Network TV Had Some Wins This Year, so Why Crush That Hope With a Red Wedding Cancellation Dump? (Column)

It felt like a TV bloodbath like no other. Thursday’s rapid-fire succession of primetime bullets took down “Magnum P.I.” and two Chuck Lorre comedies at CBS; Ted Danson’s “Mr. Mayor” and Kenan Thompson’s “Kenan,” plus freshman drama “The Endgame” at NBC; and a large chunk of the lineup — including “Legacies,” “Charmed,” “Dynasty” and “Roswell, New Mexico” — at The CW.

And that’s not even the entire list of this week’s axed shows. Yet, this day of death — which “Legacies,” “Roswell” and “The Endgame” exec producer Julie Plec compared to the “Game of Thrones” massacre known as the “Red Wedding” — was really nothing new. In the before times, the week prior to upfronts always got nasty as shows were thrown overboard to make room for the newbies. The cycle of broadcast life, etc. etc.

But it’s been an unusual two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The traditional upfronts were thrown out the window, and scheduling thrown out of whack due to production starts and stops. Shows that might have been canceled weren’t, as networks held on to what they had to keep the pipeline going in these uncertain times.

All of that just masked the primetime reckoning that was coming — and honestly, still hasn’t completely happened. Consider this a bit of a transition year, as the dust still settles from corporate mergers, acquisitions and realignments.

At virtually every conglom, a Streaming First strategy has led to the further cementing of in-house productions as the means to control the lucrative long tail of content. At CBS, CEO George Cheeks and his team are looking for more shows like “Ghosts”: An in-house hit that can be exploited on Paramount+. What the Eye network doesn’t need are mid-range sitcoms from Warner Bros. TV — even from prized hitmaker Lorre. In the old days, the idea of CBS canceling two Lorre shows in the same year would be heresy. This year, both “B Positive” and “United States of Al” had to go.

The CW housecleaning, of course, comes as corporate parents Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount prepare to sell the network to station group giant Nexstar. CW’s usefulness as a launching pad for shows from both companies’ respective studios may be sunsetting. After all, Warner Bros. TV and CBS Studios now have infinite space on HBO Max and Paramount+, respectively, to park their wares.

When The WB and UPN merged to form The CW in 2006, it was out of financial necessity: It didn’t make sense to keep two money-losing netlets going at the same time. (And the decision to team up smartly came more than two years before the 2008 economic downturn.) The CW was a handy way for Warner Bros. and CBS to cultivate franchises that could then be sold at a profit to international buyers and streamers. A rich output deal with Netflix for access to CW shows (a few months after the end of each linear season) helped drive a rebirth of the CW as a genre-focused platform over the past decade.

But The CW is out of the Netflix business, as Warner Bros. and CBS now send all of their network shows to their own streamers. And that has led to the course correction at the network, which in recent years boasted more scripted originals than some of its larger competitors. In the long run, Nexstar is expected to steer The CW to more cost-effective originals like Canadian acquisitions (of which it already has several) and unscripted fare. But for now, even with this year’s mass casualties, the network still boasts a steady stable of hits like “The Flash,” “All American,” “Riverdale” and “Walker” — and newbies like the “Supernatural” spinoff “The Winchesters.”

In a perverse way, this year’s necessary bloodletting got us talking about broadcast this week, which I suppose is a good thing. (Hey, the broadcast networks are still here, and people are genuinely upset that the shows they’re still watching in primetime are canceled!)

But does it need to be this way going forward? Even though the upfront presentations are returning next week, they’re not just about the broadcast network anymore. (Well, except for The CW, but we already went over their unique situation this year.) The fall lineup, which was once the centerpiece of these events, is now an afterthought. It’s past time to start thinking about how to stagger cancellations and pickups rather than dumping them all at once like it’s 1995 again.

There’s also the unfortunate narrative of “broadcast is dead” whenever the networks clean house like this, even though we know that’s not quite true. (Well, at least not yet.) Perhaps next week’s return of the network upfronts will bolster the narrative that just when you thought broadcast TV could not break a comedy, shows like ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” and CBS’ “Ghosts” are bringing younger viewers back to the fold, while procedural stalwarts like Dick Wolf’s three-stack of franchises (“Law & Order,” “One Chicago” and “FBI”) are doing the same in drama across two rival networks.

But there’s also a chance the upfront presentations, in their rush to tout the streaming future, will also continue to downplay the networks that got them there. Which would be a shame. In a year where broadcast TV had some real positive stories to tell, it doesn’t need any more “Red Wedding” moments of cancellation dumps to damper the good news that broadcast TV still has to share as well.

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