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Some shows are lucky to still be around -- or were, before the axe finally fell. Their ratings were middling or poor or even awful, but the critics liked it, or it had been starting to show signs of a cult following, or it was supposed to be huge and they're reluctant to give up on it just yet, or the show is nearing an episode count needed for Syndication, or somebody at the network just liked the darn old thing; at any rate, it just barely got renewed by the skin of its teeth.
This generally means the network won't value the show too much, so expect the next season to have fewer episodes, budget cuts, conspicuously missing characters to save on salaries, or be shuffled around on the network's schedule.
Usually this marks the final season of a show -- even the final partial season. In the best case scenarios, it leads to a massive hit and a very good career move for the network execs responsible.
- Arrested Development, which was a critical smash but was watched by roughly nobody, only barely got a second season -- and then got a third season by an even slimmer margin -- then finally, to no one's surprise, was gone. Fans still debate whether Fox deserves respect for sticking with a failing show for so long, or criticism for not giving it much of a chance in the first place.
- The first season won the Emmy for best comedy just before the back nine was ordered. It was nominated for the Emmy for season 2 and 3. That may have been the reason it hung on. In an outtake on the season 2 DVD David Cross goes on a long rant about how Fox should learn how to market an Emmy winning comedy. It is awesome.
- Both How I Met Your Mother on CBS and My Name Is Earl on NBC only reluctantly got confirmed for third seasons at the last minute. Ditto Friday Night Lights for its second.
- Scrubs. Seasons five through seven were only barely renewed by NBC, and generally wound up airing as a mid-season replacement. Season seven (intended to be the final season) was shortened by the writer's strike and aired out of order. ABC (who actually owns the series) stepped in and aired the eighth season (considered by most to be an improvement over six and seven), which officially wrapped up JD's storyline.So five seasons "on the bubble" between two networks.
- The eighth season was still Screwed by the Network. They continually changed up timeslots, showed new episodes back to back, rarely did re-runs of the new episodes and when they did, they weren't back to back, or they were out of order.
- The first season of Cheers was adored by the critics, but rated incredibly poorly (the first episode rated dead last in its timeslot). NBC stuck with it anyway, and following its surprise success at the Emmys, the ratings immediately picked up, and up and up.
- Seinfeld initially went ahead despite resistance from most of NBC and Larry David himself. It wasn't until season three that it showed any promise at all, and season four that it was legitimately successful.
- If Joey hadn't been the spin-off to Friends, it would never have made a second season.
- Angel was borderline as of the end of its fourth season. In an attempt to jumpstart the ratings, the producers changed the show's direction completely and brought over the popular character Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It wasn't enough, and the fifth season was the last.
- Gunsmoke was originally meant to be cancelled after 1966-1967 season, after nearly 11 years on the air. However, the wife of CBS president William S. Paley, who was a devoted fan of the show, simply wouldn't hear of it. After persuasion from her and many other fans, Paley decided to renew the show, placing it in Gilligan's Island's timeslot, which ended up cancelling the beloved sitcom at the last minute. Gunsmoke would continue to air for another 8 seasons, a record-breaking run totaling 20 years (and that's not even including the radio series).
- News Radio was in this position every single year of its five seasons.
- The last season of Charmed. Not only did they have to undo the ending of the previous season, which could have been a final ending, but budget restrictions meant not being able to have Leo in most of the episodes.
- Both the fourth and fifth seasons of The Wire barely happened. The fifth possibly only because the creator wrapped up the series and delivered a shorter season.
- Justice League and Justice League Unlimited were the patron saints of this trope. Season one sparked some fears that the show was weaker than what the shows spun off of, largely because they ignored the canon of the Batman and Superman animated series that preceded them. At the end, they re-worked the show to reflect that canon better and felt that this was their swan song, so wrapped up with a big three-part season finale where they blew everything up. Then they got the call that they were renewed for another season and retooled the show into Justice League Unlimited. The producers thought that this would be their last great story and wrapped up dangling threads from Superman: The Animated Series as well as some in the previous Justice League, capping it off with a Fully-Absorbed Finale with Batman Beyond. Then they got the call that the series was so good (hands down the best of the entire DCAU) that they got one more season and the final finale was strong enough that fans think it deserved more. The show was basically Only Barely Renewed for three seasons and is considered one of the best shows in Western Animation!
- The original Star Trek got a third season only because of a massive letter writing campaign; but the third season is not considered that great by many fans. Forty years later, Star Trek: Enterprise barely got a fourth season because the show runners convinced the studio that they could do it cheaply; in fact the eventual series finale was originally written to cap the third season. Fans tremendously approved the final season-- including many who feel it actually grew its beard that season, too late to be saved.
- Spider-Girl. This was barely renewed lots and lots of times, to the point of only dying after 130 issues. It has since had several restarts that get Only Barely Renewed for a little while, before being cancelled and the cycle starts anew.
- Ironically, Joe Quesada has had a lot to do with Spider-Girl getting to continue its run.
- Adult Swim's truly bizarre Xavier: Renegade Angel somehow has a second season.
- All evidence indicated Dollhouse wouldn't get a second season--poor ratings, lukewarm critical reception until halfway through the season, Fox's decision not to air the planned season finale (it was released on the DVD), the fact that it was a Whedon/Minear production on Fox, and so on. It got renewed anyway; but the second season was the last.
- The second season was mostly because the execs were Genre Savvy enough to know they'd get complaints if they canceled it.
- Chuck season 3 was on the blade of a knife, and wasn't announced with all of NBC's other properties. It was renewed (after Sending Stuff to Save the Show) with a lower budget, shorter season, and a Product Placement deal, as a mid-season replacement, though it actually got more episodes ordered when much of NBC's new fall material failed. Season 4 was never really in doubt since S3's ratings were good by NBC standards, but it only initially got 13 episodes. Most of NBC's new shows again bombed, while Chuck was doing reasonably well, so it got 11 episodes for the spring. Throughout the spring, however, its ratings kept sinking lower and lower. It's been picked up for a 5th and final season, but it'll only be 13 episodes and the show's moving to Fridays from the 8pm Monday slot it had always held. Many speculate that Warner Bros., who produce it, cut NBC a deal too good to pass up in order to get the show enough episodes for syndication.
- The only reason the remake of V got a second season was because all of the other new dramas on ABC that year bombed.
- ABC later cut the order to just 10 episodes.
- The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack got a third season. However, it only consisted of 6 episodes, and was quickly burned off.
- In a video game example, there's Tony Hawk's Shred. Its predecessor Ride sold very badly because of its insistence on a skateboard peripheral that didn't work properly. People didn't think Activision would bother with a sequel after this debacle, especially because competition from EA's Skate series was making the series look tired. Somehow, the series did get renewed for Ride's sequel Shred which ignored fan demand not to use the skateboard peripheral, and the series is on its last legs as a result.
- CSI: NY seems to have been this for season 8. It wasn't confirmed as renewed until the last possible moment and got 18 episodes for season 8. Season 9 was even closer-CBS said it was very close as to whether to renew it or CSI: Miami. Ultimately, it came down to CSI NY being cheaper to produce and wanting to use it to help with a night of New York themed shows.
- Nikita was the lowest rated show on the CW for most of it's second season, it got renewed regardless, it's rumoured to be because of international sales.
- Community got renewed for the fourth season despite lukewarm ratings from the third season. Catch is, it only got a half season's worth of episodes ordered....and will be moved to Friday nights with a lead-in consisting of Whitney. Huzzah?