It's decision time for TV series living on the edge between success and failure.
Even as you read this, networks are weighing the fate of current shows, as dozens of shiny new pilots with big stars are being filmed and tweaked in hopes of replacing them.
This year's list of iffy entries ranges from new comedies that haven't quite proven to be keepers, such as ABC's Better With You and Mr. Sunshine (starring Matthew Perry),to dramatic spinoffs that haven't performed as well as their forebears, including CBS' Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior and NBC's troubled and revamped Law & Order: LA.
There are longer-running series that may have collected, then lost, audiences, including ABC's Brothers & Sisters and CBS' CSI: NY. The perennial fence-sitters, NBC's Chuck and CW's One Tree Hill, are perched there once again as well.
And ? for obvious reasons ?Two and a Half Men faces an uncertain fate, pending a decision on recasting (or forgiving) misbehaving star Charlie Sheen.
All are among the contenders in USA TODAY's 14th annual Save Our Shows poll ? opening today at life.usatoday.com ? asking viewers to vote on which of the series are keepers, and which deserve TV's dustbin.
But this year is a bit different. Programming-wise, it's been a lackluster season, which means fewer of the new "on the bubble" series have attracted the kind of loyal, if small, following that stirs fans to lobby for their survival.
And dire ratings straits at NBC and ABC mean lower-rated shows that would have gotten a quick hook in years past, such as Parenthood or Cougar Town, are staying put.
"It feels like some of the networks with more hours and more needs will probably stick with marginal stuff, which is probably a good thing," says Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly. "Everybody realizes the cost of a quick trigger finger" and the risk of "replacing and launching, trying to break through the culture."
As viewership splinters, Reilly says, "we don't have the ability to rifle things on and off and bet the audience even knows it's on. You have a far better shot of sticking with a show that has an audience that you think you can grow."
Even CBS, which has had the best track record with new series, isn't shutting the door on some.
"We are looking at the schedule through a different lens these days," says CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler. "Are there ways to do a show with a shorter order (of episodes) so you can get more shows on? It may not necessarily be that you have to get rid of something entirely to make room for another show." And the networks' penchant for producing more of their own series through in-house studios offers more flexibility to adjust the number of episodes to fit scheduling needs.
The status of three hit dramas is questionable because of expiring contracts. ABC and the stars of Desperate Housewives are at odds over demands for a pay raise, while Fox must hammer out new deals with producers of House and Bones. But these things usually work themselves out, and it's very likely all three will return. So for the purposes of the poll, we're not considering them to be in jeopardy.
Generally, the fate of true bubble shows rests on several factors: ratings, the potential for growth, creative strength, cost and the quality of pilots vying to replace them in May, when networks will unveil their official fall schedules to advertisers.
Some shows stick around simply because networks can't replace too much of their schedules at once. With current series, "you have reasonable expectations about how they're going to do next season," says analyst Brad Adgate at ad buyer Horizon Media, while new shows are crapshoots. A hit such as Glee can be followed by a fast flop in last fall's Lone Star.
But weak is weak, and ABC and NBC, where new programming chiefs inherited underperforming schedules from their predecessors, are wiping out nearly all of this season's new series. Even cable, which operates on a more fluid calendar, isn't immune from failure; FX axed Terriers and Lights Out after one season, AMC punted on Rubicon, and USA is uncertain about Fairly Legal.
And as usual, it's too early to call the odds for a crop of spring tryouts. ABC's Body of Proof premiered strongly with nearly 14 million viewers Tuesday, while four others have yet to establish any track record: CBS' CIA dramedy Chaos, due tonight (8 ET/PT), will be followed by comedies Happy Endings (ABC), Breaking In (Fox) and The Paul Reiser Show (NBC) over the next two weeks.
Nonetheless, the networks' needs already are apparent:
Fox. It renewed Fringe last week, thanks to a small but passionate audience and a big boost from DVRs, and will keep the show on Fridays. But with dinosaur adventure Terra Nova and Simon Cowell's X Factor locked for fall, there's little room for three on-the-fence dramas ?Lie to Me, Code and Human Target ?and at most only one will survive.
NBC. The newest (and revamped) Law & Order returns April 11, and the network will wait to see how it fares before making a renewal decision. Perennial bubble show Chuck cheated death throughout its four seasons, but producer Warner Bros. has a financial incentive to compromise on costs for at least a partial-season pickup. The show will have aired 74 episodes by May, nearing the total needed to sell the show in syndication, TV's profit generator.
ABC. The main question marks are Better With You and Mr. Sunshine, which aren't good fits in Wednesday's family-comedy block, and Housewives companion Brothers & Sisters, given the network's long-standing desire to launch a new series down the road from Wisteria Lane. But the network might want to give fans of that fifth-season soap a satisfying conclusion, so at least a partial season is possible.
CBS. Needs are few, and so are its available time slots for new shows. After the network wiped its slate by canceling several dramas last May, freshmen Hawaii Five-0and Blue Bloods are safe bets to return. But it's weighing both the CSI and Criminal Minds spinoffs against new prospects.
CW. With just 10 hours of programming a week, it has the fewest slots and typically adds just two dramas each fall. This season's odd men out could be last fall's freshmen Hellcats and Nikita, and/or bubble-show fixture One Tree Hill, which is running out of gas in its eighth season.
Which of them survive may depend on their compatibility with new series pickups, where the prospects range from zombies to lawyers.