How do they decide which TV shows to air?

Claire Danes in My So Called Life
How do they decide which shows to air? Many "My So-Called Life" fans would probably still like to know.
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

In 1995, ABC announced that it might cancel its little watched but wildly beloved television series "My So-Called Life." Fans immediately launched an online campaign to save the show. They cited star Claire Danes' Golden Globe win, writer Winnie Holzman's Emmy nod and the show's near-universal critical acclaim as reasons the network should, at the very least, renew the show for another season. In spite of fans' best efforts, however, ABC ended up cancelling the show, crushing the hopes of a generation of Jordan Catalano worshippers. Why would they do such a thing? Was it just about the money?

Yes and no. When deciding which shows to air, networks ask themselves: Will this program attract sufficient Nielsen ratings? Will it appeal to advertisers' target demographics (viewers ages 18 to 49)? Does the network own the show? (Licensing content from a studio is more expensive than producing content in-house.) Might the show bring in alternate, non-advertiser dependent sources of income, such as streaming contracts, international sales or product placements? How expensive is it to produce the show? (Shows like "Grey's Anatomy" that have aired for several seasons tend to have higher salary and production costs.) All of these factors affect a show's profitability and impact a network's decision about whether or not to air it [source: Pennington].


In addition to a show's bottom line, however, networks also consider how the show fits into their overall schedule. In 2013, CBS cancelled two of its top-rated shows, "Vegas" and "CSI: NY," because, as CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler put it, "They just didn't fit into the schedule and what we were trying to do" [source: Consoli]. In this regard broadcast networks like ABC, CBS and NBC — which have only a limited number of prime time slots available — must make harder choices than cable networks like A&E or Bravo, which have more flexibility.

Increasingly, broadcast and cable networks are also facing competition from digital outlets like Netflix. Digital networks are producing top-quality content like "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black," and they're doing it without relying upon advertising revenue. As more and more viewers cut the cord on cable and rely upon streaming devices like Roku and Apple TV for their television content, some are asking if traditional broadcast and cable network models are sustainable. While the television industry sorts it out, viewers are enjoying more choices than ever. "My So-Called Life" and countless other cancelled shows live on through Netflix, YouTube and other digital television alternatives.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bellafonte, Ginia. "A Teenager in Love (So Called)." The New York Times. Oct. 27, 2007. (Nov. 23, 2014)
  • Consoli, John. "Why CBS Cancelled Two of the Most Watched Series on Television." Broadcasting & Cable. May 22, 2013. (Nov. 23, 2014)
  • Luckerson, Victor. "Nielson Ratings Could Become a Major Headache for Netflix." Time Magazine. Nov. 19, 2014 (Nov. 23, 2014)
  • "My So-Called Life." Internet Movie Database. (Nov. 23, 2014)
  • Obias, Rudy. "19 Things You Might Not Know About 'My So-Called Life'." Mental Floss. (Nov. 23, 2014)
  • Pennington, Gail. "Series Showdown: How networks decide which TV shows make the cut." April 11, 2011. (Nov. 23, 2014)