Breaking In a Formula for a Successful Network Sitcom

Curator's Note

When Fox tested the pilot for Breaking In, it scored the highest of any of their pilots for the 2009-2010 season. Nonetheless, Fox passed on the show. Then, in November 2010, Fox changed its mind and ordered seven episodes as a midseason replacement for the painfully awful Running Wilde. Breaking In debuted as the highest-rated Fox live-action comedy show of the past three years, but, in May 2011, Fox canceled the show before it finished its run. The rumor  was that Fox decided to go with all female-skewing comedies.

Miraculously, the show was resurrected again in Fall 2011 for a thirteen episode midseason pickup, making it only the second show ever, along with Family Guy, to survive cancellation by the same network twice. The show’s second season premier aired on March 6, as part of Fox’s two-hour Tuesday night comedy block that includes (female-skewing) New Girl and Raising Hope. As a part of the show’s attempt to appeal to Fox’s desired female audience, the show introduced Megan Mullally as a new co-lead for Christian Slater, and shifted from a caper-of-the-week structure to an office-based show. Although the ratings improved from the end of the first season, on April 11, Fox pulled the rest of Breaking In’s episodes with no indication of when it might return.

This all highlights the fact that, while Fox may be particularly schizophrenic in their scheduling, networks currently face a nearly impossible task when developing successful sitcoms. While cable channels’ subscriber dollars allow them to run lower rated, edgier, single camera comedies aimed at niche audiences, networks are stuck trying to maintain relevance among a younger demographic while still amassing the widest audience possible. 

When networks develop shows like Breaking In, they end up with a show that only kind of appeals to most people. Unfortunately, that does not make people tune in every week, and unless the networks can figure out a formula that works--or convince their advertisers to prefer smaller, quality audiences--audiences might be stuck with promising shows like Breaking In that undergo painful retooling as they’re cancelled and revived, while bland shows enjoy an eternity in primetime.



Thanks, Jen, for the illuminating segue from our previous posts on cable series to the “old/new” world of post-television network television (so great to see Megan Mullaley back in prime time!). As evidenced by NBC recently choosing to resuscitate Community after its enforced hiatus last December, underperforming ratings are, for the reasons you describe, a death knell unless the show manages to muster proof that its fan base is the “quality” (read: college-educated/aged) demographic who are avidly participatory online viewers.



Jen--Insightful comparison between networks straddled with their timeless burden of pleasing a broad audience (and advertisers) vs. premium cable that might have so much money they can afford to be impatient. What stands out to me in your example of Breaking In is that for each cancelled show there opens up an opportunity for another series. Per one of your links, Christian Slater has starred in three series over the past five years, Kelsey Grammer in three, David Walton in the recently cancelled Bent and then previously on 100 Questions and Perfect Couples (all on NBC). Depending on if the glass is half full or half empty are people getting fired or (re)hired? In the present television landscape, I wonder what is the downside of being cancelled--more work?

With this optimistic outlook, anything is possible so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that F/X's series, Terriers (cancelled after one season) gets resuscitated, somewhere.

 Great post, Jen.  I think it's important to bring in discussions of the "broadcast" networks' shifting ideas of success, as Breaking In stands as an example of seemigly entertainment success in contrast with (and then gaining from) ratings failure.  I especially liked the clip you chose, which has almost as much self-referential mocking of Fox as a late episode of Arrested Development (speaking of revitalized cancelled series!).

I also want to bring up an interesting point, Myles McNutt discussed on Antenna today: namely that, on NBC at least, demographic ratings are evidently outweighing overall numbers in their cancellation decisions.  Do you think demographic shift affected Breaking In's fate?  Could marketing it as a Christian Slater show --then Christian Slater and Megan Mullaly--have had an additional effect on its discontinuity when situated with The New Girl and Raising Hope?

Maya - I love your positive spin on cancellation! It definitely might allow an actor on a struggling show an opportunity to move to a potentially successful show, but in the case of Christian Slater (where as you mentioned, he has been on three cancelled shows in almost as many years) there have been rumblings about him being television cryptonite. At a certain point, especially in a landscape as competive as film and TV, your luck would have to run out. I'm a fan of Christian Slater, so I hope he finds a good home somewhere.

Charlotte - I think in the case of Breaking In, it went beyond demographics to a strange lack of marketing by Fox. Many people I spoke with had never even heard of the show, and when I tried to find a real "Save our Show" campaign for the show (or any other show for that matter) all I heard was crickets. But that lack of marketing might go hand in hand with Fox's apparent confusion about who their demographics really are.  If they don't want to spend a ton of money marketing to everyone everywhere, but they don't know what segment of the audience they should target for a more direct campaign, apparently they don't target anyone?

It's a question that's become a bit of a joke on Twitter, as the prevailing logic is that Deadline's Nellie Andreeva single-handedly saved the series while acting as a mouthpiece for Sony Pictures TV's efforts to revive it. Sony, of course, is notorious for being willing to cut deals with networks in an effort to gain material for syndication: it's the only reason 'Til Death got four seasons, as FOX had no actual interest in airing the show except that Sony effectively paid them to do so.

It highlights why we need to consider "Save our Show" campaigns within an industrial context, particularly when considering network series. The only truly successful fan-led "Save our Show" campaigns (which, to my mind, wouldn't include Breaking In) were those which emphasized the willingness of fans to take part in the television economy by making a financial investment, but in other cases like Breaking In it was a behind-the-scenes deal between FOX and Sony that led to the series' return (which is probably why FOX, who canceled the show in the first place, wasn't particularly committed to its success/failure). While we could credit Community's fans for that show's return despite its low ratings, we can also credit - you guessed it - Sony Pictures TV for what was likely a nuanced financial agreement designed to create further syndication opportunities.

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