"The business has gotten more competitive," said CBS Entertainment president B. Donald "Bud" Grant. "Perhaps years ago a network could say, 'We'll live with it until January, and then we'll take it off.' But right now, if we see something's really bad - a distant third in its time period - you have to do something."
As the time frame for cancellation has shortened, the networks have been forced to prepare replacements well before they know what will need replacing. One solution is to develop a wide variety of shows, and this year's crop runs the gamut from crime-fighting fantasy (Outlaws) to ethnic sitcom (The Cavanaughs). Programming executives are paid to make educated guesses as to what shows are likely to drop by the wayside - and to develop successors.
"Every schedule has older players," said Dan Fillie, director of current drama for NBC. "At ABC several years ago, the question was, 'Is this the year Happy Days goes down?'
"In the summer (after the new fall series are announced), development begins again. You take a look at competitive schedules and weigh the risks involved."
"What we try to do is predict where we're going to have problems," Grant said. "We have had problems at the 8 o'clock time period" - and most of CBS' eight midseason shows were developed to play at that hour.
Although ABC came in third in last season's prime-time ratings and has had a preponderance of the lowest-rated series in the first weeks of this season, it has only four standby series in production - possibly because of management cost-consciousness in the wake of the network's takeover by Capital Cities. (Two of those shows, it was announced Friday, will join the regular schedule in early December.)
ABC network president John Sias, installed after January's merger, and ABC Entertainment president Brandon Stoddard said last week that the network was unlikely to cancel any prime-time series before the end of the year because the shows would not have gotten a fair trial before then.
"We go directly from playoffs to World Series into (November) 'sweeps,' which are also loaded with stuff, and to truly get a picture of how these shows are doing is hard," Stoddard said.
NBC has eight series waiting in the wings (nine if you count the unnamed Cosby Show spinoff starring Lisa Bonet, for which only a pilot has been ordered).
As midseason shows proliferate, they are fast losing their image as programs that weren't good enough to make the first cut. Shows such as Moonlighting and Kate & Allie have proven that September start dates aren't a prerequisite for success.
"A lot of times we will save a show we think is a terrific show, but we don't have a time period for it in the fall," Grant said. "Crazy Like a Fox could have been a fall show, but we saved it for midseason."
There are some drawbacks to midseason shows. Networks generally order only six episodes, compared with 13 for most shows that have their debuts in the fall. This means that producers must amortize their fixed costs - sets, for example - over half as many episodes.
Midseason entries also miss out on the publicity blitz surrounding the fall season. On the other hand, they are also less likely to be lost in the crowd.
And so, while it seems that the new television season has only just begun, the low-rated shows on right now had better watch out - there is already a nearly full slate of shows ready to go.