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How to tell if a TV show is really canceled

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A To Z 02

Rashida Jones took to Twitter to spread the word: The actress-producer’s comedy A to Z isn’t really canceled.

Yet many outlets have reported the NBC show, along with its time slot companion Bad Judge, as axed—even though there are still more episodes of each left to air. Deadline’s headline said “canceled.” THR, Variety and EW hedged just slightly with “to end,”ending” and “to cancel,” respectively.

So what’s the truth about A to Z? And, more broadly: How can you tell if any canceled show is actually canceled?

Any reporter who covers TV will tell you that no show is ever canceled if you listen to what the networks actually say. The “c word” is almost never used. What you hear are various degrees of damning status updates that are then interpreted by the show’s producers, cast and the media to mean “canceled.” It’s like when you’re dating somebody who wants to let you down really easily, and you’re sitting there staring at a text message trying figure out if “let’s take a little break” really means you just got dumped (it does).

In the case of A to Z and Bad Judge, the word that came down the pipe is there will be no more episodes ordered beyond the 13 that the network previously commissioned for each. For a freshman comedy, that decision typically equals canceled. But production will continue on the final couple episodes ordered for each, and those remaining episodes will all air. This is a little unusual, because there are eight weeks of both shows left.

The clearest and most fatal cancellation mechanism comes when a show’s cast and crew are released from their contracts. NBC hasn’t done that for these two comedies. But since they’re both still in production, it’s still too early to pull that trigger anyway.

In EW’s story, I noted that since both will still be on the air, there’s always the chance that ratings could go up and NBC could change its mind. It’s like in The Princess Bride: There’s dead, and there’s mostly dead. A to Z is mostly dead. NBC has signaled its intention “to cancel” the series by deciding against picking up the rest of the season. But it’s still on the air, so … things can happen. They just very rarely do.

So far this season, ABC has outright canceled Manhattan Love Story and Fox has axed Utopia. Both shows have stopped production and have been removed from the schedule.

Fox’s Mulaney exists in the mostly dead zone of A to Z, though its big status update a few weeks back was less dire than that of the NBC shows last week. The Sunday comedy didn’t get pegged with the c-word: Fox reduced its initial order from a weird-in-the-first-place 16 episodes to the standard 13 episodes, and network sources took pains to say the show was not canceled. Plus, Mulaney had only been on the air a couple weeks at the time and its ratings weren’t too terrible yet (though they are now). Since shows sometime survive reduced episode orders, Mulaney wasn’t deemed the first official axed show even though nobody really expects it to live beyond this season.

And then there’s CBS’s The Mentalist. CBS is firmly ending the show after seven seasons. When shows get this old, reporters often avoid the harsh c-word out of being polite—it’s like a show is retiring with a full syndicated pension rather than being rudely fired. Yet one could say The Mentalist is not necessarily canceled either, since it’s always possible a long-running crime show could get picked up by another network.

One reason the media is confident that A to Z will have that last death rattle is its most recent rating: 2.6 million viewers and a 0.7 rating. That’s bad. The show’s rating would have to (A) reverse their current downward trend before (B) doubling at least.  

The shows that tend to pull off resurrections are ones that usually run for at least a full season—like how fans convinced CBS to un-cancel Jericho. A network firing a shotgun into a freshman show in the fall is usually a fatal wound. A few years back, NBC “canceled” medical drama Trauma, then surprised everybody by ordering a few more episodes, then decided to ultimately kill it again.

Which isn’t to say shows can’t grow. Sometimes they do. It’s just so very tough, especially headed into the holiday season when viewing levels decrease. Would it be great if A to Z became a shining example of how a show can change its fate? Absolutely. Will it? Well… we’ll see.

But before we go, let’s fulfill the promise of this post’s headline: How can you tell if a show is really truly canceled? Answer: You can’t. Not with absolute certainty. In today’s wild media-verse, with all the various ways of keeping content alive—like NBC’s Community being saved by Yahoo, or NBC’s Last Comic Standing being brought back after multiple years off the air—you can’t be sure a show will be gone forever. But the general rule of thumb for 99 percent of cases is that if the show is pulled off the air, production is shut down and lead actors start booking other TV jobs… you can bet the title isn’t coming back.

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