When is the Right Time to Pull the Plug on a Long-Running Show?

In the real world, the answer to this question is, “As long as the show’s pulling a big enough audience to make money, it stays.” But in a more perfect world the scenario might play out another way:

tv-network-scheduling-sweepsby Elizabeth Wagmeister

With the broadcast upfronts around the corner, the major networks are tasked with making crucial decisions regarding the fate of series new and old for the 2015-16 season.

Given the massive increase in the volume of primetime television shows, it’s tougher to decide whether to stick with reliable long-running programs or take a gamble on something new that could become a binge-worthy hit. Since viewers have more choices, networks may be less inclined to stick with older shows just for the sake of stability.

“In the platinum age of quality and choice, broadcasters have to be more aggressive about letting go of the past,” said producer and former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.

But viewers aren’t the only ones distracted by so many options. Actors are demonstrating a new willingness to bow out of successful series. Showrunners, in order to better shape a program’s long-term storytelling arc, also have been more proactive in setting limits on the number of seasons a series will run. Of course, that kind of planning is still a luxury in an environment where the failure rate remains above 80% for all new entrants.

“Grey’s Anatomy,” now in its 11th season, lost lead Patrick Dempsey, whose Dr. Derek Shepherd — better known as McDreamy — was killed on the April 23 episode of Shonda Rhimes’ medical drama. Before his sendoff, Dempsey had publicly spoken about leaving the show. ABC is sure to renew the sudser, which drew 11.6 million viewers this season, though Dempsey’s departure will necessitate new storylines and probably new characters to fill the void. “The possibilities for what may come are endless,” Rhimes said.

The trend of showrunners to limit a program’s life stems in part from the growth of serialized drama, which puts a premium on pacing and plotting the climax of major storylines. ABC’s “Lost” was a forerunner by necessity, given its intricate mythology.

Others are concerned about quality control in general. Lena Dunham, creator and star of “Girls,” has talked with HBO about completing six seasons of the half-hour dramedy. But she’s not certain she’ll go beyond that.

“I think America has a tendency to push shows past their due dates,” Dunham told Variety.

“Lost” alum Carlton Cuse recently revealed he doesn’t intend on continuing his FX horror series “The Strain” more than five seasons. Another HBO hit, “Game of Thrones,” may also be soon approaching its final days, despite its place as a pop-culture phenomenon and ratings juggernaut.

Read it all at Variety