Um, Why Did ABC Renew ‘Once Upon a Time’ Without Its Leads?

Fairy tale drama scores a seventh season despite a huge drop in TV ratings and mass cast exodus

ABC isn’t ready to close the book just yet on “Once Upon a Time.” The fairy tale-focused drama series was renewed for Season 7 on Thursday, but the network announced a day later that the latest run would be without almost all of its core cast members. Can the series spin enough gold without them to warrant the pickup?

There’s no question that the new season will look very different to fans, with show mainstays Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, Jared Gilmore and Emilie de Ravin following Jennifer Morrison out the door. Such is the curse of the six-season contract.

The good news: Lana Parrilla (Regina and Evil Queen), Robert Carlyle (Gold and Rumplestiltskin) and Colin O’Donoghue (Captain Hook) are all returning for Season 7 — hope you like Peter Pan!

Even with a full cast, the Sunday series wasn’t particularly popular at this point: “Once Upon a Time” averaged a low 1.5 rating in the key 18-49 demographic — and that modest number includes a week’s worth of delayed viewing. If the Nielsen result doesn’t mean anything to readers, this should: “Once” plummeted 34.8 percent in ratings from last season’s episodic average. That’s not exactly a happily-ever-after ending for the exiting stars.

The “OUAT” demo number was actually one-tenth of a TV ratings point lower than Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing,” which ABC scrapped earlier this week. Not many shows that performed worse than “Once” are actually sticking around for next season, making the 1.5 somewhat of a bubble shows’ Mason-Dixon line this year. In other words, this show must have one hell of a fairy godmother watching over it.

Or perhaps its more like The Lost Boys (and girls — especially the girls) keeping this show afloat.

“Once Upon a Time” skews younger and more female than much of its competition. The veteran series performs comparatively better among adults 18-34, where the show’s 1.2 rating places tucks it just within the Top 15 broadcast dramas. On Sunday night, “OUAT” is the top-rated broadcast drama among millennials, teens, and kids.

“Once,” which sees Andrew J. West (“The Walking Dead”) make his debut on Sunday’s Season 6 finale, certainly won’t be the first series to make a go without a key cast member. Case in point: “Valerie” later became “The Hogan Family” after star Valerie Harper’s departure following Season 1, and “Dukes of Hazzard” briefly had to make due without leads Tom Wopat and John Schneider. And “Once” holds an advantage of having no shortage of Disney-endorsed characters available to introduce.

That said, some “Once” fans appear to still need some convincing that the show can follow in the footsteps of a certain fire-fearing monster and come back to life with newly assembled pieces. Check out a smattering of tweets below.