What does ABC’s cancellation of Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone mean for network TV?

TV Reviews Pushing Daisies

The fact that I hadn’t ever really seen anything like Pushing Daisies should have been my first clue it was headed toward the graveyard. In this day and age—where crime shows, hospital dramas and reality TV dominate the Nielsen’s top tier—there isn’t much room on network television for anything outside of the status quo. Pushing Daisies was just too inventive, too ingenious,and just too damn cute to survive in these turbulent TV times. So it goes.

Even though it was admittedly inevitable, the news ABC had canceled Pushing Daisies still hurt. What had started so promisingly (13 million viewers for its “Pie-lette”) swiftly became embarrassing (a mere 4.9 million viewers for its latest episode, “Oh Oh Oh… It’s Magic”). The fact ABC axed Daisies was expected, but its companions at the guillotine perhaps less so: Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone. I can’t remember the last time a major network canceled shows as critically respected as these in one fell swoop. Yes, I know ratings and the bottom line always prevail, but Pushing Daisies was that rare critical darling that only comes around every so often (it placed at #7 on Paste’s top shows of 2008). Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone were not as beloved, but certainly no slouches either. Money, in particular, seemed to have won critics and fans over with its unabashedly over-the-top second season.

It’s funny how quickly networks can rise and fall. The mid-’90s and early ’00s were NBC’s stomping grounds, anchored by its “Must-See TV” heavy hitters Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, ER and Will & Grace. NBC is now dead-last among the four major networks, behind even Fox. (Quick: name three shows on Fox in 10 seconds. Can you do it?) Despite the substantial popularity and critical acclaim of The Office and 30 Rock, neither are even TV’s most-watched comedy. That title belongs to CBS’ Two and a Half Men. In fact, CBS is home to five of the 10 most watched comedies amongst audiences under 50 and the network is the current market leader in overall ratings. That may be the most depressing fact of all. Almost every single show currently on CBS can be grouped into one of four categories:

1. Crime-themed shows: 10 (CSI, CSI: New York, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, NCIS, The Mentalist, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, Numbers, Eleventh Hour)

2. Traditional sitcoms: 6 (Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, The New Adventures of Old Christine, The Big Bang Theory, Gary Unmarried, Worst Week). Side note: all but the single-cam comedy Worst Week have a laugh track/studio audience.

3. Reality shows: 2 (The Amazing Race and Survivor)

4. Other: 3 (The Unit and Ghost Whisperer, both this close to crime shows, and the now-canceled The Ex-List)

Now, I’m not analyzing the quality of these shows. They have their virtues and people watch them for a reason (I’ve been particularly meaning to start How I Met Your Mother.) I also realize it’s a bit unfair to pigeonhole them. To that end, Pushing Daisies could be considered a crime show too. The point is, the similarity and familiarity of CBS’ programming cannot be denied. There is nothing as creative as Pushing Daisies, as ambitious as Lost, or as off-the-cuff as 30 Rock. If emulating the CBS lineup is where ABC, NBC or Fox are headed, network television is in serious trouble. But then, we already knew that.

We’ve seen the rise in prominence of cable and premium TV channels. HBO, Showtime, USA, Bravo, Sci-Fi, TNT, AMC and more have all paved the way for the future of television, fostering quality, creative entertainment in the process. AMC’s Mad Men, in particular, is a terrific example of the lengths a network can go to promote a show, and the rewards it can reap as well. After HBO and Showtime passed on Sopranos writer/producer Matthew Weiner’s 1960s ad-agency drama, AMC—a newcomer to series television—took a gamble on it. They promoted the heck out of the show, and have seen their efforts handsomely rewarded with Golden Globes, Emmys, critics top 10 lists (including ours) and even a Saturday Night Live spoof. The fact the show is on AMC and still nets one-to-two million viewers an episode is an impressive achievement.

To put it in perspective, ABC’s trio of now canceled shows have averaged around six million viewers in their second seasons—three to four times as much as Mad Men. Granted, six million on network TV is anemic. But still. If AMC can afford promote a show that costs over two million dollars per episode, then the Disney-operated ABC should be able to do the same. After all, it wasn’t too long ago ABC seemed poised to be the market leader in both ratings and creativity. Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and Dancing with the Stars all debuted with massive hype and high ratings in relative succession, catapulting the once also-ran network into a force to be reckoned with. Yet outside of Dancing with the Stars, each of these shows has since faced some sort of creative trouble or behind-the-scenes controversy. Likewise, ABC seems caught in an identity crisis. How do you make heads or tails of a network that axes Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone but spares the atrocious and equally low-rated Private Practice?

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