Broadcasters don't have it easy anymore. Cable television and Netflix are drawing in audiences en masse while some once-popular TV franchises are struggling to recover from historical lows.
Take CSI, which set a series low in February drawing just 8.6 million viewers. AMC Networks, by contrast, has regularly topped 10 million with The Walking Dead while the series finale for Breaking Bad drew 10.3 million. Niche programming -- on niche networks -- is a serious and growing threat to the Big Four.
The result? Broadcast TV shows either win early or die fast, as these three did in 2013:
Episodes before cancellation: 4
Avg. viewers: 5.16 million
Why it bombed: Remakes are a tough sell to begin with. (Remember 2008's rehash of Knight Rider? How about 2011's Charlie's Angels do-over?) NBC didn't do itself any favors in deciding not to cast a disabled actor as wheelchair-bound detective Robert Ironside, choosing instead to go with veteran performer Blair Underwood. The ensuing controversy, which led to at least one outright boycott of the show, may have been the killing blow.
State of the network: Ironside's poor performance notwithstanding, NBC has hit its stride recently. Look at the spy-cum-crime drama The Blacklist, which drew some 17 million viewers in its Monday night time slot. The network has already ordered a second season while star James Spader is up for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of professional troublemaker Red Reddington. On the other hand, as an earnings driver, NBC's broadcast TV operation contributes just 13% of Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) revenue and 2% of operating income. One big win (or loss) won't mean much for the business at its present scale.
Episodes before cancellation: 2
Avg. viewers: 3.53 million
Distributor: ABC Television
Why it bombed: Yes, we've all dreamed about winning the lottery. But a TV show that asks what if the dream came true? We've seen the concept before and it didn't work then, either. NBC cancelled Windfall in 2006 after 13 episodes, going so far as to allow affiliates the option of airing preseason football rather than the season's final installment.
State of the network: ABC is getting good performances from a handful of key shows. For example, Scandal does well on Thursday nights in spite of declining viewership for lead-in Grey's Anatomy. There's also Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which has the highest live+7 day rating of any Tuesday night broadcast TV show. What's that mean financially? Not much, unfortunately. ABC's operating income dipped slightly in the third quarter as revenue improved just 1% year-over-year.
We Are Men
Episodes before cancellation: 2
Avg. viewers: 6.01 million
Distributor: CBS (NYSE:CBS)
Why it bombed: Divorced men trying to pick up women while teaching the ways of the world to a young neighbor who's just been left at the altar? OK, but history shows that you need brilliant writing and top-notch talent (e.g., Parks and Recreation) to make absurd concepts work. Critics panned We Are Men's scripts as "lazy" and "boring," among other things.
State of the network: CBS is still home to TV's most-watched show (NCIS) and possesses a powerful catalyst in Showtime, which is gaining influence thanks to edgy new dramas such as Ray Donovan and Emmy contender Homeland. Ad revenue at CBS Television increased 13% year-over-year in the third quarter. Content licensing and distribution increased 11% with new shows added to the network's syndication slate, including NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife.
Now it's your turn to weigh in. What shows were you surprised to see bomb in 2013? What shows do you expect to be cancelled next? Leave a comment below to let us know what you think.
Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Netflix at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+, Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.
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