Remember the good old days when networks would swiftly drop the axe on a show's neck, the body would run around for a few hours, and then we'd never hear from the show again? It would be yanked from existence forever? Those days are GONE. Now networks are "trimming orders" instead of throwing shows in the dumpster effective immediately (however, there should be no dispute that these shows are effectively canceled, they just get to hang out a little while longer).
Fox's Minority Report, ABC's Blood & Oil, and NBC's The Player and Truth Be Told have all seen their initial 13-episode orders cut down to 10 episodes (except The Player, which was shortened to nine) rather than scooted off the network to never be heard from again. Are networks nicer? Maybe. But the real answers involve a few more factors.
I have six theories for why we're seeing "trims" instead of lopping the whole head off. Read 'em, and then pick 'em apart or agree wholeheartedly in the comments.
1. Face Saving for Networks
Networks aren't just places to go watch TV shows, they're brands. And image is everything when it comes to creating a successful brand. Do you think NBC wants to admit failure with The Playerand Truth Be Told? Heck no! So why not just say it's "trimming the order" instead of using the C-word? And think about that phrase "trimming"—which I don't know if it originated with the media or the networks—it has such a pleasant ring to it. It's like, "No, we're not sending this show to Hell, we're just giving it a haircut." Or, "All these people who work on this who won't be fired, we're just pruning the show, you know, for its own good." Networks have long used euphemisms for "canceled," such as, "We're still in discussions about the future of the show" and hope the press stops asking questions, trimming and cutting an order are just the latest nice-guy nomenclature.
2. Shows Finish on Their Own Terms
There's something to be said about letting a show get to the finish line on its own terms, and this season, most shows that have had their orders trimmed (Truth Be Told was in production on its tenth episode, but it's a comedy so it can essentially end whenever) will have enough time to whip up a series finale rather than end in the middle of a story. Weren't we all dying to know what happened on We Are Men? The idea of finishing what it started goes back to our first item on the list, in that it looks better for networks to have a complete season in the history books instead of a partial season dangling and staining reputation. But letting a show finish also means big things for items 3 and 4 in the list!
3. The Bridges Remain Unburnt
Before cable started eating away at the market share of television, the big networks had all the power. If you wanted to get into TV production, you had to kiss the asses of CBS, NBC, ABC, etc. But with so many options out there as every single network begins to offer original programming, big names on the creative side of things are finding work and freedom in basic and premium cable. Networks don't know who the next big showrunner will be, so they have to be extra careful with who they kick to the curb. Look at someone like Fargo creator Noah Hawley, who's now hot hot hot and in demand by everyone. He had two shows at ABC—The Unusualsand My Generation—the second of which was canceled after two episodes. You think he's interested in giving ABC and network television another shot? There's a power shift going on between networks and creators simply because networks aren't the only game in town. Playing nice makes more sense for networks now, because you never know who will be worthy of a second chance.
4. Life (and Money) After Death in Streaming
There once was a time when a show got canceled, it was never heard from again. Ask your grandparents or older sister! But now, the internet finely preserves failed series over streaming sources like Amazon, Netflix, and whatever other sites out there come up with funny names and pay exorbitant amounts of money for streaming rights to shows. However, no one buys half a product. You don't go to a car dealership and buy just the left half of a car. Ditto for shows. A series will be more appealing—even if it's just a throw-in as part of a larger deal—if it's a full season. You can bet your butt that Minority Report will show up somewhere online when it's done. But Work It, which was canceled and disappeared after two episodes? NOWHERE TO BE FOUND! And trust me, I've looked far and wide. Networks may as well try to recoup some money from a failure, if it's possible. And let's say another outlet wants to save a show from cancellation (and also pay to have the first season in their library); that won't happen with a partial season.
5. The Bench Is Shallow
TV used to be full of workhorses and almost every series ran standard 22-episode seasons, but shows these day are lazy. We're seeing more and more shows adopting 13-episode seasons to mimic the strategy of cable (Scream Queens, American Crime, Wicked City, etc.) meaning there's more scheduling real estate to occupy. This puts a strain on shows picked up that don't get fall launches and are expected to take over in the midseason as other series finish up their runs. The networks need their Lucifers and their Heartbreakers to fill in the blanks, rather than as backup for shows that fail. We used to have a term for these shows: "mid-season replacement." There really isn't such a thing anymore, as midseason shows aren't replacing fall failures, they're depended on to take up a spot that would already be vacant due to shorter runs of new shows. And networks are ordering less new shows at Upfronts nowadays. In 2014, ABC announced 13 new series for the upcoming season. In 2015, it announced just 10. It's easier to quickly come up with a Boom or a 500 Questions—dumb reality shows that can go into production fast and cheaply—to fill holes.
6. Networks Have Accepted the Grim Realities of Their Futures
Like a single man approaching his 40s and eating Hot Pockets for dinner for the third night in a row, sometimes it's easier for networks to accept that things are just how they are and it's pointless to try harder. This is the new paradigm, and networks understand they're dinosaurs and the chances of getting a huge hit that can float a network are slimmer and slimmer with each day that passes. Yeah, this is a pessimistic view of things, but it's also the truth. You can only throw so much shit at a wall to see if it sticks before you run out of shit and your arm gets tired. More important for networks right now is to try to devise alternate ways of competing with the expanding TV market rather than spending all the money it takes to find the next Empire.
Why do you think networks aren't canceling shows as readily as before?