Last month, the TV business spent its energies focusing on the new: Networks unveiled dozens of new series, all in the hopes of producing a new generation of small-screen staples. There’s no doubt they’re needed: Not only did last season yield precious few hits, but a look at the current landscape of established series reveals a large number of shows not far away from that inevitable moment when they are pried loose from their prime-time berths and are forced into the ever-repeating limbo of syndication and DVD. Predicting exactly when the time will come to cue up Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” is tough, however, since many factors help determine life span. As a public service, Vulture decided to take the pulse of a dozen iconic broadcast series of varying ages, assessing everything from their Nielsen health to their pop culture zippiness, in an attempt to gauge just how long fans can expect their dearly beloved shows to be around. Plan your mourning accordingly!
Headed into season: 8Most Recent Ratings: 11.7 million viewers, down 17 percent from 14 million (and roughly half of its first-season audience of 23.7 million)Cultural Relevancy: Pretty low. Two or three years ago, the pending divorce of Tom and Lynette would’ve been the buzz of the interwebs. Now, you’re probably thinking, Wait, Tom and Lynette are getting divorced?Life Expectancy: One to two seasons. Almost all of the Alphabet’s new dramas would have to work in order to imagine a scenario in which the network feels bullish enough to completely part ways with DH next May. More likely: A couple of key cast members get killed off or otherwise depart Wisteria Lane during the course of next season, with producers attempting a dramatic reboot in 2013.
Headed into season: 8Most Recent Ratings: 11.3 million viewers, down 16 percent from 13.6 million (and well below its 2006-07 glory season, when it averaged 19.2 million)Cultural relevancy: Low. We can’t remember the last time a Grey’s cast member was on the cover of a major magazine. And we’re almost missing the days when actors from the show seemed to go out of their way to stir up controversy. As for the show itself, the season finale found Dr. Yang pondering an abortion over the objections of her husband in what was a pretty blatant attempt to stir up controversy. It might have sparked some debate — if only the show hadn’t explored the same exact decision a few years ago.Life expectancy: Three years. Sure, Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo (anyone remember her?) have suggested they might leave after this season, but so what? ER rambled on a good half-decade after most people gave up on it. While Grey’s never had an audience base as big as ER at its high point, the medical show has survived so many major cast changes already, it can probably withstand — and maybe even benefit from — a few more. (DH, by contrast, has kept its core cast intact and probably couldn’t survive the sort of major restructuring needed to bring its budget into line with its lower ratings. It’s also a straight-on soap, whereas Grey’s still has the spine of a medical procedural to keep its story engine humming.) Ultimately, ABC needs any show with a pulse, and Grey’s still has a steady one.
Photo: Adam Larkey/? 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
Headed into season: 8Most Recent Ratings: 10.3 million viewers, off 18 percent from 12.6 million (and barely half of its average audience of 19.4 million during the 2006–07 season)Cultural relevancy: Medium. People seemed to take notice when word leaked out that Lisa Edelstein (Cuddy) wouldn’t be back next season, which signals that people still care about the show. But there were also more than a few folks who seemed ready to throw in the towel on the show now that the whole Huddy affair has been exhausted (and exhausted viewers). Life expectancy: This will be its last. Edelstein is gone and Laurie has signaled he’s ready to move on after this season, too. Ratings are okay, but unlike ABC, Fox is not in desperate need of hits. And the show’s so expensive, Fox and producer Universal Media Studios were barely able to reach a deal on another season. Barring a dramatic Nielsen uptick, or an exceptionally bad year for Fox’s new shows, it seems House is ready to wind up.
Headed into season: 3Most Recent Ratings: 10 million viewers, up 3 percent from 9.7 million.Cultural relevancy: Enormous. Entertainment websites fall all over themselves trying to get exclusive information about the show, then spend even more time dissecting every episode down to costume changes. Ancillary business related to the show is booming, from the millions of downloads and CDs sold to a successful tour and an upcoming concert movie. And while there’s a strong chorus of dissenters unhappy with the incredibly uneven quality of Glee episodes, at least folks are still actively debating the show’s creative merits.Life expectancy: Two seasons. A show so young would normally be looking at another five seasons on the air, but a closer look at the Glee ratings show that, while it’s still a big hit, its numbers for the second half of the season were way down: In the fall, the show drew as many as 13 million viewers each week, but by May, some episodes were averaging just under 9 million. It’s also hard to see how a series as high concept as Glee will be able to keep itself interesting after four seasons on the air. Co-creator Ryan Murphy is on record saying the current class will graduate next May; presumably that means the series will either reboot with new characters in season four, or we’ll have to endure following today’s New Directions gang to college or semi-homelessness in New York as they try to break into show business. However Murphy plays it, we think it’s likely Glee will live fast and die young.
Headed into season: 4Most Recent Ratings: 5.8 million, down 21 percent from last season’s 7.3 million (and down more than 40 percent from its season one viewership of 9.1 million).Cultural relevancy: Medium. Much the way cable shows such as Mad Men get dramatically more notice than their tiny overnight Nielsen numbers warrant, Fringe is a media darling and a superstar in the sci-fi blogosphere. Sadly, the buzz doesn’t help grow ratings since anyone who hasn’t joined in by now probably feels it would be fruitless to suddenly start watching.Life expectancy: One season. Had producers stuck to their original plan of mostly close-ended stories with a few mythology breaks each season (think The X-Files), it’s possible Fringe could have held on for several more years. They chose to go down the rabbit hole instead, immediately shortening the show’s life expectancy. Nothing wrong with opting for quality over quantity — but hopefully the fans ready to jump all over Fox for canceling Fringe next fall will instead be grateful the network stuck by a borderline ratings performer for so long.
Headed into season: 8.Most Recent Ratings: 7.7 million, down 11 percent from 8.7 million.Cultural relevancy: Strong, but in flux. Michael Scott’s departure from Dunder Mifflin was one the touchstones of the TV season just past. And a good sign for the show’s future is that ratings didn’t collapse in the couple of weeks after he left; indeed, the Scott-free May finale actually drew higher ratings than last year’s season-ender. (Though, to be fair, this year’s finale was far more star-packed.) There’s also still plenty of online speculation about who’ll be Michael’s replacement. That said, until we see who the new boss is, and how (s)he fits in, there’s no way of predicting how buzzworthy The Office will remain.Life expectancy: Two seasons. We understand the feelings of those who wish the show had ended when Michael left, but we’d argue that the ensemble cast is strong enough to warrant a chance to shine on their own. Plus, The Office is so far ahead of NBC’s other comedies in the ratings, it would have to suffer a complete creative or Nielsen meltdown to fall so far as to warrant cancellation next May. A knockout performance by the New Michael could keep the show alive for three seasons, but two more years seems about right for the show.
Headed into season: 12 for the original recipe, 10 for Miami, and 8 for New York.Most Recent Ratings:CSI (13.6 million, down 14 percent); Miami (12 million, down 5 percent); NY (10.8 million, down 12 percent)Cultural relevancy: Medium. After reinventing the crime procedural for the 21st century, CSI lost its buzz-magnet status around the same time CBS launched a second spinoff of the show in 2004 (the mother ship’s Nielsen high point came that year, when an average of 26.3 million viewers watched each episode). No surprise, considering more than 600 episodes of the three shows have been produced in total; there are only so many ways you can skin a dead body.Life expectancy: There were rumors that either Miami or NY could call it quits this May, but CBS brought back all three shows. While we still think the odds are better than two to one that the upcoming season is the last for either of the two spinoffs, a lot depends on how the Eye’s new crop of fall dramas do in the ratings. Though the network would like to move on from at least one CSI, it can’t do so until it finds a few more drama hits to replace them. As for which goes first, while NY has always been the weakest of the trio (both in ratings and buzz), it’s possible that Miami — which might have a bigger budget because of David Caruso’s star-power salary — might fall first. As for the mother ship, its move off of Thursday to its new 10 p.m. Wednesday home reduces the pressure on it to continue generating big numbers. We’re pretty certain that, three years from now, there’ll still be at least one CSI team on the case — even if it’s one in a totally new city (or maybe planet!).
Photo: CLIFF LIPSON/?2006 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved
Headed into season: 6Most Recent Ratings: 5.4 million, down 19 percent from 6.7 millionCultural relevancy: High. Sure, we’re biased, since Vulture never misses the chance to overanalyze a plot development on this show. But 30 Rock has remained a critical fave, Emmy voters still like it a lot, and Tina Fey is now a movie star and best-selling author whom we’re still lucky enough to have on TV. Plus, anytime Alec Baldwin or Tracy Morgan open their mouths, headlines ensue! The show’s last couple of episodes were kind of … well, odd bordering on WTF. But there’s no sign the show’s always-small fan base is any less loyal.Life expectancy: One season. “Heresy!” you cry. How could we hand down a death sentence to a show still in its prime? Many reasons. First, let’s just state that it’s a small miracle 30 Rock has survived as long as it has; like Community and Parks and Rec, it’s benefited from the fact that NBC’s overall ratings suck as well as the fact that it’s one of the most critically admired shows on TV. The fact that Lorne Michaels produces it and that Fey has become a superstar have also helped. But the combination of Fey plus Michaels (not to mention Alec Baldwin) also make 30 Rock an expensive show, and shows tend to cost more as they get older. It’s unlikely ratings will reverse course and suddenly start climbing, which means NBC is left with a very costly but not high-rated show. Baldwin was smacked down when he suggested the coming season of 30 Rock would be its last, but we think he may prove to be right. Also, Fey once wrote about her conflicted feelings about balancing a second child with her workload. Now that she’s expecting baby No. 2, she may decide that with all of her other options, it’s time to drop the daily TV grind and focus on being a movie star/author. Caveat: If NBC doesn’t find any new comedy hits next season, it may have to beg Fey to keep the show around. But if it gets even a couple of modest successes, the new batch of 30 Rock episodes slated to air next mid-season could well be the last.
Headed into season: 5Most Recent Ratings: 1.6 million viewers, down 24 percent from 2.1 millionCultural relevancy: Waning. While the show’s individual stars grow ever-more popular and buzzworthy, the series itself hasn’t quite kept up, even if its plotting is as juicy and lunatic as ever. There was a time when a Blair/Dan relationship could have torn the fabric of the galaxy asunder, but that time has come and gone. Their once unimaginable romance only lasted a few episodes, anyway.Life expectancy: +1 season. No longer the CW’s No. 1 show (Vampire Diaries holds that honor), it’s also now being beaten by 90210 and Supernatural. The cast would all rather be making movies, while the showrunners are focusing on launching new projects via their nascent Fake Empire production company (including CW newcomer Hart of Dixie). Barring an unexpected brand reboot or another stab at a spinoff, we’re afraid the end is near. XOXO.
Headed into season: 7. Most Recent Ratings: 8.9 million, up 3 percent from 8.6 millionCultural relevancy: Medium. Once Two and a Half Men shifted into repeats during Sheen-pocalpyse, HIMYM stepped up and became the center of the Eye’s Monday comedy lineup (and its ratings increased versus the year before, almost unheard for a show its age). Plus, people are still passionately debating who the damned mother might be and getting very worked up/borderline pissed when the show introduces characters they don’t like (hello, Zoey). Of course, some viewers were so exasperated by said character, it’s possible they may not return next season.Life expectancy: This one’s the easiest of all to predict. CBS just renewed the show for two more seasons. While producer 20th Century Fox TV might be hoping to keep the series on even longer (it makes hundreds of millions off of repeats, so mo’ episodes equal mo’ money), we suspect creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas are actively plotting out a final two-year game plan. We’re also pretty certain there’s not a Brinks truck big enough to keep Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel around longer than two seasons, either.
Headed into season: 13Most Recent Ratings: 8.8 million, down 6 percent from 9.4 million last season (and a high point of 15.2 million viewers during the 2001–02 season)Cultural relevancy: Muddled. Even more so than CSI, the L&O brand — as creator Dick Wolf is so fond of calling it — has come to represent the Generic TV Crime Drama in much the same way Kleenex now represents all tissues. Unfortunately, while it has universal recognition, there’s not much life left in the franchise itself: The original show was canceled in 2010 after twenty years; Criminal Intent is in its final season (after having been dumped by NBC and picked up by USA); and Law & Order: LA was an embarrassing one-year failure. All that’s left now is SVU, which has actually held on bravely and can still generate a bit of buzz with the right ripped-from-the-headlines plot or interesting guest star (as when Debra Messing played a Nancy Grace clone).Life expectancy: One season, barring a massive reboot. The departure of star Christopher Meloni certainly doesn’t bode well, nor does the reduced episode count expected for co-star Mariska Hargitay. But the real bad omen is that longtime showrunner Neal Baer has exited SVU: While Wolf collected the biggest paychecks for SVU, Baer had been the true creative brains behind the spinoff, keeping the show fresh even as the first L&O and Criminal Intent faded away. It’s possible new showrunner Warren Leight (who created the impressive but short-lived Lights Out for FX) could provide a new spark of energy, or that a new cast member could add life to the tired format. But the fact is, while the L&O machine continues to make massive amounts of money for NBCUniversal via omnipresent cable repeats, it’s not a particularly cost-effective part of prime time (thanks, in part, to producer Wolf’s enormous personal payday every time an episode of the show airs). If new NBC boss Bob Greenblatt has a decent amount of success with his new crop of dramas (particularly Prime Suspect), we wouldn’t be totally shocked if he decided to begin the 2012–13 season with no L&O series at all.
Photo: WILL HART/2005 Will Hart
Headed into season: 23Most Recent Ratings: 7.3 million, up 1 percent from 7.2 millionCulture relevancy: Surprisingly solid. Okay, so maybe we’re biased, since we still sometimes break out our “Don’t Have a Cow, Man” T-shirt and get a little misty-eyed just thinking about doing the Bart-Man. But consider: When Elizabeth Taylor passed away, many obits mentioned that she supplied the voice of Maggie. And the Banksy-created open last season set the Internet aflame (we also loved Mark Zuckerberg’s cameo). Can you remember the last time the much younger American Dad generated any attention whatsoever? Plus, with Simpsons sibling Futurama doing gangbusters on Comedy Central, the House that Matt Built remains sturdy. Life expectancy: At least two years, but possibly immortal. Fox keeps introducing new animated shows, perhaps because it’s preparing for the possibility of life after Homer. And yes, viewership is much smaller and we know the show can’t be cheap to produce anymore. But The Simpsons, after two decades — and, as of next year, 500 episodes! — still has more viewers than many comedies on TV, including some Vulture faves such as Community. We can’t imagine Fox won’t at least let the show reach an Oprah-level 25th season milestone. And before pulling the plug altogether, why not consider going cable-style and cutting back to thirteen episodes per year? It would give the writers the chance to make each episode more special and turn every new season into an event. For more takes on TV shows and news, follow Josef Adalian at @tvmojoe.