Freshman series have the lowest chance of renewal at Hulu and Showtime, an analysis by TheWrap reveals
Two months into 2023 and almost three years into a TV landscape upturned by the pandemic, it’s impossible not to notice the sudden rush of shows getting axed after their first or second seasons.
Streamers and networks alike seem to have gotten ruthless, sometimes even reversing decisions to renew a series. That happened at least five times across the last two years, giving show creators and fans alike jitters.
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At this point, you might wonder: Where is the safest place for a new show? Is there even a safe place for a new show? Well, we decided to crunch some numbers and find out. We found that freshman shows have the lowest chance of being renewed among the streamers at Hulu and for cable/broadcast it’s Showtime. And the best chance of a streaming series making it to a second season is with, surprise, HBO Max. The safest broadcast and cable network for new shows is a bit less clearcut.
Representatives for Hulu and Showtime didn’t immediately return TheWrap’s request for comment on the data.
The “where” of cancellations can be found, but the exact “why” isn’t as easy to pin down. There are always unforgiving ratings and the more opaque metrics of streamers as reasons. There are corporate strategy shifts and mergers. Management changes, too, can bring disfavor on the previous regime’s projects.
But the bottom line is that it’s hard to fall in love with a new TV show anymore. And that’s not because there aren’t good stories being put out. There are plenty. According to FX Research, there were a record 599 adult scripted original series across broadcast, cable and streaming services in 2022 alone.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean they’re all A+ stories, but at the very least, viewers had plenty to choose from. No, the struggle today isn’t finding something to love, but rather, letting yourself get too attached to what you do find.
Crunching the cancellation numbers a.k.a. our methodology
In 2021 and 2022 combined, some 662 new scripted series premiered across 24 networks and streamers, according to TheWrap’s count. Of those 662, about 15% were canceled after their freshman season.
Now, with more new shows come more possible cancellation decisions, so to keep things fair, we focused on the percentage of freshman shows cancelled rather than the absolute number of cancellations for a particular outlet.
Many shows, we concluded, got “ghost-canceled” — a fate in which they were effectively scrapped but no decision was officially announced. Those were counted in the total number of shows but not in the percentage of renewals or cancellations.
TV’s safe spaces
The good news is, in 2021 and 2022, we counted 270 freshman shows that did get renewed. Where was the safest place to be after that time?
Based on our raw data, it works out that BET+ is the safest streamer, having cancelled none of its new shows in the timeframe, and renewing 83%. (As of this report, only one of its new titles hadn’t been publicly announced to be cancelled or renewed.)
That said, there were only six new shows to renew with BET+, which is a slim catalog for most streamers. Along with a small library, it also isn’t on the same scale of subscribers as the giants. So, while it can be commended for giving its original titles a shot, it’s relative safety isn’t as notable for content creators.
Looking at a bigger scale, we found that HBO Max, even with the Warner Bros. Discovery merger, was the most secure place for a new show among the mainstream platforms in 2021 and 2022. In all, it canceled 22% of its new shows, which is much higher than somewhere like Disney+ or Apple TV+, but renewed 78% of its new series.
Warner placed higher on our list for renewals in part because it left no shows awaiting a decision. By comparison, Disney+ and Apple TV+, which formally canceled 4% and 5% of their freshman series, respectively, had seven and 16 shows, respectively, still awaiting an announcement.
Across cable and broadcast networks, FX initially appeared as the safest place to be, but it only had one show to renew or cancel, and underwent an overhaul of its scripted programming approach.
Looking at those with more shows to pick from, a close second and third are Starz and HBO, which we examined separately from HBO Max. Both cablers renewed 75% of their new shows, with 12 and eight titles, respectively.
Of course, knowing the safest spots for shows, it’s important to look at the other side of that coin.
The worst offender isn’t who you think
Netflix’s practice of cancelling shows early in their runs has won it few fans among devoted viewers. But TheWrap’s analysis found that Netflix was one of the least likely, percentage-wise, to formally cancel a freshman show.
According to the data, Netflix falls squarely in the middle of the streamers pack here, having only cancelled roughly 11% of their new shows in 2021 and 2022. But, what about those ghost cancellations we mentioned above? Netflix is one of the biggest offenders. Were you to count shows left in streaming limbo, Netflix’s cancellation rate would be considerably higher.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg’s Screentime newsletter, newly installed co-CEOs Ted Sarandos and Greg Peters argued that the company has “never canceled a successful show.” And that seems to be supported by the fact that, of 302 new titles that we counted across 2021 and 2022, only 32 got publicly cancelled.
But a good chunk of others never got an official axe, so we couldn’t say with certainty if they were cancelled or retroactively decided to be a limited series. It’s also worth noting that, of the shows that did get a second season in 2021 — we counted 27% of Netflix’s series getting officially renewed — many didn’t snag a third season renewal in 2022.
Now, looking at the larger picture of shows that got definitive answers, it appears that Hulu is actually the least safe streamer for a new scripted series. It cancelled roughly 32% of new shows in 2021 and 2022.
The next riskiest streamers came in well below Hulu in terms of first-season cancellations. In second was Paramount+, which canceled 24% of its new shows during the timeframe, followed by HBO Max at roughly 22%.
Corporate changes can lead to cancellations
That said, Hulu wasn’t actually the scariest place for new shows overall. The top spot across cable and broadcast went to TBS for cancelling its solitary new show in the timeframe studied, Nasim Pedrad’s “Chad.”
That seemed a bit inevitable though, considering TBS as a network paused its scripted programming entirely last year. “Chad” was originally renewed for a second season before that decision, and it went on to get saved by the Roku Channel.
Every Renewed and Canceled TV Show in 2023
Behind TBS was Showtime, which cancelled 55.5% of its new shows in 2021 and 2022. The network had, by TheWrap’s count, nine new shows in total, which put it on par with Fox, ABC and the CW. Showtime is now effectively being folded into Paramount+’s premium tier, and Paramount plans to take a big write-down this year related to discontinued content, layoffs and other cost savings.
There’s also a significant caveat to the CW’s presence on this list: In January 2022, the network went up for sale. By the fall, Nexstar had acquired a 75% stake in it from co-owners CBS and Warner Bros. In October, industry insiders and analysts told TheWrap that Nexstar would seek to “completely reimagine” the network, which previously had served as an outlet for its studio parents’ television production arms — most often its shows targeting a younger-skewing demo.
That wound up meaning the end even for staples of the CW, including veteran hits like “Riverdale” and “The Flash,” which are both set to air their series finales this year. So, more than anything, most of these cancellations — some 40% of the CW’s new shows — were likely just cleaning house for whatever future the network has.
It’s also necessary to point out that cancellations often do come as a pure ratings decision. Over at ABC, which cancelled 44% of their new shows, both “Queens” and “Promised Land” — among the shows that only got one season on the network — averaged season ratings of 0.28 and 0.19 in the coveted 18-49 demographic, respectively.
In the end, “Promised Land” only aired on ABC in part; the back half of its episodes were moved to Hulu to finish out its first and only season. While ABC didn’t formally cancel it, that movement is a technique many networks have used for offloading ill-faring shows (NBC did the same for “Sunnyside” during the pandemic).
By comparison, “Rebel” and “Call Your Mother,” also both scrapped after one season, averaged a 0.4 and 0.37 respectively in the same demo. They actually outperformed both “For Life” and “Mixed-ish,” which were two of ABC’s existing shows in the timeframe that also got cancelled.