You want to rail? You want to rage against that motherfucking light? You want something bo kvetch and complain about? Do you want to throw down the goddamn universe and give it a giant front-wedgie right in its Venus and then swirly its Uranus in a black hole? Then I implore you to look at the ratings numbers below.
Here are the number of viewers, on average, for the 10 Best “Canceled … Too Soon” TV shows of all time (the big four networks, only, so “Veronica Mars,” “Deadwood,” and Showtime’s “Dead Like Me” are not included).
“Sports Night”: 11.5 million viewers (2 seasons)
“Twin Peaks”: 8 million viewers (2 seasons)
“Undeclared”: 7.3 million viewers viewers (17 episodes)
“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”: 7 million viewers (One season)
“Freaks and Geeks”: 6.77 million viewers (18 episodes)
“My So Called Life”: 6.6 million viewers (19 episodes)
“Pushing Daisies”: 6.1 million viewers (22 episodes)
“Arrested Development”: 6 million viewers (3 seasons)
“Wonderfalls”: 5 million viewers (13 episodes)
“Firefly”: 4.48 million viewers (14 episodes)
Now, here’s a baseline: Last week’s 20th ranked show, “Castle” scored 11.6 million viewers, or about the same number of viewers as “Sports Night” in 2000. “Sports Night,” despite critical acclaim, was cancelled after two seasons. “Castle” despite being a mediocre procedural with absolutely zero cultural value, is now in its fourth season and, as the 20th ranked show, will likely run a few more seasons.
Here’s another baseline: The “Breaking Bad” fourth season finale scored 2.9 million viewers, a whopping number for AMC. That show has 16 episodes remaining, and will be allowed to finish its run on cable. “Mad Men,” in its peak fourth season, averaged 2.92 million viewers, or nearly two million viewers less than “Firefly,” which was aired out of order and cancelled midway through its first season.
Now, let’s compare the “cancelled … too soon” TV shows to the ratings of the bottom 10 shows last week (again, only FOX, NBC, ABC, and CBS are included because I have no idea how to compare the CW’s ratings, except to say that “Veronica Mars” had about 2.5 million viewers and “America’s Top Model,” now in its 17th season, reaches around 1.5 million viewers).
10. Parenthood: 5 million (3rd season)
9. Prime Suspect: 4.9 million
8. Whitney: 4.88 million (full-season pickup)
7. Parks and Recreation: 4.1 million (Fourth Season)
6. Kitchen Nightmares: 3.7 million (5th Season)
5. 20/20: 3.44 million (1978 - Present)
4. The Playboy Club: 3.39 million (Canceled)
3. Community: 3.37 million (Third Season)
2. Free Agents: 3.38 million (Canceled)
1. Fringe: 3.24 million (Fourth Season)
So, as you can see, despite lower ratings — sometimes significantly lower ratings — many of the bottom-rated shows on television right now are in their third, four, or even fifth seasons (or 17th cycle). “Freaks and Geeks,” however, was cancelled after 13 episodes because it only received 6.7 million viewers. “The Office,” the biggest hit on NBC, received 5.7 million viewers and is in its eighth season. “Andy Barker, P.I.,” which is probably number 11 on the above list, was cancelled after six episodes just four years ago, despite numbers significantly better than “Community” and even “Parks and Recreation.”
Do you see the unfairness here?
Is there a logical explanation? Of course, there is. Television audiences are fractured. Cable viewers have picked off millions of network viewers during the writer’s strike. Overall ratings are down, so it doesn’t take as many viewers to sustain a show.
The injustice here is that those ten “cancelled … too soon” shows were simply aired too soon. Take “Freaks and Geeks,” “Sports Night,” or “My So Called Life” and put them on the air in 2011 and they’d all be huge hits for NBC. Do I think that their ratings would be as high if they debuted in 2011? Probably not, but where it matters — the 18-49 audience — I am positive that each of those shows could’ve broken two million viewers, which is half a million more viewers than “Community” gets in the demographic. In today’s marketplace, each one of those shows would’ve thrived on cable; in fact, given fewer restrictions, it’s very possible that all ten could’ve been ever better shows. Those shows lived in the wrong time on the wrong networks. Hell, given the right circumstances, “Firefly” could be in its 9th season on the SyFy Network, and we’d all be bitching about how its quality began to suffer after Joss Whedon left to go direct The Avengers.
The simple truth is, they were born at the wrong time. But there is a flip-side: Shows like “Parks and Recreation,” “Fringe,” and especially “Community” never would’ve made it to their 5th episode, much less multiple seasons, if they’d originally aired back in 2000 or even 2005. We’d have never been blessed with fours seasons of the anemically rated “Friday Night Lights” ten years ago. If the networks still held on to the dominating power of the 90s, original programming on AMC probably wouldn’t exist. There’d be no “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” or “The Walking Dead.” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” would contain no profanity and have a laugh track. “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified” would be pilots that never made it to air, and Timothy Olyphant would be doing low-budget porn. Oh, sorry: Bad example.
So, there’s good and there’s bad about the way things are run now. What befuddles me most is that “Two and a Half Men” would’ve been nearly as big a hit in 1999 as it is now.