TV shows and the quick hook

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2014 NBC Upfront Presentation

Actress Katherine Heigl attends the 2014 NBC Upfront Presentation on May 12 where the network announced she'll star in the drama, "State of Affairs," set to premiere this fall along with a slew of new offerings. (Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images)

Last week as TV networks announced their lineup for the upcoming season, I noticed more grumbling than usual about the short life span that befalls shows that aren't an instant ratings hit.

"The press release for NBC's Manson-killings drama "AQUARIUS" says the show 'will go on for several seasons,'" tweeted Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik. "Cue God's laughter."

It's been a running joke of Jimmy Kimmel's when he takes the stage each year at ABC's annual presentation to advertisers. "Don't get attached to our new shows," he said this time. "It's like adopting a kitten with cancer."

Vulture editor Joe Adalian took to Twitter to assess the landscape: "If you take out spinoffs and shows based on franchises, just 8 Big 4 shows launched since Sept. will be back for second seasons. #EndTimes."

Frustrated comments from viewers themselves have been a variation on this one posted to a Deadline.com story about CBS's planned offerings: "I'm not watching anything CBS has to offer above. They canceled five shows that I liked and expect me to watch something else new, when they don't give anything more than a season anymore."

It's the snake eating its tail: Networks cancel shows people aren't watching, but people don't want to watch shows the network is going to cancel. Is this the same old griping or something new?

There are many reasons why viewers don't latch onto new shows, including the most obvious: So many aren't any good. But as Netflix and Amazon and every other streaming service become even more embedded in our lives, are we increasingly asking ourselves: Why bother with a new show when it first airs? If it is worth checking out, I'll hear about it eventually.

"I think that's part of it," said Brad Agate, who heads up research at Horizon Media, "and that's something I've been thinking about."

He had a specific example in mind. "If you look at something like 'Under the Dome,' I didn't think that show was going to have a second season. But they put it on Amazon last summer four days after it aired on CBS. And while Amazon didn't release the numbers, I remember (CBS CEO) Les Moonves saying that (Amazon CEO) Jeff Bezos was very happy with the results of how many people were streaming the show.

"And I think that was part of the reason for bringing it back a second year: That hopefully those younger viewers who watch streaming video may want to watch it on CBS for Season 2." (The show returns with new episodes June 30.)

That approach requires patience from TV networks, a temperament in short supply when executives, by virtue of the job, focus on quarterly earnings and immediate gains.

And yet some of TV's strongest legacies are shows that started soft.

"Cheers," which premiered in 1982, is a frequently cited example. It was among the lowest-rated shows in its debut season. By 1990, it was No. 1. TV writer Ken Levine, whose credits include "Cheers," was asked about this on his blog not long ago. "How or why was 'Cheers' even renewed for the second season when its ratings were so bad?"

Levine's answer: "NBC was in a rebuilding period and that takes time." Also: "They had nothing else better to replace it with."

I asked Agate to weigh in. "'Hill Street Blues' was the same thing," he said. "The theory being, when your network is in last place, you can afford to be patient."

You have to wonder how far ABC's charmingly piquant family comedy "Trophy Wife" (from Chicagoan Sarah Haskins and featuring a breakout, endlessly watchable performance from 9-year-old actor Albert Tsai) could have gone with another season or two on the air to find an audience.

At the upfronts last week, ABC head Paul said he was sad to see the show go — "as if he had nothing to do with seeing it go." Hitfix's Daniel Fienberg noted on Twitter.

"Trophy Wife" actually should had been renewed based on the patience theory alone, because ABC is in fact at the bottom on the heap for the season. It is in fourth place among adults 18-49, beating out only the CW. But when you're near last place, maybe that is precisely when you can't afford to nurture an underperforming show.

Just days after the networks unveiled their new seasons, Nielsen announced it would be begin compiling detailed information about the age and gender of people tweeting about television.

Nielsen has been tracking Twitter TV ratings since September, compiling the number of tweets about TV, plus the number of people those tweets reach. The ratings measure "earned" Twitter activity, so tweets from those affiliated with a show (actors, writers and the like) do not count.

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