We’ve seen it many, many times — low-rated shows yanked early in their runs, before characters are fleshed out, worthwhile plot-lines have unfolded and viewers are given the chance to really experience the show in the first place.
So naturally, the assumption is that Smash, NBC’s musical drama that stars Katherine McPhee and the woefully underrated Megan Hilty — should be headed to the trash bin because its second season ratings have been even more unimpressive than the year before: Tuesday’s episode dropped 22 percent to a new series low of .7 in adults 18-49 and 2.6 million viewers. And since other shows have been pink-slipped this season after averaging much higher ratings than what Smash was luring (See: Partners, Whitney, The Last Resort and Zero Hour), the clock should have already stopped on the Broadway-based series, right?
Though the knee-jerk reaction by most network execs is that there’s always something better out there to program, replacing a low-rated show with a new one doesn’t always work. Case in point: ABC’s decision to cancel The Last Resort, which averaged a 2.0 rating in 18-49, and replacing it with Zero Hour, which pulled in a measly 1.3 before the network cancelled it, too. News magazines as replacements aren’t any better, since advertisers often prefer placing ads in scripted fare. “History dictates that unless you have a reality show that’s just so over the top, whatever you replace it is going to do worse — especially if you replace it with something quickly,” says one longtime broadcast TV executive. “You just don’t get a chance to market it.”
There are exceptions, but they generally only happen on CBS. Since the network excels at programming shows that share similar and remarkably popular themes, it can quickly cancel an out-of-the-box series like Made in Jersey (1.1) rejigger the night with procedural repeats, and end up doing even better. Conversely, Fox didn’t get any better of a pop with comedy reruns after pulling the freshman comedy Ben & Kate (1.5) — a fresh little confection that deserved time to grow — earlier this season.
Sometimes, it pays in the long run to stay the course with low-rated shows, especially when there’s nothing new to air, instead. (The Peacock does have the much-anticipated Hannibal starring Hugh Dancy but it’s using that to replace the hole left on Thursdays by the cancelled Do No Harm). NBC’s consistently low-rated Parenthood always seemed like a candidate for a quick and dirty cancellation, but its 2.8 rating this season looks pretty dang impressive at a time when NBC is attracting headlines about how it’s getting clobbered by Univision. Now it seems like a sure thing for fall. And say what you will about those hate-watchers: Smash deserves credit for breaking out if the box and trying something new. Nobody expects this show to go a third year, but can’t we at least see Bombshell make it to Broadway?
At least Smash won’t have to tread water for long: Beginning March 25, The Voice will return to help buoy the network on Mondays and Tuesdays. That development, alone, may prompt NBC to hold its breath a little longer on Smash, which is a passion project for network topper Robert Greenblatt.
In the meantime, NBC’s been trying hard to say something positive about the musical series, like how its the most upscale drama on the broadcast nets this season because its watched by homes with $100K-plus incomes. The riches like their Anjelica Huston, it seems!
“It’s a tough call. You never know,” says a Big Four suit about canceling shows early. “But these days, you really need to look long and hard at what you have versus what you have coming up. A bird in hand — even if it’s a small bird — can be better.”