|The networks have shown extreme patience in recent years as fickle viewers ignore critical gems.|
But with millions of dollars on the line, that patience can only go so far. And as the May upfronts approach, execs once again face some tough series choices.
The choice is to give a low-rated show another shot and hope it grows into even a modest hit ... or cut your losses and open up real estate for a promising newbie.
A look at what webheads will be pondering over the next two months:
When talking about their bubble shows, NBC execs like to mention Grant Tinker's name a lot.
The former Peacock chief famously declared that his strategy in running the net was "First be best, then be first." Current NBC suits have adopted the line as their own mantra, repeating it regularly whenever they see the subpar ratings for shows they desperately hope will work.
"This year, we really love a lot of our new shows, some of which aren't performing at levels we wish they would," says NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf. "But we love their quality."
That's particularly true of frosh faves "30 Rock" and "Friday Night Lights." Both shows are averaging about 1 ratings point below the net's average, but the consensus inside NBC is that both stand a very good shot at returning next fall.
"We need to show some patience," Metcalf argues. "It's one thing when you put on a show and you don't really believe in it. But that's just not the case this year. Both of these shows have big fan bases internally."
In addition to Tinker, Peacockers also like to mention "The Office," which started abysmally (like so many NBC classics) and is now a growing hit. Many inside the net are convinced "30 Rock" can follow a similar pattern.
That's not the case with "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Despite its Aaron Sorkin pedigree, there aren't many voices inside NBC clamoring for the show's return.
Also on shaky ground are some veteran NBC shows, including crime dramas "Crossing Jordan" and "Medium." Odds favor just one returning, though both could get the axe.
Another perennial NBC bubble show, "Scrubs," might also shift nets next fall. ABC has expressed interest in the laffer if it becomes available, which is likely if producer ABC Television Studio doesn't agree to cut its license fee.
Then there's "Law & Order" and "L&O: Criminal Intent."
Three years ago, it would've been unthinkable that any product in the "L&O" brand could be in jeopardy. But while "Law & Order: SVU" is doing fine, the other two skeins have struggled all season.
Barring the best development season ever, it's unlikely both shows will go, however.
If critical buzz translated to Nielsen numbers, ABC's schedule would be filled up. Instead, holes sprouted all over the week as shows including "The Nine" and "Knights of Prosperity" struggled.
ABC has nonetheless shown patience, sticking with "Knights" for nine weeks before resting it, keeping "Men in Trees" on the air and even bringing back "Six Degrees" for another shot. Last spring, "What About Brian" scored a second season despite its similarly lackluster numbers.
"I'd like to think that shows that the networks believe in creatively, they've always been patient with," says ABC Entertainment exec VP Jeff Bader.
Much of what the Alphabet decides to keep or toss in May comes down to new development, as well as which timeslots are open. But it's more than likely that several bubble shows will also make the cut.
"If you've got an incredibly tough time period and nothing to lose, why not take a bet on something you love and already have?" Bader says.
That's especially true in the case of several shows that were either stuck with incompatible lead-ins or faced particularly tough competish.
Because "Brian" already got a second chance, it's unclear whether that show will return. Having been off the air since fall, "The Nine" is also a long shot.
But "Men in Trees" and "Six Degrees" (depending on how it does in its return) could see a second year.
The Alphabet's comedies are a harder read -- and a lot will depend on whether ABC continues to try single-camera skeins or decides to go more mainstream.
Despite being yanked off the air last week, "The Knights of Prosperity" has fans inside the net (including ABC Entertainment topper Steve McPherson), and execs are hoping the show could see a second-season spurt similar to NBC's "The Office."
It's less clear whether "Big Day," "Help Me Help You" or "In Case of Emergency" will make the grade, while multi-cam laffers "According to Jim" and "George Lopez" are also uncertain. That could very well mean ABC kicks off the season with no returning laffers for a second straight season.
It's a bad time to be on the bubble at the Eye.
Since the net boasts a slew of successful skeins -- and seems very high on its slate of edgy pilots -- underperforming shows seeking a spot on the CBS sked next fall will face an uphill struggle. Assuming it goes through with plans to take some chances, execs will need to open up some slots.
That's not good news for "Jericho," the apocalyptic hour that looked to be the Eye's big drama hit of the year but saw its ratings come tumbling down after returning from a lengthy hiatus -- and went head-to-head against "American Idol."
Eye execs are keeping a close watch on the show. If things don't get better once "Idol" moves out of its path, this promising hour might be in jeopardy -- despite strong internal support for the skein.
Eye also has a trio of youngish laffers on the bubble: "The Class," "Old Christine" and "Rules of Engagement."
After a shaky start, "The Class" stabilized later in its run, with CBS suits happy about is creative progress. But if "Old Christine" does substantially better in "Class'" 8:30 p.m. Monday slot, it could be "Class" dismissed.
"Rules of Engagement," meanwhile, looks like a strong candidate to return, as long as it holds on to most of its "Two and a Half Men" lead-in.
On the drama front, the jury's still out on "Close to Home," the Friday crime hour that has done OK on the night but has failed to establish an identity for itself.
With "American Idol," does it even matter?
Still, the network has been hoping to still turn Brad Garrett's "'Til Death" into a hit. But with the show still not catching on, it's an uncertain bet for next year.
Also straddling the fence: The sitcom "The War at Home." And it's too soon to tell whether newbies "The Winner" and "The Wedding Bells" will have a second season.
Among dramas, "Standoff" has one more shot at proving itself, moving to Fridays at the end of March.
"Veronica Mars" has a cult following, but its failure to improve much this year puts it in serious jeopardy, while the future of its Tuesday skedmate "Gilmore Girls" depends on contract talks.
The long-running "7th Heaven" will probably call it quits -- again -- while on the comedy side, "All of Us" seems to be on shaky ground.
Then again, CW once again has limited its development of pilots. If the new shows don't look so hot, any one of these vets could sneak back.