It’s easy to become attached to a television show — television and other forms of media are meant to reflect our experiences, and no matter how far-fetched or fantastic the circumstances, we can relate to them because there is something human about them. This is why it can be so crushing when a show is cancelled, and many of them are. It’s like there is a revolving door of TV shows each year, and not all of our favorites make it into the foyer. But why do some shows get cancelled while others like Supernatural and Grey’s Anatomy receive upwards of 10 seasons?
First, we need to clarify what “cancellation” means. Any show that ends its run is cancelled, even if the plot has concluded. However, cancellation is typically associated with ending a show out of the blue. Cancellations can look very different depending on the show: some shows like The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother meet their natural end and get a finale that may not satisfy every viewer. Shows like the original iteration of Charmed (1998-2006) wrap up their storylines as a result of being nixed before suddenly getting renewed at the last minute, which alters the direction of succeeding seasons. Shows like Teen Titans and Sense8 may be lucky to get full-length movies before reaching their final resting place, but many shows do not get this treatment.
A common reason that shows are cancelled, as well as the reason most people associate with cancellations, is low ratings. When shows receive less engagement from audiences, they are unlikely to pull in the revenue required to keep networks invested in them. This is why networks like ABC consistently order new episodes for their most popular shows, like Grey’s Anatomy (even while Pompeo and Shonda Rhimes themselves question the direction the show will take), and cancel others. The threat of cancellation typically pushes fans to take action, like promoting the show themselves or starting petitions. And sometimes, it works – Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Nashville are among the shows that have been saved by fan campaigns, and the aforementioned Sense8 movie happened because of fans’ tireless dedication. Scenarios like these make it seem like demonstrated interest is all it takes to keep a program on the air, but this is not the case.
Ultimately, the underlying issue behind shows ending, whether planned or unplanned, is production. Production costs, delays, or rights issues can all send a show into oblivion, and in some cases, no amount of fan fervor can change that.
Take NBC’s Hannibal (2013-2015) for example. The show ended after three seasons because the network did not renew it for a fourth, presumably due to ratings. Even one of the producers themselves, Martha De Laurentiis, seemed to point fingers at those who streamed the show online instead of using the NBC website to watch episodes as they were released, saying that piracy made it difficult to “fairly compensate a crew and keep a series in production.” However, Hannibal is a prime example of the shows that fade into oblivion because of production issues.
The show was plagued by issues of production rights from the start, as producers struggled to secure the rights to Clarice Starling, a prominent character in the original Hannibal Lecter series, from MGM. Production rights were also what ultimately led the show to its end in 2015; when the third season concluded, producers De Laurentiis and Bryan Fuller intended to move it to another platform. However, NBC retained the rights to the show for two years after the series ended, similar to how a record label may withhold an album, hold complete control over an artist’s brand, or even try to prevent them from leaving even if that would greatly benefit their creative works. Even though Fuller and De Laurentiis regained the rights in 2017, chances are that if Hannibal does return, it probably won’t be until at least 2021 because of the length of production time, a time at which a large portion of its fanbase may have moved on.
So, if a show is at risk of not returning, why not move it to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or another streaming service? First, Hannibal was pitched to the first two services, and both passed on the offer, the latter in part because of Fuller’s production schedule for American Gods on Starz! Second, there may be other issues precluding streaming services from saving a show.
Another show impacted by production issues is Dark Matter, which aired on Syfy from 2015 to 2017. The popular show was cancelled after three seasons for financial reasons: Dark Matter was syndicated, and not a Syfy original, so the network couldn’t monetize it like they wanted to. After cancellation, the show’s creator, Joseph Mallozzi, immediately began working with other networks to save it. Despite his relative success in finding networks willing to host Dark Matter, he didn’t reach a deal in time before the cast’s contracts expired, rendering him unable to produce a fourth season. You may wonder, why do contracts matter? Why not just draft a new contract?
Contracts are what keep actors working with a certain show, and if a contract is not renewed before it expires, that person is essentially released from their obligations to the show. Acting contracts determine payment and other working conditions, so it is not easy to just rewrite them when they expire, and writing new contracts won’t necessarily bring actors back. Going back to our example of Grey’s Anatomy, Pompeo has to actively renew her contract for each season, and she isn’t automatically required to return each time ABC orders more episodes. If Pompeo does not renew her contract in 2020 but ABC orders new episodes, the show would either have to continue without its titular character or get cancelled. In the case of Dark Matter, where the entire cast was no longer contractually obligated to appear on the show, this is ultimately what prevented the show from continuing despite its popularity.
Dark Matter‘s contractual issues made it impossible for streaming services to pick up the show, a move that could have saved the series. But something that people lose sight of when encouraging streaming services to take on a new show is the fact that just because a show is primarily aired online doesn’t mean it’s protected from cancellation.
Fans were in an uproar when Netflix cancelled The Get Down in 2017, and a similar reaction occurred with the cancellation of Sense8 the same year. Even with the ongoing debate about whether streaming on-demand will harm movie theaters, television, and other mediums, it is clear that Netflix Originals and other platform-exclusive productions are not invincible. The Get Down, in particular, was one of Netflix’s most expensive shows to produce, and it cost $120 million to produce the first season. Despite its popularity, streaming revenue was not enough to offset production costs. Additionally, there were production delays that made creating the show difficult and would likely make future seasons difficult to produce as well.
There are reasons that streaming is becoming a more popular option. Some shows have been picked up by Netflix and achieved greater success there, like Lifetime’s You (although it originally aired on Netflix outside of the US). Some creators prefer streaming platforms to cable television because they get to take more artistic license with their works. However, the fact still stands that Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are looking to profit, just like cable networks, and they won’t invest in shows that they believe aren’t worth it, no matter how popular they are.
While popularity and ratings may have an impact on whether a show lives to see another season, this pales in comparison to what goes on behind the scenes. If you have a favorite show that is hanging in the balance, you can still try to save it, but be aware that there may be more to the story than meets the eye.
Featured Image via Hollywood Reporter