Cancellation Watch FAQ

Cancellation Watch Column:

Where do your numbers come from?

The ratings numbers that I report generally come from the TV by the Numbers site.  I also get some numbers from other industry sources like Hollywood Reporter, TheWrap, and Deadline Hollywood, etc.

How often does the Cancellation Watch column run?

For the regular posts during the Fall/Spring season, I generally do two per week and these are spaced based on the schedule and when ratings results are available.  Currently the regular posts appear on Monday, covering the Wednesday thru Friday shows, and Wednesday, covering the Sunday and Monday shows.  Breaking announcements can come at any time, and I will also put up special posts from time to time.  At the Cancellation Watch Twitter Site, I post the early overnight numbers (which are subject to change) the day after a show airs.  During the Summer and the Winter hiatus, I may only post the regular columns once a week or less. 

What is the Cancellation Alert status that you report?

This measures the likelihood that a television series will get cancelled.  The five levels, from lowest to highest, are Low, Moderate, Medium, Elevated, and High.

How do you decide the Cancellation Alert status for a show?

The ratings are the main driving force, but I take into account several factors including the show’s network, the night it airs on, how many seasons it has completed, and more.  There’s also a bit of gut feel thrown in there as well.

Why do some shows with lower ratings have a less severe Cancellation Alert than others with higher ratings?

This has to do with the factors mentioned above.  The two most important things to look at for a show are its ratings and the network it airs on (and if it airs on Fridays, it is usually given some slack).  Shows that air on the Broadcast Networks are usually held to the highest standards and generally need a 2.5 rating or higher in the 18-49 demographic (more on that below) to survive (a 1.5 or higher should be enough if they air on Fridays).  Shows that air on the fifth place network The CW have much lower ratings and can typically get a renewal with a 1.0 rating or higher.  Shows on the cable networks like Syfy can potentially survive with almost miniscule numbers like a 0.5 rating.

Why should I care about your predictions on whether a show will be cancelled?

Because you want to know if your show will be cancelled or renewed, and I have been writing the Cancellation Watch column for close to five years now and have typically been quite accurate with the predictions I make while the season is running (and my pre-season predictions haven’t been too bad either).  The few instances where I predicted wrong (Nikita, Fringe) have generally had extenuating circumstances involved or they were just flat out anomalies.

The Nielsen Ratings and How They Impact Whether a Show is Cancelled or Renewed:

Why do science fiction and fantasy shows get cancelled?
The simple reason: because the Nielsen ratings are low for these shows indicating that they do not have a very large audience watching the shows when they air.

What are the Nielsen Ratings?

The Nielsen Company measures audience viewership of television programs based on a sample of households.  The overnights, the number that the networks watch the closest, come from set meters in a selected group of households and the viewership of this sample is extrapolated out to the large audience.

What is a rating point?

A rating point represents 1% of the estimated total number of households with televisions for a given season.  For the 2012-13 season, Nielsen's estimate is 114.2 households (they re-evaluate this each year), so one ratings point would represent 1,142,000 households.  The rating measures the total number of households that tuned in for a show at any given moment.

What is a share?

This is a similar measure to a rating point, but it measures the total households watching a show during its timeslot.

Are the Nielsen ratings a fair way to measure a show’s audience?

There’s plenty of debate around that as well as how representative the Nielsen’s sampling process is.  Many people, including the network executives, acknowledge the flaws in the system, but no viable option has stepped up to replace it.  And the Nielsens are currently working toward revamping their system, though change usually comes pretty slow.

Why is the total audience not as important as the people aged 18-49 watching a show?

This actually depends on the show and the network.  For Prime Time television, the 18-49 demographic is considered the key group to appeal to because they (allegedly) respond the best to advertising and have the most purchasing power in the house (again, allegedly).  That’s the number that the networks and sponsors watch the closest and the one that I typically focus on in my Cancellation Watch column.  In some cases, a narrower target audience might be the focus.  Like with shows geared to toward children (Star Wars: The Clone Wars), young males (Supernatural), or young women (Vampire Diaries).  In other cases, total viewership may play a more important role, as we have seen with CBS the last few years.  But for the most part, performance in the 18-49 demographic drives network decision making more often than not.

Why are the ratings so important to the success of a show?

They point the networks and the sponsors toward the shows that have the highest viewership.  Advertisers want to buy commercial time for shows that have a strong audience, and the money from these adds is what covers the productions costs for a series (more so for the broadcast networks than the cable channels).  If a show does not have decent ratings, then sponsors won’t want to buy add time or will want a discounted rate and that severely impacts the revenue stream needed to keep the series going.

How is DVR viewing factored into the ratings?

These are added after the fact, usually several weeks after the show has aired.  In some cases, DVR viewing can significantly improve a show’s rating, especially those that air on Fridays.  And just recently, ABC’s low-rated shows Last Resort and 666 Park Ave have posted significant gains when their delayed viewing is taken into account.  But the fact is that the networks and sponsors give much less weight to these numbers since people usually fastforward through the commercials when they watch the recording.  Remember, those commercials pay for the shows.

What about internet viewing at places like Hulu and a network’s website?

These don’t seem to have had much influence on keeping a show alive from what I have seen.  I don’t know of any place where these numbers are reported and I don’t know how much they impact the overall picture.  These streams run with commercials, but fewer than the live airings and from what I understand sponsors pay a lot less for these spots.  So even if a show has high viewership on the internet, it’s not generating nearly as much revenue as the live broadcast.  I do know that the Nielsens are currently working toward factoring these numbers into their results, though I’m not certain when we will see something from this effort.

What about episode downloads?

This is a relatively new option for people to view episodes of a show, and it’s the one that I personally believe has the most chance of changing the current model.  I haven’t seen too much in the way of numbers around episode downloads, but I’m guessing that this is one means that fans could target to help keep a show alive.  Purchasing episodes represents a direct revenue stream for the networks, and if large numbers of fans buy episodes, that could potentially help keep a low rated show afloat.  More on that at this link.

Why do science fiction and fantasy shows get cancelled more often than other shows?

Do they really?  I’ve not run the numbers on that, but I don’t know that they get cancelled a lot more than other shows, it just seems that way because there are fewer of them on.  The fact is that most new shows get cancelled each year, regardless of the genre.   But then historically science fiction and fantasy shows have rarely been strong performers in the ratings, either.  You can see the numbers behind that at this link.

Where can I find out more information about the Nielsen ratings and how they have impacted science fiction and fantasy shows over the years?

TV by the Numbers has a good, concise overview of the Nielsens at this link, and you can read more about the ratings and how they impact network decision making along with a survey of cancelled sci fi shows over the years in my book Why Were They Cancelled? The Plight of Sci Fi TV in the Face of the Unforgiving Nielsens and Networks

That’s a pretty sneaky way to plug your book . . .

Yeah, it’s pretty shameless.  But it will only set you back $2.99 and it’s been getting some pretty good feedback.  You can check it out for a good overview of how the Nielsen ratings work and how they have led to the cancellation of many science fiction and fantasy shows over the years.

Additional Information of Note:

What is a full season order / what are the “back 9” episodes of a series?

On the broadcast networks, a series typically runs twenty two episodes for a full season which will carry the show from Fall through Spring with minimal repeats (when you factor in the Winter hiatus).  But for the first half of the season, most shows are picked up thirteen episodes to start with.  This is almost always the case with new shows, and often the case with returning shows.  If the ratings look good for a show during the first month or so of the season, then the network will pick up the show for a “full season order”--sometimes this is referred to as picking up the “back 9” episodes--to give the series twenty two total episodes.  Sometimes a show might get one or two more episodes or sometimes a few less (the latter generally if it has high production costs).  And in some cases, if a network is very happy with the ratings performance of a show during one season, they may place a full season order for the next year, meaning that they commit in advance to the full twenty two episodes instead of starting with just thirteen (NBC did that with Grimm for the 2012-13 season).  This isn’t an ironclad guarantee, though.  The series will have a scheduled break in its production, and if it starts out the year by struggling in the ratings, the network may elect to halt production of the second half of the season.

Why do some shows only get thirteen episodes for a season?

This is typically the way the cable networks role.  They order less episodes to keep productions costs down and have a longer hiatus between seasons.  It’s just a money thing because they don’t have the same budgets available to them as broadcast networks.  Of course sometimes the broadcast nets order a reduced number of episodes for a series, and this is also a factor of controlling costs.  FOX only ordered thirteen hours (the two hour pilot and eleven additional eps) of Terra Nova, and if it had continued for a second year, they probably would have kept the episode count the same.

If a series has been around longer, does it have a better chance of getting renewed even if its numbers are low?

Possibly.  It depends on how long the show has been running and just how low its numbers have gone, among other things.  Once a series has survived a full season of twenty two episodes, then the network starts to eye a possible syndication run which is where the big money can be made.  However, the conventional thinking these days is that a show has to have at least 88 episodes (four full seasons), if not a hundred or more, to make an attractive syndication package.  That allows the show to run Monday through Friday for four months or more without repeating itself.  So the closer that a show gets to that magic 88 episode number, the better the chances that a network will keep it going despite low numbers.  If a show’s numbers start to tank during its second season, there’s a much better chance that it will get axed, because by season end it will only be halfway to that 88 number.  However, the recent thinking is that if a series gets picked up for a third season, then that means that the network and the show’s studio have pretty much committed to a fourth season in advance because by the end of the third year they are much closer to having an attractive syndication package to offer.  We saw a clear example of this with FOX’s Fringe and may see it again with The CW’s Nikita (despite the fact that it barely registers in the ratings).  Note that this trend applies mostly to the broadcast networks because cable shows typically only have thirteen episode seasons and it takes a lot longer to get to that 88 episode threshold. 

Why are shows like The Walking Dead and The American Horror Story out-pacing the broadcast networks in the ratings?

This is a relatively recent trend and the thinking is that these cable channels have successfully tapped into the niche audiences out there and proven that this can be a force.  The fact is that the ratings for old school broadcast nets have been dropping regularly over the past years and successes of AMC and FX and other cable channels could be establishing the beachhead for breaking the dominance of the Prime Time Schedule by CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX.  If the cable channels start to pull off some more hits like The Walking Dead and The American Horror Story (and the non-genre series Sons of Anarchy), we could see a significant change to the Prime Time television landscape in the coming years.

Still have questions?  Email me at cancelledscifi [at] gmail [dot] com

Why Were They Cancelled? 
The Plight of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television in the Face of the Unforgiving Nielsens and Networks

Ever wondered why your favorite science fiction and/or fantasy show disappeared from the television schedule, never to deliver anymore new episodes? The reason why, most likely, is that it was cancelled because its ratings were low. And this book looks at those many cancelled sci fi/fantasy shows as well as the Neilsen ratings and television networks that dictate their fates. Available now for only $2.99 on Kindle from

No comments:

Post a Comment