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'Terriers': Why good shows fail

By Jordan Bienstock, CNN
The canceled FX series "Terriers" with Michael Raymond-James, left, and Donal Logue averaged 500,000 viewers per episode.
The canceled FX series "Terriers" with Michael Raymond-James, left, and Donal Logue averaged 500,000 viewers per episode.
  • The FX network canceled the show "Terriers" this week
  • Show joins the list of quality TV programs that never found an audience
  • FX exec says: "It isn't the first good show we've had to cancel, and it won't be the last"

(CNN) -- With its cancellation this week, "Terriers" becomes the newest addition to the ever-expanding list of quality TV shows that never found an audience.

The FX series about a pair of low-rent private investigators was a favorite of many critics and developed a small but rabid following. It had a good pedigree, coming from Shawn Ryan ("The Shield") and Ted Griffin ("Ocean's 11"), and many lauded it as the best new show of the fall season.

So why did "Terriers" fail? And how can this show provide a model for future series to avoid the same pitfalls?

The first problem is right there in the title. While "Terriers" is meant to describe the main characters (small but fiercely tenacious), it doesn't relate any information about the show itself. Ryan, the executive producer, has acknowledged that it was a placeholder name, and that it may have acted as a barrier for entry to many viewers. At first glance, people may have wondered what a show that sounded like it should be on Animal Planet was doing on FX.

Gallery: RIP: TV shows that were canceled too soon

That leads to a second problem: the initial marketing of "Terriers." It featured ... a dog, and not the one that would become a semi-regular fixture on the show. When your title and your marketing do little to explain the premise of your show, the chances of building anticipation leading up to a premiere can often fall short. In fairness, on-air promos featuring the actors did appear later. But by that time, it may have been difficult to pull in audience members whose viewing schedules were already full.

After all, "Terriers" premiered at the start of the fall season, the time when television is flooded with new and returning series. Cable channels such as USA, AMC and FX have often launched original series at different times on the calendar to maximize their potential audience. Asking viewers to discover a new show in the midst of the fall clutter may have been hoping for too much.

None of this is to point the finger completely at FX. The network has a reputation for quality shows such as "Rescue Me," and it should be acknowledged for airing "Terriers" in the first place and allowing the show to complete its full season.

But television is, after all, a numbers business, and "Terriers" failed to generate the kind of viewers that would justify its continued existence. The show had the network's lowest-rated series premiere. It averaged 500,000 viewers per episode, which is low even by basic-cable standards. It could have tripled that viewership and still not matched that of shows previously canceled by FX.

The network's president, John Landgraf, held a conference call with reporters after the cancellation announcement during which he said that if he believed the title or the marketing were the reason for the low viewership, "Terriers" might have been renewed. However, network research showed otherwise.

That brings us back to the question of why viewers failed to tune in. The show was an engaging mix of drama, action and comedy. Critics said it well written and well paced, and the actors' performances were nuanced. At times it was explosive and heartbreaking.

But none of those actors were household names. Series lead Donal Logue ("Grounded for Life," "The Tao of Steve") was the most recognizable face, but he's hardly considered a star. In fact, the show's only "big" name was Ryan, the executive producer. Attempting to launch a series with the producer as the primary calling card is a formula that failed for another freshman series this year, "Undercovers."

This was also an original show in the truest sense. It wasn't a paint-by-numbers procedural. It wasn't a remake of an earlier series or a movie. It wasn't the next installment in a reality franchise. It established a world and inhabited that world with fully formed characters, asking the audience to invest in those characters and their flaws.

That may not sound like a bad thing. But given the degree to which viewers are both loyal to shows and formats that they recognize and hesitant to sign up for new ones, attempting to launch a series that doesn't fit neatly into a box is problematic at best, a recipe for failure at worst.

Given the sheer volume of programming available, series face greater hurdles than ever before in establishing themselves in the TV landscape. It may be asking too much to expect new shows to garner what is traditionally considered a large enough audience to justify renewal.

During his conference call about "Terriers," Landgraf said it "isn't the first good show we've had to cancel, and it won't be the last," a disappointing yet understandable commentary on the current state of television. The tagline for "Terriers" was "too small to fail," an ironic eulogy for a show that was.