Thursday, September 21, 2017

Renewology: A Look Back at the First Season


A new season is nearly upon us, so it's time to revisit last year's new feature Renewology. This post will be a hopefully candid look back at how it did last year, while there will be another post very soon detailing what is coming up for the new season. Check out the intro to Renewology, explanation of the process, and the daily Renewology posts by network (ABC | CBS | NBC | Fox | CW) which will be heavily referenced below.

The Curve and The Bar

I like to think of Renewology (or anyone else's renew/cancel predictions) as fundamentally a two-step process. You need a renewal "curve," which is the relative standing of the shows. What is the order the network will take in renewing shows? You also need a renewal "bar," which is some idea of how many total shows the network is gonna renew. So it comes down to an "order" of renewals as well as what point on that order the renewals will stop.

For Renewology purposes, the "curve" part of the equation is just the True formula. I've been doing True Power Rankings for many years, which were just lists of relative standings after accounting for timeslot conditions. What was new last year was Renewology: an attempt to quantify the "bar" half of the process, with a model that translates those standings into actual renewal percentages.

So in assessing renewal predictions, there are two kinds of mistakes: "curve" mistakes and "bar" mistakes. A curve mistake comes when a network goes a long way off of the predicted order; they renew a series while cancelling clearly stronger ones, or cancel a series while renewing clearly weaker ones. A bar mistake comes when there are a lot of misses in the same direction because you are far too optimistic or pessimistic about how many total shows the network is going to bring back.

In looking back at the Renewology results, I think the most egregious mistakes can be chalked up to the "bar." There were two or three networks where the model had a really warped sense of how many shows total would be renewed. That's not too surprising, since the "bar" half (Renewology) of this process was brand new and the "curve" half (True) has been getting tweaked and revamped for years.

The rest of this will mostly be a look back at how the networks set their renewal bars in 2016-17, but I do want to highlight a few of the shows that do go down as curve mistakes.
  • Quantico (ABC). Renewology was actually very high on this show early in the season, but perceived it to become much weaker when it got no benefit from huge The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars lead-ins. You can make the argument that the True formula should "know" that Quantico's not gonna benefit, but almost everything I've tried to reduce the effect of lead-ins has hurt the overall performance of True across everything. It seems like the show was renewed for non-ratings reasons; ABC has mentioned in the past that it is lucrative internationally. Despite that, it was still a late decision for a shorter-order midseason berth, so the ratings weakness was not totally irrelevant.
  • Last Man Standing (ABC). 97% misses are never good, but I do think it's worth pointing out that we have a pretty high sample of shows that Renewology put in the upper-90's and this was the only one that got cancelled. So, looking probabilistically across all those shows, it's not  that surprising that one 97%er would get the axe. But this is one where you could actually look at its history (in other words, ABC's very late renewal decisions on the show in the past) and get a good sense that it's less than 97% due to non-ratings reasons. The blame does not rest with the True formula.
  • Chicago Justice (NBC). This is an interesting one because the "raw" R% actually makes it look like a win for the formula; Renewology constantly had Justice very close to the bubble, while most were more optimistic. However, when you combine it with the "renewal bar" miss on NBC, it becomes a bigger issue. In other words, if you had told Renewology that NBC was gonna renew fourteen freakin' series, it would have been much more confident about Justice being one of them. I still think you can make a sensible argument that it was far enough behind the other Chicago series that NBC wanted to avoid over-exposure. The real surprise is less about Justice and more about all the other renewals, as outlined below.
  • The Exorcist (Fox). I kind of expected something out of Fox's lowest drama tier (The Exorcist / Pitch / Sleepy Hollow / APB / Scream Queens) might sneak through, but I'm surprised that it happened while Fox took the axe to the entire next tier up: Rosewood, Shots Fired and 24. It did OK in the DVR ratings so I feel like the True formula is kind of shortchanging this show, but I've had trouble figuring out exactly how. I guess it's just another lesson in thinking probabilistically; when you have a bunch of shows at low R%, add them up and you still come up with a high probability of something getting renewed.
  • iZombie (CW). Not a "curve mistake" per se because there weren't stronger shows ahead of it that got cancelled (other than pre-announced final seasons like The Vampire Diaries). But it is one of the biggest struggles for the True formula because it is so completely unfazed by its big The Flash lead-ins. As I said above, everything I've tried to make this show fit the True formula hurts the formula with too many other shows. And it wasn't really that far below the 50% threshold, it's just that most people knew it was much higher than that. So I'm just crossing my fingers that it doesn't get the huge lead-in again this year.
And now for a more general look at each network...

ABC

Renewology expected ABC to be way more generous than it actually was. The network's final R% added up to over 17 scripted series renewals, but the network only brought back 14 shows. In this case, there is a very clear culprit that we can point to: the unexpected revival of American Idol, which was expected to chew up about 40 hours of real estate in the 2017-18 regular season. Some of that might be offset by the cancellation of the spring Dancing with the Stars, but there's clearly a huge space on Sunday that might have otherwise gone to scripted series.

People often pushed back this summer when I suggested that shows like Last Man Standing, Dr. Ken, The Real O'Neals and The Catch could've been renewed if not for the American Idol pickup. But this was really not about me going to bat for those individual shows. None of them (well, except Last Man) had that much of an argument individually. They would not have been "pretty" renewals. My main point is that the last few renewals are almost never "pretty"! This is the network that has brought back things like Galavant and American Crime, which were bigger reaches than any of these shows would've been.

All this is to say that without American Idol, the 17 renewals prediction probably wouldn't have been that ludicrous. After all, the last two seasons, ABC renewed 17 regular season scripted shows both times, and these numbers have tended to slowly tick up over time on all networks. But in 2016-17, ABC saw a major rollback to 14.

In the short window between the Idol announcement and all the other decisions, it probably would've been pretty sensible to predict that the number of renewals was going down. I didn't do anything because I typically prefer not to change the rules in the middle of the game unless there's a major emergency, but this situation inspired me to come up with a codified rule for these "intervening events" next season. When something like a big talent show is dropped into the scheduling mix, there should be a way to adjust on the fly.

I think that was the bigger lesson here, rather than a fundamental misreading of ABC's "generosity." I expect that their renewal rate will go back up to more like the 2014-15 and 2015-16 versions going forward. And if we somehow find ourselves in a situation where Idol could get cancelled, they may be even more generous to fill that space.

CBS

Probably the biggest win for Renewology was CBS, where a combined 17.9 renewals were expected and 18 were handed out. Sure, it would've been nice to be higher on Madam Secretary and Elementary and lower on 2 Broke Girls and The Great Indoors and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. A few of these decisions happened for clear non-ratings reasons, and none of these shows were really placed in lock territory; from 30% to 75% was a true "bubble" with a lot of shows going in both directions, which is how it should be.

NBC

NBC was the only network that behaved much more generously than Renewology was expecting. As I said earlier, any "win" from being pessimistic on Chicago Justice is more than cancelled out by a slew of sub-50% renewals in Shades of Blue, Taken, Timeless, Trial and Error and Great News.

And unlike ABC and Fox, I really don't have an explanation for this one. NBC clearly went way more generous than its behavior has been historically, and the so-called "outside factors" suggested they could well have been even less generous. NBC is going to be tight for real estate this season. Thanks to the September 25 start date, the regular season will be a week shorter to begin with, and the network is giving 2.5 more weeks over to the Winter Olympics in 2017-18. So NBC is really looking at a 32-week season. I get that a couple of these shows may be summer-bound, but it really needed to renew four more scripted shows than last year, and six more than two years ago??? Unless someone's got a really good explanation, I'm going to assume this is at least somewhat anomalous. The network has been really indecisive in general across the entire process, from the late decisions on Justice / Trial and Error to reversing course on Timeless to flipping This Is Us back to Tuesday to bumping Taken to midseason. This does not really signal that they are gung-ho about all this.

My guess for 2017-18 would be NBC's that generosity will fade a bit vs. last year, but still rest ahead of previous seasons (because everyone's generosity seems to be slowly upticking over the long term). Taking into account these wildly different levels historically, hopefully we shall find a happy medium. Perhaps it's inevitable that one network will just go crazy every year for inexplicable reasons.

Fox

This was the same story as ABC, except even worse. The network's R% added up to 18 renewals, and only 13 happened. Pretty embarrassing. In this case, it was clear that the formula was way out of hand even going into my upfront previews, and so I offered an alternative version of R% in which the targets were dialed up. But in the end, it turned out the targets should've been dialed up about twice as much as I was doing even at that time.

There were reasons I gave in that preview which were legit: Fox is bringing in some things for 2017-18 that weren't accounted for in the 2016-17 landscape, like The X-Files and extra episodes of Lucifer and Lethal Weapon. But the formula was also tripped up much more by American Idol's departure than I realized. Much like with ABC, this is because the formula has focused on renewal rates rather than renewal raw numbers. And seismic events like adding or subtracting Idol really mess with the renewal rates.

In looking back at the 2015-16 season, it was a year in which Fox had American Idol on the sked but also had to renew scripted series in anticipation of a world without Idol. The network renewed 14 of its 20 scripted series in 2015-16, up by four year-to-year, and this made the Renewology model perceive Fox to be very generous in that season. Then came 2016-17, with the subsequent uptick in scripted volume. The network now had 24 scripted series. But instead of expecting roughly the same number of renewals, the model instead expects roughly the same rate of renewal. With a lot more shows, that means a lot more renewals. But Fox didn't need a lot more renewals. They already renewed the "right" number of shows for this landscape last year. And in the end, they actually renewed one less. Derp.

Getting "fooled" by the Idol cancellation season was worth about a tenth, and we will make up for that by listing Fox's network generosity at a harsher level for 2017-18. With ABC and NBC, I have some reason to ride it out into 2017-18 and hope they revert to their old behaviors, but the Fox situation was egregious enough to actually change. I think the other factors I mentioned in previewing the upfronts may have been worth close to a tenth. Sprinkle in maybe a touch of actual irregularly harsh behavior from Fox and you get there. Clearly it was way off to list them all as heavy favorites, but I still find it a bit surprising that nothing out of the 24 / Shots Fired / Rosewood group pulled through.

CW

This was the network I would consider a second win, simply because it is pretty tricky to work around their very generous historical record. When the network has a history of renewing almost everything, it is easy to just assume they will continue to do that; some other predictors were more hesitant in the early weeks of clear bombs No Tomorrow and Frequency. Renewology certainly took into account that generosity, but also posited there was a ratings level that was beyond the pale. It was down on Frequency and No Tomorrow early on, and it was right, but it was also generous enough to show heavy confidence in renewals like The 100 and The Originals. Maybe one of those shows was very close to going the other way and we'd be having a different discussion, but I'll take the wins where I can. And the adjustment for production studio helped drag Crazy Ex-Girlfriend over the 50% threshold for most of the way, despite terrible ratings.

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