Surviving The New Fall Season: A Showrunner’s Perspective

My Generation

By Noah Hawley

Eight days. That’s how long the ride lasted. On Thursday, September 23, 2010, at 8 p.m., my second show, My Generation, premiered on ABC. It was cancelled eight days later, on Friday, October 1st. The show, which ABC had spent millions to make and millions more to promote, aired twice. This despite the fact that the network had deemed us their flagship show of the fall season, by which I mean the new show to which they gave first dollar priority in sales and marketing.

Which is why, if you were in LA or New York that summer, you couldn’t escape
the billboards and subway ads. If you went to see a summer blockbuster movie that July, chances are you saw a two minute trailer the network and studio had paid to make for us. A month later, Rolling Stone Magazine threw us a party on the roof of a Sunset Boulevard hotel. The night of the premiere, Warren Littlefield and I rented a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont and threw a premiere party. Over a hundred people came to watch the show and celebrate. Heading up to the launch, the folks at ABC marketing had designed the first interactive iPad app for a television show, and people had their iPads out as they watched.

Halfway into the show, one of my writers showed me a live Google statistic that said My Generation was the #1 Google search for the hour. So as the show ended, we were feeling optimistic about our numbers.

This despite the fact that, for the last two weeks I had been privy to the network’s ratings projections, which, honestly, were pretty soft. Television networks compile “awareness” numbers and “intent to watch” numbers, and our intent to watch was lower than anyone liked. Plus, our time slot was a notorious kill zone, pitting us against four established, returning shows (Big Bang Theory, Bones, Community/30 Rock and Vampire Diaries) with no lead-in to help bring in an audience. So even as we celebrated our premiere, we knew that the odds were stacked against us.

And then the ratings came in. I don’t remember the precise number, but it was in the high ones for the critical demographic, which is a low number (a hit these days gets anything over a 3.5.) But the brass at ABC told us not to worry. They’d expected a number like this, they said, and they were prepared to ride it out and let us build an audience. Seven days later episode two aired, to an even lower number. And the next day we were cancelled.

That’s the TV business. Most shows fail. And as we move from Premiere Week 2012 to Week Two, I’m sure there are a lot of nervous showrunners. It’s almost impossible to launch a hit show these days in our crowded TV landscape, with network audiences shrinking consistently every year. And so, as a showrunner, you try to do the math. How patient is my network? What do they have to replace me with?

The problem is, in network TV, the second week numbers always go down. Even for hit shows. If you got a 4.1, like Revolution did in its premiere, and drop to a 3.5, you don’t care, because those are still hit numbers. But if you premiere at a 2.4 and drop to a 1.9 then you start to worry.

Making things harder, there is a true bloodlust in the Hollywood press and the blogosphere this time of year. It’s like a Roman Circus. Who will be the first show to drop? Animal Hospital? Mob Doctor? In 2010 it was My Generation and Lone Star. Both show aired exactly twice and were cancelled in that second week. And just like that the bloodlust broke, and people moved on. Two shows had been sacrificed and the crowd was satisfied. And after that, every other new show, no matter their ratings, aired at least four more times before the next round of cancellations, giving busy audiences a chance to at least sample them.

As a showrunner with a struggling new show, you try to hold on long enough to see the first round of DVR numbers (live plus 3), which are becoming increasingly meaningful. See? you tell the networks, if the DVR numbers show a substantial ratings increase. People want to watch this show.

The problem for us was, even if you were interested in My Generation, odds were you were either watching Big Bang Theory and taping Bones, or you were watching Bones and taping Community. Not to mention on Thursdays people were also taping/watching Grey’s Anatomy at 9 and The Mentalist at 10, shows they would catch up on over the next three days.

So even if people want to sample your new show, they might not get to it for a few days. All of which is a way of saying, if your premiere numbers are weak, it’s almost impossible to gain ground quickly. A show needs to stay on the air, build some buzz in order to find a loyal following. And that takes time. Revenge is a perfect example. It was never a hit show, but ABC left it on the air and over time it started to build a real following, and now they’ve moved it to Sunday, exposing it to a bigger potential audience.

As a showrunner, all you can do is make the best show possible. It’s up to the network to bring you an audience. And though you hope that your network will be patient with the shows they like creatively, the reality is that the numbers are the numbers. Ratings translate directly and immediately into ad revenue, and so for a network to be patient with a show that’s performing poorly, they have to be willing to lose money. And most of the time, as we know, that is just not an option.

So as we move into week two, I’ll be watching, along with the rest of the town, to see who dies in the Circus and who lives to fight another day. But for those showrunners who don’t make it, just know, it’s not a referendum on you or the quality of your show. Because what matters in this business is not if a show is good in a fan sense. What matters is that it’s good in a ratings sense. And that’s just not something you can control.

Good luck.

Noah Hawley is a novelist (The Good Father) and screenwriter (Lies and Alibis) who created and ran two TV shows for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation). Read more of his posts.