When It Makes Sense To Keep a Show Past Its Prime

With the news that ABC may keep Scrubs on for a ninth season, even though Zach Braff and other actors won’t be able to appear in more than a handful of the episodes, there are two questions: 1) Is this a good idea for the network? 2) Is this a good idea for the show? The answer to 1) is probably a “yes.” Scrubs is not a high-rated show, but because of its desirable demographics, it does better than any comedy ABC could put in its place, and if the network wants to bring back Better off Ted, they will need to keep Scrubs as a lead-in. If they try to renew Better off Ted and put it after a new comedy, or have it lead off the hour, it will probably die almost immediately. The main reason for renewing any show is that the network has nothing to put in its place — nothing that would get better ratings, I mean. Even if a show is missing a key element, like its lead actor, the brand name of a long-running show may be enough for it to out-perform anything new, and keeping the show on allows the network to plug a hole. I know I use baseball analogies too much, but it’s a bit like signing a veteran player. The team knows the player is not as good as he was, and that he won’t be able to contribute even at his current level for more than another year or so, but having him on the team allows them to have at least acceptable performance in that spot for a little while longer. If ABC brings back Scrubs without Braff, they’ll be able to put off worrying about that time slot, concentrate on the other holes they have to fill (after mistakes like the remake of Cupid, they’ve got plenty), and come back for that slot in a year.

As to whether it helps or hurts Scrubs, the thing is that “going out while you’re on top” is not a luxury most shows have, or want to have. People would rather have jobs than not. (That’s how you get something like The Golden Palace: Bea Arthur wanted to quit while the show was ahead, and could probably afford to leave because she’d starred in two hit shows, but her co-stars and crew wanted to keep on working.) So if the producers have a chance to get another season for Scrubs, they’ll probably want to take it if they can get an acceptable deal. The real question is whether an inherently sub-par season — like the season of That ’70s Show without Topher Grace, or Laverne without Shirley — will hurt the show in reruns. I don’t know if there’s any data on stuff like that, but with no actual facts in front of me, I’d guess that just one season without the star probably won’t hurt them too bad; it’s when you have several sub-par seasons at the end of the run that you might have problems in syndication, because that condemns the syndicators to run several weeks’ worth of episodes that leave you going “who are these people?”

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