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Exclusive: Despite rumors, Ugly Betty's fate likely not decided until May

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February 11th, 2009

Ugly Betty

Ok, I'm totally kidding about the exclusive, but the use of "exclusive" on some sites is humorous. Here was the actual headline from Michael Ausiello's piece:

Exclusive: Ugly Betty Lives!

Here's the key sentence:

ABC is on the verge of renewing Ugly Betty for a fourth season, sources confirm to me exclusively.

The above emphasis is mine. A lot of things can happen when something is on the verge. Quite often things that were on the verge of happening don't actually happen! Let me be clear, I don't doubt in any fashion that Mr. Auisello's sources have confirmed to him that absolutely nothing is happening yet, but that things are trending in the direction of a positive outcome for Ugly Betty.

There's zero risk to Ausiello or his sources if it goes the other way, some upside for both Ausiello and his sources in the short-term and if it turns out to be correct, great. If it turns out wrong, he'll have moved on to the next thing by then and nobody will care. The same thing quite often happens with stock market analysts!

Anyway...

We got a few comments about Ausiello's post and I got a couple of e-mails today asking if it was true. Is it true that Ugly Betty will be renewed? My best guess is ABC won't make any official announcement until May. I don't see any upside for ABC making the decision well before then. There are several reasons for this.

First, Ugly Betty is a show "on the bubble". It performs worse than ABC's overall average among 18-49 year olds, and it's the worst performing scripted show ABC has that isn't either already cancelled or in its final season. So from an ABC perspective, its numbers are bad - but not so bad that looking at them makes you wince.

The last couple of weeks of Life on Mars have been so bad, that as Bill would say, when you see them you're forced to look away. It's still faring better than Ugly Betty in our cancellation index, but its trend is very bad and could sink below Ugly Betty before all is said and done. But that doesn't mean Ugly Betty will be saved.

There seems to be no upside for ABC to make any announcement soon. Ugly Betty will be going on hiatus soon, and ABC has what seems like a gazillion shows it will debut in the spring, including the shows that will temporarily fill Ugly Betty's time slot. Making any decision on Ugly Betty without seeing any data on how the new shows will perform (because they haven't even aired yet) seems kind of wacky to me.

My first inclination was that whatever sources Ausiello had were with the show, and not people at ABC who will make the decision, but the article says they are sources from ABC, and we've heard from other people that hey are indeed hearing this from ABC. I don't buy it though and will debunk the primary reasons cited in the comments:

  • They are getting a great deal on the show: That may in fact be true, but if they want to give ABC a good deal now, they'll still want to give ABC a good deal in early May. I don't see any upside for ABC to make its decision now based on that
  • It will be an extra special good deal because Ugly Betty is close to syndication: if Ugly Betty was sitting on 78 episodes or so at the end of this season, I would buy this. But it will be in the low 60s and still need an additional two seasons to get to 100 episodes.

As somewhat of an aside, we get a lot of yakking in the comments about how you don't need 100 episodes to get into syndication. And it's true, obviously. Shows like Moonlight (which got 1.262 million viewers last Friday night, SciFi's ninth highest ranked show for the week) and Jericho obviously made their way into the wild with much fewer than 100 episodes.

But the importance of 100 is still pretty high because that's where networks and local channels feel comfortable about "stripping" the shows (running them Monday through Friday at the same time). Shows that can be stripped make a lot more money in syndication than shows like Moonlight and Jericho which can only air once per week.

It could be argued that traditional television is more about advertising and advertising sales than content creation. What pays the bills is a sales game, and in a bad economy sales sometimes gets even sales-ier! I suspect that what Mr. Ausiello and others are hearing is completely attributable to amped up salesmanship.

The economy is bad, advertisers are cancelling upfront agreements, shows which are cancelled carry a lower premium and if advertisers expect a show is likely to be cancelled, especially in this market, they will try to negotiate a lower fee. I believe the Ausiello report was probably aimed at combating that.

I also believe that we won't receive any official word from ABC for at least a couple of months. I could definitely be wrong, but for now, that's how I see it. Again, Ugly Betty's numbers are on the bubble and in an area where ABC couldn't really be faulted for canning it or keeping it. If it cancels it, it won't surprise me. If it renews it, it won't surprise me either. If we get any official announcement from ABC about its fate before April, that will surprise me.

 
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