided to continue their investment in the project, and it's a point of promotional pride. When a network launches an instant hit, they're not shy about giving early renewals, either. When a show is canceled, many of the production personnel get snapped up by newly ordered shows that begin staffing after the pilot is accepted. Or they start developing new shows. And regarding season-ending "who will die" spoilers competing with industry news about stars and their contracts and all that, I think we're all TV-savvy enough to know that characters like Gibbs and Tony are immortal. If and when they leave their hit show, it will either be a "shocking surprise" or a well-planned media event, not a run-of-the-mill May sweeps stunt.
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