Based on their low ratings, shouldn't ABC's Betrayal and CBS's Hostages been canceled by now? Neither freshman drama has caught on with viewers, and they seem unlikely renewal candidates. But both have survived so far — and it's their status as limited-run series that may have saved them.
When the networks ordered the dramas, they were intended for a limited run this fall — which means there was never pressure to secure a full-season pickup.
Viewers have become used to short episodic runs because of cable. But broadcast networks resisted those truncated series orders until recently. Now, as viewership habits have changed — and services like Netflix have created an afterlife for such shows — the networks are trying to get viewers into the habit of committing to the limited-run formula.
Executives are cognizant that short-order series appeal to viewers because they mean less of a time commitment with a fast payoff. But they also know that if they don't deliver on that promise, viewers won't buy into the idea next time. "We're definitely mindful of trying to keep some trust with the audience," one TV exec says. "You don't want to destabilize people being willing to get involved in these shows. You don't want to communicate, 'This is limited,' then yank it after three weeks."
That means having to stomach some low ratings — for now. Season to date, Betrayal is averaging around 4.7 million total viewers, while Hostages averages 7.6 million. Betrayal has already aired seven episodes, and Hostages has screened eight, so both shows are in the homestretch.
If a limited-run series doesn't deliver ratings, network execs know there's at least an end point. "Before you cancel something, there are several questions you have to ask," says one network executive. "And with limited series a couple more questions on top of it."
Beyond that, there's another simple reason some of these shows linger: The lack of anything better on the shelf. Betrayal is still on the air because ABC didn't have a backup ready. At CBS, Hostages is still on the air partly because execs believe there's still the chance that viewers are sitting on the show — and could eventually still show up. According to CBS, 15.5 million people viewed the Hostages premiere within the first 30 days, up 110 percent from that first night's live audience. "We're mindful that we know the way people are viewing now, they will stack these things up," an exec says. "They want to wait and see if it's a legit show or not."