A commenter on my Chuck post pointed me to this post by Richard Drew, who argues that Chuck should be canceled because it will never be a hit. Now, I’m not willing to embrace the idea that a show should be canceled because it’s not popular. If I were a network executive, I would have a responsibility to look at these things from a business point of view and get rid of perennial under-performers. But I’m not and I don’t, and I’m perfectly happy when a show I enjoy gets picked up, even if I know that the network will probably lose money on it. (It ain’t my money. Again, if I had shares in NBC/Universal… but fortunately, I don’t.) So I’m not linking to that as an endorsement of the idea that a low-rated show should go; why should we, the viewers, care what the ratings are except insofar as they make the difference between pickup and cancellation?
But I am linking to it because it expresses something that I’ve thought for a long time, and have argued a few times: the potential for a show to develop into a hit is extremely limited. That is, once a show has found its normal level of viewership — after the artificially inflated numbers that come with a much-hyped launch, a la Bionic Woman — it seems to be very, very hard for it to go up. The ratings can go down, but up is a different matter. We all like to tell stories of Cheers and Hill Street Blues and other shows that started as apparent flops and became big hits. But they were always rare, and they’re getting rarer. It seems like the more typical example would be something like 30 Rock, which gets awards and has had a good, stable time slot for the last two seasons, has been given every chance to become a hit, but never has been and never will be.
Does that mean NBC needs to get rid of 30 Rock, or for that matter Chuck? Obviously not. The thing that matters in TV scheduling is whether you can replace a show with something else that will do better (or do slightly worse but with a much lower budget). Apart from DVR numbers, downloads, and so on — important, but still not as important as raw ratings — NBC sticks with 30 Rock because they don’t have a deep comedy development bullpen, they like the show, they like the prestige it brings them, and the show’s performance has not been so bad that they can’t justify its presence on the schedule. But they’re not pretending, at this point, that it’s going to be a blockbuster hit; they’re hoping that it’ll break even for them when it goes into syndication. (It goes without saying that a show with middling performance has a lot better chance if the network owns it. That’s one of the reasons Chuck is on the bubble: it’s a Warner Brothers show, and while NBC might pick it up to make WB happy — since of a lot of the network’s plans depend on WB’s fertile TV production department — it doesn’t have as much of a chance as it would if it were an NBC/Universal production.) The classic modern example of a show that cannot do better than it does initially is Arrested Development, which single-handedly demolished the legend that Fox’s quirky flops would do better if the network only gave them a chance.
This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for a show’s performance to improve, though I do think it’s pretty rare. How I Met Your Mother managed to get and keep enough new viewers — thanks to the Britney Spears thing — that it managed to become something resembling a hit. Though you’ll notice that its improvement was not Cheers-level; all that happened was that it got back to the level of its first season, enough to make it a middling success rather than a midding failure.
In some ways, the flop-to-hit transition is always a fluke; it rarely happens at any point. Cheers was in a weird position because it debuted at the worst possible time for a show in that style, paired with a similar show (Taxi) that had never been popular unless it followed a bigger hit, and on a network that was in terrible trouble. It improved a bit the following season, in part, because NBC’s fortunes improved, and became a hit in the 1984-5 season when the success of The Cosby Show lifted up the whole schedule. NBC’s sitcom renaissance of the ’80s was odd in that, except for Cosby, it was mostly built out of shows that were on the network before Cosby came along: Cheers, Night Court, Family Ties. Using that as a precedent, you might argue that a struggling show could be bumped to hit status by the arrival of a truly gigantic, Cosby-level hit on the same network in the comedy or drama category. But it’s unlikely that a scripted show these days could dominate the viewership to that extent, meaning that Chuck isn’t going to be bailed out by Undercovers becoming the biggest hit in the universe.
The fact that there are few huge scripted megahits is a symptom of the fragmented audience; while I think too much can be made of it, audience fragmentation is real and it’s part of the reason why a show has trouble finding a huge number of new viewers. Another reason is that it’s so much easier to sample a show; it might once have been true that a show was waiting for more people to find it, but now there are more people who at least have the ability to see the show — or at least hear about its existence — and decide whether or not they want to watch it. All of that makes it very difficult for a show to improve its basic performance level. It can get back to its best level, or it can decline, but most shows seem to be stuck around a certain level for as long as they exist.