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?