Gary Levin, USA TODAY
Six jokey pals in various couplings is a formula that worked pretty well for Friends, but for Happy Endings it's been tougher sledding.
In its third season, the show is averaging just 4.6 million viewers, hasn't aired for more than three weeks in a row and returned Friday after a two-month break, backed by a bizarre ABC ad campaign that asks fans to "save" the sitcom by watching it.
"I've never really seen the person who is in charge of saving a show making a promo to plead for saving a show," says creator David Caspe. "In some ways, it's kind of genius."
It also reflects the newfound proselytizing power of social media, where a loyal cadre of fans has kept up the chatter and kept the series alive. "Our ratings have been slow, and without them we wouldn't be here; they've been able to keep us afloat," says star Elisha Cuthbert, best known as Jack Bauer's daughter on 24.
VOTE: Save our Shows survey
She even joined Twitter two months ago, "something I was adamant about not doing" for fear she'd be "slaughtered by comments." She quickly amassed 20,000 followers (@HappyElishas). "Fans go, 'We miss you on 24,' and they had no clue we are doing this comedy thing."
That's why networks are looking for a happier ending to this laugh-free TV season.
As USA TODAY'S 16th Annual Save Our Shows survey opens, 9 of 13 bubble shows on the Big 4 networks - and 9 of 16 overall - are comedies. Some of them are as low-rated as several new dramas that won't get the chance for another season.
Which of the 16 should come back? Cast your ballots for those you'd like to keep (and those you'd like to ditch) by taking our survey at saveourshows.usatoday.com. Then tweet your picks and rally your pals with #saveourshows.
Last year, CBS' 2 Broke Girls and Fox's New Girl were new comedy hits, but ratings for both shows have tapered off, and no popular new comedies have surfaced since.
The future of Happy Endings (Fridays, 8 ET/PT) has less to do with its spring ratings than the fate of three potential companions,other adult comedies now shooting pilot episodes. If ABC decides to pick up any of those new shows for next season, the network might need to pair it with an established companion such as Endings on a new night.
"We love the show," says ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee. "It's got a passionate fan base, and we'd like to see it return, but we really don't know yet."
'NEEDS TIME TO GROW'
This year's endangered list also includes four NBC comedies -The New Normal, Community, Go On and Whitney - with recent ratings so low that cancellation would have been assured in years past.
But that network's woes have lowered the bar for renewal and made programmers think twice about casting off series when success for replacements is far from guaranteed. CBS has three dramas on the list, including CSI: New York (which might follow its Miami sibling off the schedule), and freshmen Vegas and Golden Boy. And for the first time, one network-Fox-has no shows on the bubble, after renewing winter hit The Following and three of four Tuesday comedies.
"Comedy needs time to grow, so you have to stick with them," says Fox chief operating officer Joe Earley. And viewers are often unwilling to invest time in a series they don't think will stick around to offer a satisfying conclusion. "When they're not really sure about the status of a show or what's safe to keep watching, it creates viewer confusion," he says.
Three more shows - NBC's Hannibal and ABC's How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), due this week, and Family Tools, coming May 1 - are arriving too late to be included in the poll. CBS' Criminal Minds and Two and a Half Men both appear on the renewed list, but both are pending renegotiation with cast members, which almost always pans out.
Same-day ratings are an important measure of a show's health, but are no longer the only way to judge longevity. Networks are paid based on commercial viewing up to three days later. But they also look at delayed viewing on DVRs up to a week after a show airs, viewing on demand and mobile apps, both of which carry ads.
"We're looking at all aspects" of a show's performance, says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. Those include creative strength, cost, the production team and ratings performance, with an eye to judging "what we actually believe in (and) what we have a shot to rebuild."
While that formula hasn't changed much, social-media buzz has been factored in, and could make the difference in comparing two otherwise similar shows. "It must count for something in a world where everything's failing," she says. "If we have a certain amount of people loyal to one show, that's worth something."
All things being equal, a show with a vocal fan base is "probably going to last longer" than a similarly rated one without, ABC's Lee says. "Social buzz is difficult to monetize to our advertisers, but incredibly important because it drives people back to our original platform."
FAN SUPPORT CAN HELP
CW's target audience of adults ages 18 to 34 is especially prone to watching on its own schedule, making simple ratings analysis trickier. The network "saw its decline in broadcast ratings happen quicker than most, so we began looking at what was the show's total impact," says president Mark Pedowitz.
Gossip Girl lasted six seasons despite anemic Monday ratings because "DVR and digital (viewership) was far outstripping what it was doing on air," he says. Beauty and the Beast may benefit by its ownership: CBS produces the show, while CBS' CW partner Warner Bros. is the lead studio behind returning top shows such as Arrow and The Vampire Diaries.
Some shows that face potential cancellation write their own happy endings, just in case. But not Happy Endings.
"We put no thought in it, because I don't want to think that way," says the hopeful Caspe of his first TV series, which has been endangered even before ABC moved it out of its cushy post-Modern Family slot last spring.
Among the cast, he says, "People always feel like we're the underdog and we'll punch our way out of it. But I get it; we've got to get some ratings if we're going to stay on."