Question of the week: will/should Heroes be cancelled?


There was a time when Heroes was a glittering star in the firmament of US television. By the end of the first season, almost everyone seemed to love it. Then the finale everyone was waiting for happened and we all felt just a hint of disappointment. “Oh, was that it? I was expecting something epic,” was the general reaction.

It’s almost all been downhill since then.

Then Volume Two/Season Two came along. It wasn’t bad, but it plodded and seemed to go nowhere. People started to turn off.

Then Volume Three came along, together with promises from the producers that it would be back to season one form. True, the show didn’t plod, but the characters all went through bizarre personality flops and no one stayed dead. Some of the plots were very stupid and way too sci-fi. People started to dislike Heroes for straying too far from the ‘real-life’ world depicted in the first season.

Volume Four arrived, together with promises from the producers that it would be back to season one form. Those still watching thought it was actually pretty good. Maybe the producers were telling the truth this time.

We’re on Volume Five now and Heroes appears to be on its last legs. It got fewer than four million viewers for its latest episode, an all-time low. Budget cuts and a “return to character-based stories” have meant nothing exciting has been happening, bar a few isolated outbreaks.

So this week’s question is in two parts:

Will Heroes be cancelled soon? Should it be cancelled?

Discussion after the jump, because these aren’t necessarily easy questions.

Will it be cancelled soon?
The soon bit is important, BTW. You see, NBC is in trouble. After putting Jay Leno’s show on at 10pm most nights of the week, it’s discovered that he’s a ratings nightmare in that timeslot. So they’ve decided to move him to 11.30pm – his old Tonight show slot.

That leaves a lot of timeslots to be filled. NBC has already brought cancelled show Trauma back from the dead for another seven episodes, and shows like Community and Parks & Recreation are being stretched out to as many as 25 episodes in a season. Mind you, there are mid-season shows like Parenthood that have yet to air once Heroes has finished out this season, but who knows how well they’ll do.

Long-term, NBC has 18 pilots in various stages of development to fill up the gaps, a record number, but as with the mid-season replacements, there are no guarantees any of them are going to be any good or that they’re going to get any viewers even if they make it to series. Half of those that make it to series will be held back as mid-season replacements for 2011.

NBC also has precious few successful shows at the moment. New shows like Mercy and Community have been picked up for full seasons, but their ratings aren’t great. Chuck is back and doing relatively well, but its numbers are slowly dropping back down again – it got cancelled last year but was only reprieved due to a sponsorship deal with Subway sandwiches, budget cuts and a reduced episode count. Law & Order et al are scraping by.

Now let’s look at Heroes again. Four million viewers ain’t good, but it’s been up against the likes of House (the world’s most popular TV show) and now the return of the action-packed, big budget 24. Unlike Chuck, it’s had very little promotional work done for it. Yet, when you figure in DVR ratings, you get about a 25% uplift in viewers, particularly in those shiny key demographics that advertisers like. This also puts it in the top five of NBC’s drama/comedy programming (it was the second-best rated NBC show when it started this season).

Heroes sells well overseas, giving NBC one of its few well-known brands, and also has great product placement deals with Sprint and Nissan, which is important when you consider how well it does in DVD sales. Product placement is good for advertisers because unlike conventional ads, the products are seen wherever the show appears, be it online, on DVD or overseas. Heroes is one of the few shows that has a viable multi-platform strategy, with webisodes, graphic novels, mobisodes, online games that people actually play and even an iPhone app for viewing the graphic novels. People who play these spend money and also watch the corresponding adverts, product placement, etc.

And, of course, Heroes is still the number one pirated TV show – all those naughty people watching it online see those product placements too.

Normally, Heroes would probably be dead by now, but NBC is still talking about it as an ongoing concern, even favourably mentioning how well it’s stuck to its budget this year – which, given the $40 million pay-off to Conan O’Brien planned for ousting him from the late night slot in favour of Jay Leno, isn’t something that should be sniffed at. That’s the budget for more than 10 episodes of Heroes right there, so NBC is going to be tightening its belt a lot next year if the O’Brien deal goes through. So that’s another factor that needs to be considered.

So my prediction is that it’ll be back for another season, maybe on a different day or in a later time slot, for Fall 2010. Given Heroes still makes money for NBC, I don’t think NBC will have enough room to maneuver until this time next year at the earliest. But what do you think?

Should it be cancelled?
Of course, you might think it should have been put out of its misery seasons again. It might be that you think that it stands no chance of ever becoming a decent show again, particularly with the departure (again) of acclaimed producer/writer Bryan Fuller at the start of Volume Five. What does it matter if it comes back, if it’s not actually a good show?

I can see your point. But I think if you scratched the word Heroes off from the show so you weren’t comparing it with season one, you’d actually think it a reasonable enough show at the moment. It’s had the occasional great episode, it’s had the occasional very poor episode; pacing has been off almost all season. But compared to the likes of Eastwick, Warehouse 13 and other shows, it’s pretty good still. It’s good, just not excellent at the moment.

Will it be better next season? Probably not. The same pressures on the show in terms of budget will still exist next season, probably more so. But if Mark Verheiden and the other decent writers get more of a look-in next season, maybe it could pick up. And if Ali Larter and Sendhil Ramamurthy could actually time their movie shooting schedules so as not to coincide with Heroes‘, maybe they’d actually get to be in some episodes for a change.

I live in hope – do you?