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Changing Audiences and TV Moneyball: The Biggest Behind-the-Scenes TV Story of 2015
December 7, 2015  | By Alex Strachan

Wicked City will not go down in the annals of TV as one of the most influential series of its day. When the book closes on 2015, though, Wicked City — shuttered after just three episodes — will have made history of a kind.

It was the first and, as of now, only official network cancellation of the 2015-16 fall TV season. (Ed Westwick as Kent Grainger and Erika Christensen as Betty Beaumontaine, top.)

Anyone familiar with network TV’s recent history would look at that and think that this has been a rich and bountiful fall season, full of new hits and TV shows with Desperate Housewives-size ratings.

Desperate Housewives deserves a mention in this context because, back in 2004, it debuted little more than a week after Lost, marking the first time in a long time that two new network dramas premiered in the same week and flipped pop-culture on its side. That was the same season an equally popular, successful network drama premiered in midseason: Grey’s Anatomy.

The broadcast networks have been looking for that same alchemy ever since, mostly in vain.

Even the 2004-05 season had its early casualties, though. North Shore, LAX, Listen Up!, Point Pleasant and Complete Savages all stumbled out of the gate, and Hawaii didn’t even make it to Halloween.

Times have changed, though. Dying TV shows don’t get cancelled outright anymore; they just fade away. They may be pre-empted at first, then either vanish entirely or return at a later date, during a “slow” time of year. Christmas week has become a favorite dumping ground for episodes of TV shows nobody wants to watch. Episode orders may quietly be cut back, then dropped entirely. Some fading series are conveniently missing  — and quickly forgotten — when the networks unveil their fall schedules  the following May. In a media age where marketing carries the day and press announcements count for everything, no network wants to admit failure by announcing that, yes  indeed, hard as it might be to believe, Selfie, Utopia, State of Affairs, Manhattan Love Story and A to Z and were all found to be somewhat, um, wanting.

It’s deceptive, then, to look at the sole cancellation of Wicked City (Jeremy Sisto, left) and conclude that this has been a good season for new network dramas. Network executives can be lauded for showing more patience with under-performing series than they used to be, but the truth is their hand is being forced by rapidly shifting  economics — not just fickle audience tastes and the sobering investment required to produce a new network drama from scratch, but by changing audience habits.

Just as many if not more people are watching TV than they ever were, as research figures presented to the TV Critics Association this past summer by CBS research president David Poltrack and CBS Digital Media vice-president Marc DeBevoise showed.

They’re watching TV different ways, though.

That’s why, in October, Fox became the first major network to abandon same-day ratings. In fact, Fox did nothing that cable networks FX, AMC and NBC Universal hadn’t done already. For a broadcast network to admit, though, that the following day’s numbers are now so pointless they’re not even going to bother publicizing them, marks a sea change in the way network TV does business.

Fox did make an exception for live events — hardly anyone is going to wait three days, let alone a week, to watch the Super Bowl, for example — but when the book finally closes on the 2015 TV year, that one decision by Fox may prove to be the most influential thing that happened in TV over the past 12 months.

Streaming and time-shifting are the new normal in many households, and not just wired, tech-savvy millennials. Poltrack and DeBoise’s research has shown that older viewers — uncharitably defined in TV terms as anyone over 49 — are among the earliest adopters of new TV technology.

Fox’s sudden aversion to same-day ratings, “fast nationals,” “overnights” and “prelims” wasn’t announced by some in-house numbers geek, either, but by longtime Fox TV Group CEOs and industry veterans Dana Walden and Gary Newman. 

“That email will no longer be in your inbox every morning at 8 a.m.,” Walden and Newman said in their announcement, “because that email is no longer relevant. . . . It’s time for us to change the conversation. The live-plus-same-day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series.”

FX boss John Landgraf was reportedly the first prominent TV executive to formally come to this conclusion in July, 2014, according to The Hollywood Reporter, in part because FX serial dramas like Fargo and American Horror Story are so much darn fun to binge-watch that just about everyone is doing it. (Personal confession: I prefer to record three or four episodes on DVR, then watch them later, back-to-back, without having to wait from one week to the next to see how particular cliffhangers are resolved.) 

The joy, artistry and loving attention to detail that goes into virtually every frame of Fargo or, say, The Americans, is much easier to appreciate when you’re immersed in them for hours at a time, rather than watching week by week.

It’s worth the wait — even if it means avoiding spoilsports who inundate Twitter and Facebbok in real time.

And let’s face it. Gathering around the office water-cooler the following morning isn’t the social event it used to be.

“I have great sympathy for Nielsen,” Poltrack told reporters this past summer — six words you probably never heard before, nor again.

“I mean, their world is moving very, very rapidly. Keeping up with all these technologies is very difficult. Not all distribution services are entirely cooperative with rating agencies, and they are having to work around that. They’re doing the best they can to try to get ahead of the consumer, and keep ahead. But, realistically, I think the consumer is going to remain one step ahead of them for probably another five years.”

Happy new TV year. Now, pass the remote. 

No, not the TV remote. The DVR.

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