If you’re CBS, End Times—the term TV journalists have adopted for describing the collapse of traditional broadcast viewership and the advertising revenues drawn from it—represents a problem.
CBS’ business model, more than the other broadcast networks, has been built around broad-skewing procedurals, generating large total audiences in live, same-day ratings. The network is then able to sell these procedurals both internationally and into syndication, markets that are looking for content that is proven to draw large audiences.
But in End Times, these types of shows are increasingly rare, and same-day (and Live+3) ratings are declining across the board. However, for some CBS shows, this is not an immediate problem: same-day ratings declines for shows that have already run for multiple seasons and sold into syndication—like Elementary or Hawaii Five-0, for example—are totally fine, since CBS will eventually make money on additional episodes through existing syndication deals on that content even if they earn less from advertising revenue. CBS’ problem, rather, is that it becomes tougher to sell shows into syndication when they’re launching in End Times, and where shows are lucky to be drawing above a 1.5 in the demo (or above a 2.0 in Live+3).
And thus a show like Limitless was caught in a bind. On the one hand, its ratings were not terrible in the context of End Times—new shows with lower demographic ratings are getting picked up by other networks, and its numbers were not dramatically different from other new shows at CBS or the other shows in the 10/9c timeslot. It’s also owned by the studio, which means they would benefit from its long-tail in other markets.
However, on the other hand, creating long-term value for CBS requires the show to be enough of a hit to generate a long-tail market, and those markets have not yet reached the point where they are desperate enough to invest in a first-season show that is very clearly not garnering a broad audience. CBS knows ratings are unlikely to increase in subsequent seasons—it almost never happens—and there is no questioning that the show’s after-market value has been irrevocably damaged, and so CBS would appear to be doing something objectively rational in the context of End Times by canceling Limitless: Deadline reports that it’s unlikely to move forward, and is being “shopped” (although I can’t think of any outlet that would pick up a first season cast-off).
I would be sad about this situation under any circumstance as a fan of the show, as I wrote about at The A.V. Club on a few occasions, but End Times is not the only context here. The other context is what else CBS is picking up instead of Limitless. Among these projects is a MacGyver reboot that was ordered to pilot without a script, went through extensive reshoots, and fired all but two of its cast members and hired a new writer in the process of being picked up to series. The network’s pickups are also expected at this point include Code Black, a freshman medical procedural that CBS co-produces with ABC Studios, and which drew a lower average rating than Limitless. Suddenly, what appeared to be an objective financial decision tied to shifts in the TV marketplace becomes something different: how are two actors and a franchise name worth gambling on compared to a show that grew and evolved over its first season, and how does a co-production beat out an in-house production with higher ratings in an End Times environment where ownership was expected to matter more than ever?
As with any upfronts decisions, we can only speculate on the actual logic operating here, and so I present this more as an analysis of perception than of reality—when CBS talks more about its 2016-17 schedule, it will offer more perspective, whether that’s tied to budgets or production problems or what have you. Additionally, it’s still possible that CBS could end up changing its mind, and then I’ll be happy to say “well, that’s that then!” and forget any of this ever happened. But if things go as expected and CBS chooses Code Black over Limitless, it’s bloody dispiriting, and suggests a clear value judgment in the type of show that CBS wants to be associated with their brand. It would represent a rejection of Limitless‘ quirky sensibility and interest in mythology-based serial storytelling in favor of a medical procedural that, while competent from what I saw, offers only an extremely slight variation on what you can find on multiple other series. And while the rejection of originality would be disappointing in its own right, that CBS would be making this decision despite owning Limitless is a punch in the gut, and a concerning note about CBS’ future.
What I would take from this is simple: if you want to succeed on CBS during End Times, anything you do to threaten your appeal to a broad audience is a risk too great to take. Supergirl—a Warner Bros. production—drew solid ratings on CBS, but the show was always a stretch of the CBS brand, and so it’s being shipped off to The CW (where it had been pitched originally, but passed on) despite drawing stronger ratings than the rest of the network’s new dramas albeit with a high license fee. With Limitless, the show was built as a CBS procedural from the get-go, complete with the now TV-wide standard law enforcement professional/gifted civilian pairing, but it would seem that everything the show did to differentiate itself from the stock procedural—a quirky tone, hyper-stylized elements, development for recurring side characters—and evolve into a better show only made it less likely that CBS would eventually pick it up compared to the down-the-middle Code Black. It had better average ratings, a more advantageous ownership situation, marginally better reviews (and much better reviews later), a comparable social following (Code Black is higher on Facebook, Limitless wins out on Twitter), and yet Limitless still lost out? On a basic level, this means that CBS just plain didn’t like the show it became, which means CBS and I are not on the same page.
That’s fine, of course: CBS has never lost sleep over the fact that critics didn’t care for Two and a Half Men, or that the lower half of the key demo is unlikely to tune into NCIS, and I understand why that is. I have to believe, though, that CBS knows this is a bad time to be sending a message that the CBS brand is becoming more, and not less, rigid. Right now, CBS is preparing for a future where their brand identity will be a crucial factor in their ability to draw subscribers—many of them cordcutters not necessarily in CBS’ core viewership demos—to their nascent All Access service. And the fact is that CBS All Access is actually a solution to CBS’ End Times problem, giving them a space where programs can be more niche, and generate a smaller but more devoted audience, and still bring value (by drawing subscribers and still generating income through international sales). It could allow their broadcast business to focus on broad-skewing procedurals, while also creating a space within the CBS brand for more serialized shows with narrower target demographics—if this was happening a year later, it seems probable they might even move a show like Limitless to the platform.
But while we know the new Star Trek series is coming in January, and reports indicate a spinoff of The Good Wife is forthcoming as part of a plan for multiple original series per year, nothing about CBS’ decision making this pilot season gives me the indication that they are invested in the kind of original storytelling that would give All Access value to make it a good long-term investment as a subscriber. Even as someone who is a huge proponent of broadcast procedurals and the storytelling dynamism therein, the death of Limitless in context of their other decisions would push me away at a time when CBS should be more interested than ever in convincing me and others like me that they are playing the long game with regards to their approach to programming.
Business always trumps creative in the context of broadcast TV. As bankrupt as it is, it’s not shocking that CBS would be so committed to the idea that people are nostalgic for a MacGyver reboot that they would greenlight a show that basically does not exist in any form they like: it’s a known quantity, it’s got CSI favorite George Eads attached, and they want to believe these factors will help it weather the realities of End Times to become a hit on the scale of the now-dead CSI or the still-dominant NCIS. And while I admire their optimism, and actively resist the dismissal of CBS and broadcast TV in general from conversations about great television, the decision-making here is inspiring only pessimism as far as I’m concerned: CBS is sending a message that the best way to survive End Times is to dive deeper into the safe procedural bunker, and that’s not a message that gives me the kind of hope for CBS’ creative future that I very much want to have.