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The Real Reason Criminal Minds Was Canceled

Beginning in 2005, millions of TV viewers dutifully tuned in each week to CBS's juggernaut of a crime drama, Criminal Minds. The show followed the high-stakes work of the FBI's Behavior Analysis Unit, a specialized group of law enforcement and psychology all-stars who profile, track down, and stop the worst of the worst bad guys, or "unsubs" (short for "unknown subjects"). Why so popular? Well, it's always satisfying to see the consistent triumph of good over evil, embodied by hard-working, morally upright investigators such as Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), David Rossi (Joe Mantegna), Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster), Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore), and Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness).

But that's all over now. In February 2020, Criminal Minds came to an end after 15 seasons and more than 300 episodes. Why would the network say goodbye to this still popular, still engaging, still prominent hit? It's got its reasons, baby girl.

A short order for Criminal Minds' final season that took too long

It's usually quite easy to tell just how valuable a show is to a network by how quickly its executives ask that show's producers for another round of episodes. For example, NBC's Will & Grace revival did so well during its first season (2017–18) that the network renewed it for seasons two and three before that first season had concluded. Conversely, last-minute re-ups generally indicate a network that's wishy-washy on its decision, meaning a show is likely getting ready to be canceled. Deadline reported in May 2018 that the Criminal Minds renewal for season 14 "came down to the wire" as network and studio hashed out negotiations. 

Another sign of dwindling network interest: smaller episode counts. The number of Criminal Minds season 14 episodes wasn't initially revealed, but CBS eventually decided on 15, far less than the standard order of 22. The final season was even shorter — just ten installments

It's a new day at CBS, and Criminal Minds no longer fits in

This point in time is something of a crossroads for CBS. The network just might be looking ahead to the future and a new era of programming. Not only did it lose its highest-rated comedy with The Big Bang Theory coming to an end in the spring of 2019, but a big chunk of the network's primetime programming is decidedly long in the tooth. Blue Bloods, Big Brother, Survivor, NCIS, and NCIS: Los Angeles have all hit at least ten seasons. Actively losing another of its ancient, flagship shows in Criminal Minds signals a new start for the Eye.

It may also represent a symbolic break with the CBS of yore, the one controlled by disgraced CBS Corporation chairman and CEO Les Moonves. The veteran broadcasting executive resigned his post in September 2018 amid a slew of sexual misconduct allegations. CBS's new leaders just may want to have anything Moonves approved off the air as soon as possible.

Too much drama on this drama

Most any job is stressful, including making television. Criminal Minds was plagued by more than its share of ugly and embarrassing scandals over the years. Original cast member (and arguably the show's lead actor) Thomas Gibson got himself fired in 2016 after 11 seasons playing Aaron Hotchner when a heated discussion with writer/producer Virgil Williams escalated into the actor kicking Williams. In 2010, Paget Brewster (Emily Prentiss) and A.J. Cook (J.J.) were ostensibly fired due to budget cuts. 

Brewster later told the A.V. Club what actually happened — a CBS executive called then-showrunner Edward Allen Bernero with an order to replace the fired actresses with younger ones. Bernero ultimately quit, and Brewster and Cook eventually returned to the show. Those incidents — among others — could have very well played into CBS's decision to throw its proverbial arms up in the air when Criminal Minds was finally canceled. Who wants a workplace that's more than occasionally full of this kind of weirdness and generally bad stuff?

The Criminal Minds boss is out

Numerous Criminal Minds cast members have moved on and CBS is obviously ready to do the same. It would seem that the main creative force behind the crime procedural is ready to try new things in a new environment. ABC Studios, a division of the ABC television network, produces Criminal Minds, and CBS pays a lot of money for the privilege of airing it. In 2017, ABC struck a big deal with Criminal Minds showrunner Erica Messer. The network now funds her own boutique imprint, Erica Messer Productions, from which she develops new TV drama series. 

Messer knows good television — before Criminal Minds, she worked on Party of Five, Alias, and Charmed. It would be hard to keep a show on CBS when the showrunner has a lucrative deal at a production company owned by a rival network. ABC would probably prefer to keep its talent in-house, and have Messer produce shows exclusively for networks in the ABC family. In 2019, the network announced that two new dramas from Messer's camp were In the works: Best Kept Secret and Nightingale.

Out with the old and in with the new

Broadcast networks aren't like streaming services. While Netflix and Hulu can host a seemingly infinite number of options, networks are constrained by time. CBS's evening schedule consists of three hours of programming every night of the week, and four on Sundays. That's only 22 total hours of TV, and even within that limited amount of space, there isn't much turnaround. Stalwarts like 60 Minutes and various iterations of NCIS aren't going anywhere, so the Eye Network doesn't have the bandwidth to launch many new series each fall. Canceling a fading show like Criminal Minds frees up a precious hour of room in the schedule.

That's some space that CBS really needs. The final season of Criminal Minds aired for only 10 weeks, and then got out of the way to allow a new show the chance to develop a following (and earn the network some advertising revenue). There are plenty of shows awaiting the chance — CBS ordered seven new shows for the 2019-2020 season.

Criminal Minds is starting to feel dated

Criminal Minds had been on the air since 2005, spanning well over 300 episodes. That's a staggeringly long and impressive run, and one that places it among the most enduring network dramas of all time. However, there are only so many twisted murderers, demented cult leaders, and creepy kidnappers out there in the Criminal Mindsverse, and the show's brave and dedicated law enforcement officials may have just about rounded up the last of them. In short, the show has simply run its course. Even the best series can and eventually do run out of ideas at some point, and having passed the 300 episode benchmark makes this a logical, understandable time to close up the Behavioral Analysis Unit. 

Not only has Criminal Minds' time come, but it's out of step with other law enforcement shows on the air. Its reliable formula feels like it came from another, bygone era of TV... because, well, it did. Today's crime series have gone in two directions: gritty, challenging, and artsy — such as True Detective or American Crime Story or safe and comfortable reboots like Magnum, P.I. Criminal Minds just didn't fall into either camp.

Criminal Minds no longer rated highly

A lot of factors play into a network's decision to end a popular series, but it almost always comes down to one big X-factor: ratings. If enough people watch a show, a network can charge companies big bucks to advertise their products during that show. If the ratings stay high, the network earns a tidy profit in ad revenue. Should that pattern hold, a show could stay on the air indefinitely. Case in point: 60 Minutes, still a major draw after more than 50 years on the air. But if ratings drop too far and/or too fast, well, there's the door.

Criminal Minds' most recent numbers are nowhere near its highest levels. In the 2018-19 season, it placed just outside the top 40 most-watched shows on broadcast TV, pulling in an average of 8.22 million viewers. That's a big fall from the 2008-09 season, when Criminal Minds was the 11th-most-watched show on TV. The numbers don't justify CBS keeping it around after next year.

Criminal Minds? More like Criminal Mind$

The longer a show sticks around, the more expensive it is to produce. Actors can earn more money each time they re-negotiate their contracts to stick around for a few more seasons. They've got producers in a bind — they kind of have to pay the actors what they want so as to keep a show's audience-drawing cast intact. However, a show's popularity and ratings tend to naturally slip over time, meaning the longer a series runs, it becomes less profitable due to declining ad rates and increasing production costs. If it's no longer financially worth it for a network to proceed in such a matter, they'll cut the dead weight of an expensive, long-running show. 

For example, Criminal Minds ratings were nowhere near series highs, but in 2017, original cast members Kirsten Vangsness and A.J. Cook signed new contracts and got substantial raises, ones that gave them salary parity with well-paid co-star Matthew Gray Gubler. All those salaries stick out on the CBS ledger, and couldn't help but play a part in the show being canceled.

Who's this person and where did the other one go?

Crime procedurals are supposed to be rock-solid, ultra-reliable TV institutions. Viewers expect these kinds of shows to be pretty much the same thing, week in and week out, populated by the same set of familiar faces for years on end. Criminal Minds didn't adhere to those unwritten rules, churning out more than 300 episodes despite sporting one of the most active revolving doors in TV casting history.

That lack of stability tends to turn off viewers, as Criminal Minds' downward-trending ratings over the last decade would indicate. Mandy Patinkin (BAU Chief Jason Gideon) left in 2007, Thomas Gibson (Aaron "Hotch" Hotchner) got terminated in 2016, Shemar Moore departed in 2016 and moved on to S.W.A.T., and Paget Brewster and A.J. Cook's characters, Emily Prentiss and Jennifer Jareau, respectively, were written out for a spell. Other actors and actresses who came and went from the BAU: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Damon Gupton, and Rachel Nichols.

There might be a reunion movie someday

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, CBS got into a nostalgia habit, regularly airing two-hour-long, made-for-TV revival movies of some of its most popular crime, cop, and mystery shows of yesteryear. Viewers got the chance to watch one or two more exciting adventures featuring well-known characters from Simon & Simon, Diagnosis Murder, Cagney & Lacey, and Murder, She Wrote. Producing and broadcasting such projects grew dormant at CBS, but the idea just might make a comeback with Criminal Minds.

In advance of the series finale, Parade asked Criminal Minds showrunner Erica Messer if the storyline allowed for the possibility of a TV movie. "You don't shut down the BAU. Can't do that," she said. "And it was that interesting thing of having to please so many people at the end of this show, where it's like, 'Well, don't end it forever and ever because what if it could have another life elsewhere?'"