Sela Ward and Gary Sinise

It's nail-biting time for fans of programs that haven't yet been picked up for next season. As network executives make their final decisions next month on which shows to renew and which ones to cancel, low ratings across the board aren't making their jobs any easier.

It used to be pretty clear which shows were hits and what could be deemed a flop. But this spring, primetime ratings have once again slumped to levels that shock even the most jaded of TV executives, who find themselves picking up shows that are currently barely pulling little more than a 1 rating among the adults 18-49 demographic.

"I'm curious what the striking level is of the shows we're going to see come back this year," says one executive. "We've really gotten to the truly frightening point with how bad you have to be to get canceled these days. To where it is, it's almost comically funny."

Among the shows already picked up for next season are NBC's Smash, which dropped to a 1.9 rating with adults 18-49 on April 16 (but ticked up to a 2.0 on April 23); Fox's Raising Hope, which last week averaged a 1.8; NBC's Grimm, which last Friday posted a 1.4 rating; and CBS' The Good Wife, which averaged a 1.9 on Sunday.

It wasn't too long ago that those would be considered failing grades. But those shows are all still considered solid performers for their respective networks. Other shows with a shot at renewal include ABC's Last Man Standing (1.5 last week), NBC's 30 Rock (1.5) and Fox's Fringe (1.0). "It's amazing it's down as much as it is across the board," says Touch executive producer Tim Kring, whose show also remains on the bubble. "You're having to recalibrate in your mind what these numbers mean each week. If we had hit any of these numbers on Heroes we would have gone home and curled up in the fetal position."

As the saying goes, you can't cancel everything. That's why the networks take much more into account than just ratings when they decide whether to renew a show. Does their studio arm own all or part of the series? Is it an international success? Can the license fee be reduced? How does the show perform versus its competition? Does it improve on, or hold on to most of, its lead-in? Are advertisers supportive of the show, and are the network's sales teams clamoring to keep the show going?

The fate of this year's bubble shows will be decided by the week of May 14, when the networks announce their new fall schedules. In the meantime, here are some key questions that await an answer.

The networks are expected to add more comedies come fall. Is that good news for the remaining half-hours that are in flux?
It already was good for Fox's Raising Hope, which earned an early renewal as the network eyes a four-comedy Tuesday lineup. CBS' plan to possibly go with four comedies on Thursday could also be good news for perennial underdog Rules of Engagement or the critically reviled Rob. (But not both, mind you.) Ditto shows like Cougar Town and Up All Night, still awaiting their fates at ABC and NBC, respectively.

Shows like Harry's Law, Body of Proof and Unforgettable do well with total viewers, but they skew old. Will NBC, ABC and CBS stick with them or look for dramas that appeal to younger viewers?
"The advertiser currency is adults 18-49," says one exec. "Everything else is nice, but if you can't monetize it, why does it matter?" Still, another network source says sometimes it's better to stick with the devil you know. "The risk you take is you throw out your high total-viewer show for one you assume will get a better demo, and then you don't get that better demo. You need utility players, and I would think long and hard before throwing out shows like that." This is where relationships come into play: If NBC wants to curry favor with studio Warner Bros. Television or Harry's Law exec producer David E. Kelley, for example, they might give the Kathy Bates series a renewal.

Will CBS cancel CSI: NY or CSI: Miami?
CBS has a high-class problem: Too many strong-performing shows and not enough room for new dramas. That's why it seems inevitable that either David Caruso's Miami or Gary Sinise's NY has to go. "It's something you might want to prepare for," hints one insider. NY is seen as the more likely candidate, although another source says, "It is totally, and truly, up in the air." There's always the possibility that both could be canceled — "They can't bring back everything," says a rival — but such a drastic move is unlikely. The original CSI has already been renewed.

Fringe and Community are fan faves, but their ratings are very low. Will the shows' studios help with costs and save them?
Industry insiders say the odds are good that both TV Guide Magazine Fan Favorites will return. Warner Bros. Television is expected to reduce its license fee on Fringe for a final 13-episode season (though Fox will likely still lose money on the drama). "The business is tough, but it's really pretty simple," says one network exec. "Here's the license fee and here's the revenue generated. Is the show in the red or in the black?" Community is so close to having enough episodes for syndication that producer Sony Pictures Television should be flexible on the price tag, while NBC, which co-owns the comedy, would be financially foolish not to pick it up. "If you end up with four seasons, you now have an asset," one exec says. "It may not be Modern Family, but...you don't need 12 million people watching each week for it to be valuable."

Will deals with talent and producers be done in time to bring back shows like Two and a Half Men and The Office?
The quick answer is "yes." Even though negotiations will come down to the wire — they always do — no one is sweating. Ashton Kutcher is expected to be back in place — with a nice raise — for Two and a Half Men next season, while key The Office cast members Ed Helms and John Krasinski will likely be back for at least parts of next season. A deal with Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay was recently signed, boosting that show's chances for return.

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