For decades, television shows existed in two distinct states – alive or dead. Other than fan fiction, there wasn’t much hope for a canceled show to resurface. Not so anymore. Today, a television death sentence can be more easily commuted. Just ask fans of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Lucifer and The Expanse, three shows evicted from their TV homes only to find others with open doors. Or look at the flood of revivals from Arrested Development to American Idol to Last Man Standing, all shows resurrected by networks other than the ones that canceled them. (But don’t look at Roseanne. That’s a whole different story.) So why were the cops of Precinct 99, the most stylish lord of the underworld and the interstellar travelers of the Rocinante salvaged? And what does it say about where TV is headed?
To be clear, cross-network renewals are not an entirely new phenomenon. Perhaps the biggest success story of a cross-network renewal in TV history actually helped make CBS a modern powerhouse: JAG ran for one dismal season on NBC in 1995-96 before being canceled – but it was then picked up by CBS, where it was a reliable hit for almost another full decade, spawning a little spin-off called NCIS, a top-five show in the ratings for the last 10 years and counting (which birthed two more spin-offs of its own, as well as tie-in books and even video games). The cancellation of JAG at NBC bought beach houses for people at CBS. There are also smaller-scale examples. In 2009, Medium was dumped by NBC after five seasons on the Peacock Network, but fan outrage pushed it to CBS, where it ran for a couple more years. In fact, several shows considered classics – including T.J. Hooker, Diff’rent Strokes, Get Smart and even Leave It To Beaver – jumped networks for at least a season. But the new reality of streaming services, our revival/reboot-obsessed culture and increasingly vocal fan bases means the phenomenon is happening more frequently and much faster than ever before.
Following the May 10th announcement by FOX that Brooklyn Nine-Nine wouldn’t be returning for a sixth season, social media exploded with support for the show. And it wasn’t just everyday fans of the clever ensemble comedy but some high-powered voices emerging from the choir, including Guillermo Del Toro and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The pressure for someone to save Nine-Nine was instantaneous and booming, amplified by the loudspeakers of social media.
NBC responded to that deafening buzz. By the end of the next night, the network that helped define the template from which Nine-Nine worked (in shows such as The Office and Parks and Recreation) had picked up Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher and the gang. Total time canceled: 31 hours. It helped that the show was produced by NBCUniversal, so network executives already believed it was high-quality; but they certainly noticed the reaction from the “loyal and passionate fan base,” says Tracey Pakosta, Co-President Scripted Programming, NBC Entertainment.
Two weeks later, it happened again. Responding to a trending topic called #SaveTheExpanse, which reached such a fever pitch that a GoFundMe started taking donations to fly banners over Amazon headquarters in Seattle, Jeff Bezos and Co. reached into the pile of canceled shows and pulled out The Expanse, which had been axed by SyFy after three seasons. Bezos made the announcement himself at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference, in front of the program’s showrunner, Naren Shankar, and stars Cas Anvar, Wes Chatham and Steven Strait, who’d been on a panel at that same event just an hour earlier.
Lucifer star Joe Henderson knew that his Fox drama had loyal fans, but even he was blown away by the support for the show after it was canceled on May 11th, captured in the hashtag – what else? – #SaveLucifer. Netflix heard the outcry on social media, and did something they’d done with another Warner Bros. TV show called Longmire just a few years ago to great success: On June 15th, they resurrected Lucifer. As Henderson tweeted, “Thank you thank you THANK YOU to all the #Lucifer fans. You brought us back. YOU did this. So relax, take a breath, put some ice on those fingers that have been hashtagging up a storm…and get ready for more deviltime.”
Yet fan response is only part of the picture. Not every campaign is going to work, and hashtags can sometimes backfire. “While you always want your shows to have the most passionate social following possible, it’s tricky to place too much importance on online petitions and trending topics,” says Bela Bajaria, Vice President, Content for Netflix. “It’s one factor, but [our] internal viewing data gives a much more thorough picture of fans around the world who may not be on social or may watch the show in different ways. In some cases, you’re seeing a vocal minority, not an overwhelming majority.” In the case of Lucifer, Netflix noted how past seasons of the show, already available via the streaming giant at the time of cancellation, were performing globally, and that unique metric impacted their decision. Streaming services can effectively get a “sneak peek” of how new episodes of shows will do for them just by looking at how their old episodes have connected with viewers – an edge traditional broadcast networks could never have.
Network branding also means less and less in a market in which more and more people are watching shows through streaming services. Young audiences don’t care what network a show originally aired on as they catch up with it on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon or YouTube. And now that the days of having to find a show at a specific time on a specific day of the week on a specific channel are long gone, a TV program can more easily jump networks, more free agent than player stuck with one team for their whole career. In turn, that means networks can look at any show that’s been canceled not as a failed project but as an enticing property with a back catalog and built-in fan base, which often inspires more confidence than the annual parade of new pilots. And it allows streaming services to dismiss the timeworn fixation on Nielsen ratings. As Bajaria says, “Traditional networks can place importance on metrics that aren’t always a factor for streaming services. For us, viewing relative to cost is our biggest consideration.”
The trend isn’t without its complications. Many shows get the pardon from the death chamber only to be canceled again shortly thereafter because they fail to draw enough eyeballs. Case in point: NBC heeded fans’ pleas to bring back Timeless, but ratings didn’t improve enough to get it to a third season, and it was canceled again on June 22nd. And some resurrections – like the long-awaited but underwhelming fifth season of Arrested Development – aren’t always good for the legacy of the program. The current market allows for more possibilities, but ultimately, quality will always matter. “A good show needs to stand on its own and feel relevant,” says Pakosta. Still, she adds, “in our current landscape, success can look different for different shows on different platforms. There’s no question that the vast number of ways and places audiences can consume content these days can make space and opportunity for something that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.”
What does this mean for the future? The cross-network renewal is something that is going to happen with greater frequency as fans are more empowered via social media and networks shift strategies based on how people watch TV. While it’s easy to complain about the overcrowding in the market, the expansion that has come with streaming services and newly competitive cable networks should allow for more good programming to survive. More “space and opportunity” means more chances for great shows to find an audience. Consider this: It’s hard to believe that shows like Firefly, Pushing Daisies or Wonderfalls would be consigned to the brilliant-but-canceled bin of history were they made today. Someone would grab them. In the end, this feels like a positive development for both loyal fans and television overall. If it’s good enough, it will find a home. If people are vocal about their love for it, it will find a home. Netflix and Twitter haven’t only changed the way we watch and express appreciation for television – they’ve given creators of quality TV a second chance.