Whatever the networks are selling this fall, viewers ain't buying.
Three weeks into the TV season, four new series have shut down production or been canceled. Several others are on life support with little hope of recovery.
"The networks are desperate right now. They have to stop the bleeding," says Marc Berman, editor in chief of Media Insights, an online industry tracker. "The trigger finger is getting faster by the year."
For the most part, the new shows got a healthy initial sampling. Viewers simply did not want a second helping. And that is an indictment of the product.
ABC's Revenge dropped nearly 15 percent of its viewers after its first week, and Charlie's Angels, also on ABC, lost 19 percent. NBC's Playboy Club plummeted more than 20 percent, from more than 5 million viewers to fewer than 4 million; it was the season's first show to be canceled.
"It's been a lackluster year," Berman says. "The biggest hit is The X Factor, and you look at it and you think, 'I've seen this before.'"
There's a tired familiarity to many of the new series.
"I don't understand this reliance on retreads," says media consultant Shari Anne Brill. "Did we really need another Charlie's Angels? Then you have these throwback shows like The Playboy Club and Pan Am that are so derivative of Mad Men. Why are you putting on a show that references girdles when all of us have moved on to Spanx?"
You might be surprised at how much thought goes into such a ragamuffin lineup.
"After all the research and testing, and all the pilots they look at before they make their final decisions, it's always amazing that there are a few shows that don't make it past October," says Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media.
Says Brill: "When I look at these shows, I can only think about the pilots that didn't make it."
The fate of a freshman show often rests on which network has picked it up.
"A show like How to Be a Gentleman" on CBS, says Berman, "on another network its numbers would have been good enough. But not leading out of Big Bang Theory. The loss was too big to take."
How to Be a Gentleman drew nearly 9 million viewers. But that meant that almost 40 percent of the audience from The Big Bang Theory did not stick around.
On Oct. 7, the sitcom, which stars Kevin Dillon, got shifted from the promised land of Thursday night to the Gobi Desert of Saturday. The next day, CBS ordered a halt to production. And CBS is having a relatively good season.
"CW is a disaster," Berman says of the network. "Every show should be axed. But you can't cancel everything."
That should be the rallying cry of the 2011-12 season: "You can't cancel everything!"
The irony is that patience has proven over and over again to be a programmer's best friend.
"Years ago when NBC was in the ratings doldrums, they were forced to hold on to shows like Hill Street Blues and Cheers even though they didn't come out of the gate fast," Adgate says. "Those programs eventually became the cornerstones of their prime-time schedule."
Says Berman, "If they didn't exercise patience, Cheers, MASH, even Seinfeld wouldn't have made it to a second season."
The one bomb no one can explain this season is Fox's Terra Nova. Despite a noble bloodline (Steven Spielberg), awesome special effects, fan-boy appeal and major promotion, the show can't get traction with viewers.