It's getting down to the wire for "Smallville," "Community" and a slew of other network series stuck in Nielsen purgatory — with just weeks left to go before final verdicts on their fates are handed down.
For shows "on the bubble," these are the times that try showrunners' souls. Every week of ratings data between now and May, when fall schedules are revealed, brings glimmers of hope or new evidence suggesting damnation is near.
"Being on the bubble is incredibly stressful," says "Chuck" co-creator Josh Schwartz, whose NBC series rallied back from the brink after fans rallied behind it.
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"You are living and dying every week. Those moments before the ratings load onto your iPhone your hands are clammy, your vision blurry, your stomach doing flips. And then, since you're on the bubble, inevitably the rating is exactly low enough to guarantee you remain on the bubble, yet not so low as to ensure you are canceled. So that feeling persists for the entire week until the next ratings come in. Rinse and repeat."
This season is perhaps a bit less frustrating than usual for producers and fans of quality TV. A number of hot first- and second-year shows have gotten unusually early renewals: "Glee," "Modern Family," "Parks and Recreation," "Cougar Town," "The Middle," "The Good Wife," "The Cleveland Show" and "NCIS: L.A." are all picked up for fall.
And two other shows with big cult fan bases — Fox's "Fringe" and, yes, Schwartz's "Chuck" — are widely considered to be all but slam-dunks for renewal.
That said, there are still plenty of producers popping Tums as series prepare to wrap for the year.
One wild card: Bubble calls are no longer just about ratings.
"It used to be simple — the ratings suck, we're cancelling it," one network wag told TheWrap. "But now numbers aren't always the primary reason a show is canceled or picked up. There are sales considerations, financial reasons, all sorts of things."
It's still pretty early to make any definitive call on many shows, since networks have yet to premiere a couple of key midseason series that could impact final decisions. In addition, how strong — or weak — a network's new development is can make a big difference in the fate of bubble shows.
With that major caveat, here's TheWrap's best network-by-network guess on how some key bubble shows are likely to fare come May — including the five shows we believe Must. Be. Renewed.
ABCSave This Show!
"V": After a big start and a great pilot, this sci-fi remake lost a big chunk of its audience when creative issues caused a delay in the airing of the second half of its first season. But ABC needs more male-skewing, action-focused hours, particularly with "Lost" about to end. As long as the numbers aren't a disaster when it returns this spring, ABC ought to give "V" at least one more season to find its groove.
Our betting is it will.
"FlashForward": This is a pet project for ABC chief Steve McPherson, and the network thus far has been very patient in dealing with behind-the-scenes creative tension. But despite a massive promo push, viewers seemed to be turned off the by the show's good-one-week, not-so-good-the-next pattern. All signs — including another showrunner shift — point to cancellation, but there's still a chance it could hold on.
"The Forgotten": ABC really wants to be in the Jerry Bruckheimer business. But despite lots of promotions, viewers have largely ignored this. ABC's drama development would have to be very disappointing for this to continue.
"Better Off Ted": Critics love it. Viewers don't get it. ABC has three solid comedies now. You're dead, "Ted."
"The Deep End": Already canceled. It just doesn't know it yet. If it weren't for the Olympics, it would probably be pulled this Friday. Who knows: It still might be.
"Scrubs": ABC will try the never-say-die half-hour at 8 p.m. Wednesday for a few weeks. But despite McPherson's sentimental attachment, the prognosis is very bleak.
CBSSave This Show!
"The New Adventures of Old Christine": It might not have a lot of life left in it, but it's done decent work over the years and deserves to go out in style. However, because CBS doesn't own it, its survival is still 50-50 — and likely hinges on whether CBS has a good comedy development season.
"Numbers": Star David Krumholz just booked a pilot at Fox. It's dead, Jim.
"Cold Case": If "Undercover Boss" does well but "Case" remains flat, "Case" is a goner. But even if the ratings go up a bit, the high price tag on "Case" could make it this year's "Without a Trace" — a solid performer that's simply too expensive to maintain.
"Medium": It's doing fine on Fridays and seems a good bet to return — unless CBS has a really great drama development season and is feeling bold. But with "Numbers" over, launching two new shows on Friday would be very un-CBS.
"Accidentally on Purpose": Only a truly crappy comedy development season for CBS can save this. Since CBS already has new shows in the works from the creators of "The Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother," the odds of that happening are next to nil.
"Gary Unmarried"/"Rules of Engagement": We can barely tell these two apart. Neither show has zero buzz, but they sort of do OK for CBS. Both won't be back; whether either returns depends in part on how ambitious CBS feels about expanding from six to eight comedies.
"Flashpoint": It's on the air, it's off the air — this is merely a time-filler for CBS. If the network needs to fill a hole, or bring down the overall cost of its schedule, it'll return.
FOX Save This Show!
"Fringe": It's done everything Fox has asked for it in a tough Thursday timeslot, improving the 9 p.m. by 12 percent in adults 18-49 and 33 percent overall.
The betting is, it's safe. But just in case, it's worth noting that "Fringe" is well-written, has a fiercely loyal following and is the closest Fox has ever gotten to duplicating the mojo of "The X-Files."
"24": Variety reported this week that the odds favored the end of Jack. That's not illogical given the show's so-so ratings may be hard to justify given how expensive the series is. Still, it's a reliable winter tentpole for Fox, and none of the network's other attempts at action drama have broken out. Our hope is for a Bond scenario: Jack Bauer finally meets his maker this May, but "24" lives on with a new Agent Jack.
"Human Target"/ "Past Life": Too little data just yet, but early returns aren't encouraging. Of the two, we'd bet Fox is happier creatively with "Target."
"Til Death"/"Brothers": Fox has all but said both shows are dead. The only thing that could save "Til Death" is if producer Sony decides to keep it alive for some accounting reasons.
NBCSave This Show!
"Community": With "Chuck" seemingly safe, we're putting our love on Joel McHale's awesome Thursday half-hour. The characters are interesting, the actors great and the series regularly does above a 2 rating, opening NBC's Thursday lineup respectably. Patience pays off for NBC; "Community fits that model.
"Heroes": NBC won't say it, but this show is over. The only question is: Does it get an encore victory lap of four to 10 episodes to say goodbye? It'll come down to economics, specifically whether NBC feels there's enough international and DVD revenue to be generated by a valedictory tour.
"Law & Order": NBC Entertainment chief Angela Bromstad has said she doesn't want to be the exec who denies Dick Wolf the honor of producing the longest-running drama in TV history. Money complicates things, but we're betting the mothership is good for at least one more cruise.
"Chuck": Like we said, it's almost certain to be back. To be safe, though, it couldn't hurt to buy some Subway when the show returns after the Olympics.
"Mercy": Yes, there's a small chance it'll return — especially if it somehow manages to climb above a 2 demo rating and stay there for a few weeks. NBC brass love the creative auspices, but still: If it's renewed, it means the network's new drama development bombed out. The network can — and should — do better.
"Trauma": If this show returns, it means all of NBC's drama pilots bombed out, "The Biggest Loser" suddenly collapsed, and Steve Carell decided to leave "The Office." In other words: D-E-A-D.
CW Save This Show!
"Smallville": Last fall, we predicted it was probably curtains for the Man of Steel. Ratings were ho-hum, the show was expensive — it seemed dire. Fans attacked, telling us we were dumb. Guess what? The fans were right.
Ratings have risen through the season, buzz has been generated with some special episodes. Guess what? We think the CW should (and likely will) bring "Smallville" back.
"Life Unexpected": After a good debut, we haven't heard much bragging from the CW about this gentle drama. Its renewal is hardly a given, particularly given how few hours the network now programs. But the network ought to give the series a chance: Shows like "Life" take time to find an audience.
"Melrose Place": The bitch came back, but not even Heather Locklear could generate interest in this remake. The CW will try once more to find a spark of life, but barring a miracle, it's hard to see a scenario where "MP" returns. A shame, really, because early episodes were actually pretty fun.
(Note: We didn't include unscripted series or shows that have either already been renewed or are clear-cut hits with no chance of cancellation).