PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The television network upfront presentations are upon us and it already looks like a bloodbath out there.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement of new lineups and the programming of your primetime activity for much of 2014 and 2015, a whole lot of dead weight was heaved off of the broadcast schedule. Fox did not want to see how much it had to invest in prime-time dramas and dramedies before seeing a return and nixed Almost Human, Surviving Jack, Raising Hope, Rake and Enlisted. Talent shows and multi-camera, lowest-common-denominator sitcoms didn't fare all that well either, with both X Factor and Dads getting the ax. CBS, meanwhile, signaled the end of its highly rated sitcom mainstay Two and a Half Men -- which lost one and a half of its original men some time ago.
The CW finally ended the Sex and The City era by stomping on the tiny Magnolia cupcake that was The Carrie Diaries, but gave post-Twilight vampire culture a boost by picking up The Vampire Diaries again. Meanwhile, mainstays such as CBS' Criminal Minds and The Mentalist, Fox's American Idol and ABC's Nashville had to sweat it out amid falling ratings and tight network budgets as their overlords made their final decisions.
There are some shows on network slates that seem immune to ratings shortfalls, fickle viewing habits, advancing technology and the passage of time, though. No matter how low their fortunes fall and how far out of the cultural zeitgeist they drift, it always seems certain that they'll be back for another season or so.
No, we're not talking about CBS alphabet-soup procedural NCIS. Into its 11th season (12th if you count the episodes of JAG that kicked it off in 2003, NCIS is still drawing 15 million to 20 million viewers a night. It's a cornerstone of not only the CBS lineup, but of network programming in general. It's already been renewed for a 12th season and shows no signs of slowing down.
We're talking about shows that have faded into faint shadows of their former selves. Shows that were once the center of pop culture, but hung around so long after their supernova that all anyone remembers is the black holes they've become. They're the shows you find yourself routinely asking if people are still watching, only to have infinite annual renewals assure you that's the case.
There are more than a few of these humble giants still stumbling around the television landscape. These five are the best examples of shows that have long outlived their greatest contributions to pop culture and the world at large, but still bring in enough viewers and revenue to warrant their continued existence:
Peak viewership: Oct. 11, 1990, 33.6 million viewers
Lowest viewership: April 28, 2014, 3.4 million viewers
The Simpsons movie was released seven years ago. The Simpsons Already Did It episode of South Park aired during that show's sixth season -- 12 years ago. The peak of the show's creative powers ended with Principal Skinner being unmasked as Armin Tamzarian -- 17 years ago.
From Don't Have A Cow, Man '90s T-shirts to Lego tie-ins from an episode a few weeks ago, every marketing dollar has been wrung out of this show as if it was pulled from a Duff Beer tap in the Simpsons section of Universal Studios Orlando. But last month's rock-bottom ratings finally met this show where it's been for a long time.
It was once argued that the show kept going because it was cheap to make and as profitable as a new series. Fox put that to rest back in 2011, when it threatened to cancel the show, cut staff salaries by 30% and noted that The Simpsons could be an even bigger draw in syndication. It went on to prove this point by not only making Simpsons reruns a cornerstone of its the FXX network launched last year, but by not being able to secure the rights to an episode from Season 3 to pay tribute to recently deceased Mrs. Krabappel voice actress Marcia Wallace.
So, all that said, why is this show still on the air and renewed for a 26th season? Because network television is absolutely awful. That 3.4 million audience wasn't good enough to beat HBO's Game of Thrones or AMC's Mad Men, but it put the hurt on episodes of CBS' The Good Wife and ABC's Revenge that aired the same night.
The Simpsons is a known, bankable commodity Fox isn't going to cut loose completely until it becomes a liability. Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, Maggie and their heavily utilized Springfield neighbors are drifting dangerously close to that description, but it looks as if we'll see their third decade end before they're shuffled off to eternal syndication.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
Peak viewership: Nov. 18, 2004, 31.46 million viewers
Lowest viewership: Oct. 9, 2013, 8.82 million viewers
If you haven't watched in a while, let us fill you in: Ted Danson from Cheers and Elisabeth Shue from Adventures In Babysitting are your leads, there are only three characters left from when the show began in 2000 (Stokes, Sidle and Brass) and William Petersen's Gil Grissom hasn't been on the show since 2009.
CSI: Miami and CSI: New York have come and gone, scads of other shows featuring crime scene investigations have followed and multiple law enforcement agencies across the country still wish this series didn't make forensic evidence look like the absolute answer in every potential scenario.
But with an average audience falling from a peak of 26.3 million in 2004-05 to fewer than 12 million a decade later, why was this show cleared for a 15th season so quickly back in March? Because it's really hard to get 10 million or so viewers to watch anything anymore. Your kids are watching videos on YouTube and Vine that you'll likely never see in your lifetime. Even after switching from Wednesdays at 9 p.m. to Thursdays at 10 p.m. back in 2011, it wasn't getting huge competition. Consider that the National Football League's Thursday Night Football -- actual NFL football -- drew an average of 8 million viewers on the NFL Network last season.
On Wednesdays at 10, it crushes other shows. It drew 10 million viewers on May 7. Second-place Chicago P.D. on NBC? 5.4 million. The NBA playoffs on TNT, at their peak, draw 6.2 million viewers on that night.
CSI isn't the beast that it once was, but in a sad midweek tail-end-of-prime-time landscape, it's as good as it gets.
Law & Order SVU
Peak viewership: Nov. 29, 2005, 17.54 million viewers
Lowest viewership: Jan. 15, 2014, 5.44 million viewers
When this show debuted back in 1999, it looked and felt a whole lot like the Law & Order and Homicide: Life On The Street episodes that preceded it. Along the way, showrunner Dick Wolf decided to let it be its own animal and let Mariska Hargitay, Chris Meloni, B.D. Wong, Dann Florek, Ice-T and Richard Belzer's unsinkable John Munch chew up as much scenery as possible, develop their characters and wring as much emotion as they could out of crimes that were already particularly heinous.
It took on its own life, but it also started looking a lot like CSI, Bones and other, techier procedurals that had the benefit of coming onto the scene without all of that '90s baggage. It tranformed into a completely different creature, but one that's more at home in its own skin in its most recent season that it was in its fast-quips-and-unsteady-cam days of the early 2000s.
Surprisingly, it didn't get its 16th season until early May after speculation that it was getting too costly and cumbersome for NBC to bear. Keep in mind, this is the same NBC whose once-vaunted Thursday night lineup put up a scant 2.7 million viewers for Parks & Recreation's season finale in April and managed roughly 4 million for its Parenthood finale that month. Wolf has been trying to tell NBC for years that his Law & Order shows are the closest thing the network's had to a sure thing since the Must-See TV era. On the garbage scow that is NBC's programming schedule, SVU is the surest thing available.
Peak viewership: Feb. 5, 2006, 37.88 million viewers
Lowest viewership: Dec. 5, 2013, 7.02 million viewers
There wasn't so much of a decline to Shonda Rimes' breakthrough show as there were two different incarnations of it.
There are the first four seasons when the show was an absolute mainstream phenomenon that permeated the culture and filled the ether with Isiah Washington's slurs, Patrick Dempsey's McDreaminess and Katherine Heigl and Sandra Oh's film careers. This is before Kate Walsh gets spun off into Private Practice, before Eric Dane becomes McSteamy and well before Rimes gets serious with Scandal.
The reason this show survives is because much of what follows is what die-hard fans consider the good stuff. It's when the show propelled from its post-Super Bowl precipice, took a dramatic fall, dusted off and found some stability. Todd VanDerWerff at the A.V. Club provided a better summary of Grey's history and perseverance last summer than we can offer in this tiny space.
But the fact Grey's Anatomy has never wavered from its basic premise that a medical drama could also serve as a window into interpersonal and -- more importantly -- romantic relationships has won it a loyal following. It dispels the wrongheaded belief that a show primarily about romance can't be taken seriously as a drama and has filled a long-neglected (and still neglected) niche in U.S. television.
It may be fading, but it's a slow fade that could take a while. Dempsey and star Ellen Pompeo have stuck around for all 10 seasons and Sandra Oh is just getting around to leaving. The show itself, meanwhile, continues to put up ratings that fall just short of CBS' Two and A Half Men in their first half hour, but regularly beat that network's Bad Teacher in its second. It's also been regularly outperforming Fox's American Idol it its Thursday timeslot and putting the hurt on Fox's now-canceled Surviving Jack.
Private Practice is gone and Scandal may be Rimes' headline grabber, but Grey's Anatomy's spirit and fanbase remain intact and won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
Peak viewership: Jan. 28, 2001, 45.37 million viewers
Lowest viewership: Feb. 13, 2013, 8.94 million viewers
"We don't do Survivor to attract new viewers. You will never catch me in a conversation going 'Oh, please just check out our show! I promise you'll like it' -- I just say to our team, keep making the show our audience wants."
That's host Jeff Probst talking to Entertainment Weekly in December, just after Survivor was renewed for two more seasons. He's just been sentenced to his 14th year of this game show and will continue to ride immunity idols and plot twists to an enormous legacy fortune for future generations of Probsts.
He's also admitting that Survivor is just about done caring. All it wants to do is put together a decent cast that people will actually watch and reel in the majority of the same people who were watching last season. That's not the headiest goal for a show that was both a cultural phenomenon and the epicenter of the reality television explosion when it first aired in 2000, but then again it was never meant to be the headiest of shows. It was meant to be an inexpensive, lowest-common-denominator ratings grab just slightly more exciting than Regis Philbin and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It never gets enough credit for giving us the wealth of chopper builders, cake sculptors, suburban psychics, duck call makers and shouting shore dwellers that came afterward -- MTV's never-ending The Real World is usually cited as reality TV's spiritual predecessor -- but it made low-grade, lightly scripted drama palatable for the prime-time masses.
By the way, look at that 45 million number again. That is for the premiere of Survivor's second season, and it's a higher-rated show than the series finale of The Cosby Show. Unless you're airing an NFL conference title game or the Super Bowl, you're just not going to see that kind of number. It's the closest thing to universal as you're going to get without ending a beloved series.
Now the show has trouble pulling in 10 million, but it absolutely doesn't matter. The more than 9 million viewers who watch Survivor on Wednesdays now outnumber American Idol watchers by roughly 2 million and more than double the audience of NBC's Revolution. It realizes it's up against absolutely nothing and can just keep playing its big, dumb game.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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