Fairly early in the fall television season the networks start making some hard choices and obvious decisions. These generally come in the form of a series getting a full season order or, in many cases, a cancellation. While several shows have received the former, something odd is happening to the latter. Instead, more and more series have received a reduced episode count. It isn’t unusual for a network to make this choice, but it has rarely happened at the rate it is happening right now.
For the second half of this season, ABC’s Blood and Oil, Fox’s Minority Report and NBC’s Truth Be Told are among the many shows receiving the short-season treatment.
Generally, all network shows are given an initial order of 13 episodes. If the show does well, the network will order an additional 9 episodes. Conversely, if performance is poor, a show can be outright canceled with production immediately halted. In the latter case the network may choose to let any remaining completed episodes air, burn them off in a different time period or, more likely, simply choose not to air them. They may even cut the initial order down to 10 or 9.
A reduced episode count can often be seen as an unstated cancellation, but these days there might be more considerations involved. By holding off judgment a little longer, networks are exploring the possibility of a slow-rising hit. In the era of DVRs and on-demand viewing, it is highly likely that a show with abysmal live viewing figures could wind up with respectable numbers once late watching is taken into account.
Several series that were canceled on a network have been finding new life on a smaller channel or streaming service that is happy with the size of the core audience. For example, TNT saved LA police drama Southland when NBC canceled it after one season. It ended up lasting another four seasons. Similarly, when NBC ended critically acclaimed comedy Community after its fifth season, Yahoo! picked it up for a spot on its streaming service last year.
These are all signs that the television industry is treading into unprecedented territory. With CBS re-launching Star Trek exclusively on its streaming service in 2017 and NBC considering a similar move, plus HBO and Showtime offering non-cable subscription apps, it’s clear the business model is beginning to shift. For the most part, people want to be able to watch what they want when they want and slowly, the industry is not only beginning to cater to those needs, but to count those views towards the ratings of a program.