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Why your favorite TV shows get zapped

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, M.S. MasonStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2002



As you sit down to watch the new shows this fall, no doubt you will find yourself wondering about some of your old favorites. Some will have moved, some will be gone altogether, and most aggravating of all to loyal fans, some will be pitted against one another.

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"Why?" you might ask, as you mutter: "The old schedules worked just fine for me."

To help you in your bafflement, here are a few of the most common scenarios that occur each season as the networks fight for their favorite eyeballs.

Death by demographics: This fate has been suffered by many shows, beginning with the venerable "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres."

When the Nielsen system was first instituted in the 1970s, and network executives discovered that those extremely popular shows had large audiences over the age of 50, they cancelled the programs. A few decades later, the highly touted "Murder, She Wrote" suffered the same fate.

"They had very strong audiences," says Alan Johnson, director of media services at ad agency Mullen in Wenham, Mass. "But they happened to be in that 55-plus category. And advertisers, by and large, don't want to go after those people." Since then, the network's obsession with ratings and demographics has only gotten more ferocious.

Aging shows, aging audiences: The "death by demos" can work in different ways. Take "Ally McBeal" and "The X-Files," both recently cancelled, popular shows with big, loyal audiences.

Both shows had suffered a certain viewer slippage as favorite stars departed and story lines wobbled creatively. But the overall aging of the audience base, combined with the spiraling costs of a mature show, are what sealed their fate. When shows themselves get long in the tooth, the costs all creep up. All the talent want bigger salaries, the shows get ambitious and go on the road – all of which costs money. "There is an economic benefit in retiring shows like 'X-Files' and 'Ally McBeal,' " says Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't be doing it. We'd love nothing more than for those two shows to continue to be among the leaders in the 18-to-49 demographic on all of television. That was no longer the case. It was time to move on. And certainly there are significant savings in moving on."

Relocated out of existence: Sometimes networks try to use a popular show to pull the desired eyeballs to new slots, or give critical darlings another chance to build an audience. But the tactic can backfire. Both "Dark Angel" (Fox) and "Once and Again" (ABC), the first with good ratings, the second with respectable, were moved to Friday night, which typically has one of TV's highest casualty rates. They promptly nosedived in the ratings. Neither survived the move to a weekend night in which the regular audiences skew much older than the desired demographic. Despite the presence of Hollywood heavyweights such as film director James Cameron as executive producer on "Dark Angel," and top show runners, Marshall Herskowitz and Ed Zwick on "Once and Again," the shows were axed.

The Man Show: Next, you might ask, "How did that loud-mouthed mess of macho masculinity get on the air?" Take a look at a new program on Fox, "Fastlane," which fits that description quite well. The show features a team of youthful, buff, undercover police officers, under the direction of an equally youthful, scantily clad female chief of detectives. The cars and weapons are hyper-tricked out, the chase scenes could double for an M-rated video game (the usual home of trashily dressed women), and the fight scenes look like choreography from extreme martial arts competitions.

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