Why Some Shows are Dead Before they Hit the Air

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/29/09

The more-or-less cancellation of “Defying Gravity,” as well as the recent end of “Kings” has brought up some discussion of why the networks put on shows, and then don’t promote them, why some shows seem orphaned before they hit the air, and why the premature cancellation of SF programming is the norm, and not the exception. Some of you already know this, but for those who don’t, this is probably as good a time as any to explain some of the basic facts of life of Network Politics:

Some shows are born to die.

There’s a million different reasons - sabotaging someone else’s career to promote your own, a flurry of unexpected notoriety, a contractual obligation, economic problems - you name it. As a side-effect of the weird, Byzantine deals under which TV shows are made in the first place, you get all kinds of weird blowback. For instance, Matt Groening created The Simpsons, Fox’s first, and most enduring hit. As part of his contract with the network, he had a “Development Deal” which allowed him to develop other shows for the network, with a guarantee that they’d make at least one of them. Despite the fact that Groening has made planets worth of money for Fox, he signed on to that network in it’s wild west days, when they were much less ‘hands on’ than they are now, and while Simpsons is still unquestionably the biggest hit ever, the Studio Suits can’t really take credit for it, since it was running when they got there, and - as it’s under a late-80s contract - it’s still effectively autonomous, relative to the modern shows. Groening and his people have cranked out somewhere around 35 concepts for TV shows, all of which Fox rejected because either they were legitimately half-assed (A live-action Krusty the Klown show), or because they were good pitches (A Simpsons spinoff featuring the supporting characters, but not the Simpsons themselves) simply didn’t want a guy they couldn’t really control to have any more mojo around the studio.

They were obliged to make *one* of them, however, before the deal expired, and thus Futurama was born. Rumor - unsubstantiated - has it that they deliberately picked the weakest concept pitched, knowing it would fail inexpensively, thus saving themselves years of production costs, and also saving them paying Groening a fine. The show ended up being a cult hit, dying, coming back, dying, coming back again, but assuming any of this well-known story is true, the show was greenlit without any intention of it getting past the initial order of 13 episodes.

Another example is “Crusade,” the failed spinoff to Babylon 5. Now, B5 had tolerable ratings, and a great reputation, and a lot of buzz, but, owing to the changing syndicated TV landscape, it got cancelled prematurely. TNT quickly snapped up the show for cable, giving them a year to wrap up their storyline. What TNT *really* wanted, though, was a Star Trek-styled hit that would run indefinitely, which is why they gobbled up B5. Joe Straczynski refused to sell out his vision of a show with a firm beginning, middle, and end, however, and insisted the show had to conclude at episode 110, as he’d always planned. However, he promised them a shiny new spinoff - Crusade - which would pick up the story and run with it in exciting new ways, and *That* one was less arc-driven. It could run for three years, for seven, you know, whatever the Network wanted.

Season 5 of B5 ended up being comparatively lame, and is generally everyone’s least favorite. The ratings were weak. TNT realized they’d bought an old dog on its last trick, but - here’s the deal - they were contractually obligated to produce and run a spinoff to a show that no one bothered to watch on their network in the first place. What do they do? Opt out of the contract? No, that would be more expensive than just making the damn show. Instead, they made 13 episodes, then cancelled it, citing “Low ratings.” They still took a bath, but less of one than if they’d been more upfront and said “We just don’t want it anymore.”

In the case of “Kings,” it appears NBC was looking for a new, weird, Lost-sized hit to replace ER. They jumped at Kings, despite it’s $4million/episode budget (Cheap, compared to ER), but then someone decided to milk ER for another half-season’s worth of “Goodbye” episodes, so King’s intended slot suddenly wasn’t available. By this point, the show was shaping up to be much weirder than NBC had anticipated, and by the time the first 13 episodes had aired, they were all pretty much embarrassed by the show. Dead before it hit the air.

A similar story is told of “Firefly.” Fox wanted a new Whedon show, since he was the golden boy with “Buffy” and “Angel” on the air. They’d signed a development deal with him, just like they had with Groening. He turned in “Firefly.” They didn’t *want* firefly, they wanted another Buffy spinoff, but they were obliged to produce it just the same. Even so, the show was dead before it hit the air.

The classical example, however, is the Original Battlestar Galactica (1978/79):

Now, as you all know, Science Fiction on TV hit a peak in the mid/late 1960s, when you had Trek, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, The Outer Limits, and various Spy-Fi shows all running more-or-less concurrently (And in the UK: The Prisoner and Dr. Who). This boom went bust around 1968 or 1969, however, and in the decade following, not a *single* American SF show went more than one season. Most didn’t even get that far.

Around 1976, Glenn Larson pitched a show to ABC called “Adam’s Ark,” which the network recognized was pretty half-assed, and they said “No.” In 1977, Star Wars hit, and became the biggest blah blah blah blah you know the drill. ABC wanted a piece of this actions, so they started casting around for an SF show, and they called Larson up. “Well, sure, you can have it, but I’ve continued to tinker with it, and now it’s called ‘Battlestar Galactica’” The network listened to his new pitch, realized it was even *more* half-assed than the original, and gleefully snapped up the show immediately.

“Why would they want a half-assed show,” you ask?

Well, remember: SF was expensive to produce, and not terribly rewarding financially: Every SF show made from 1969 to 1977 had bombed. Lots of development costs, no profits. ABC decided to put this to work for them. They were convinced the “SF Boom” would be short-lived. Six months, and everyone was gonna’ want movies about killer sharks and over-sexed hair stylists again. All they needed to do was show the public the candy they wanted right now, and get rid of it by the time their interest waned. Ergo: they decided to sign and run a show that would be highly visible, attract a lot of people, and then crash-and-burn as quickly as possible. “Galactica” appeared to be just such a show.

“But why would they…”

Tut, tut, bear with me here for a minute: They saw the show as a loss leader - the thing that would get people ‘in the store,’ so to speak. Come for the show, stay for the steaks. The concept was that they’d promote the hell out of Galactica to get people to tune in for it, and in the process they’d see some of ABC’s new high-profile sitcoms like “Up All Night” and “Angie,” which would be positioned immediately before and after it.

“Galactica” was initially commissioned as a series of “Movies of the Week” - three or four, airing through the course of the season (And this probably would have been the best format for it, really) - but based on the massive public interest their announcement generated, they ultimately decided to make it a weekly series, bumping up production from 8 hours to 22 hours. No big deal, they didn’t figure half of that would ever be made. They were sure with such a goofy-assed concept, the thing would be dead in 8 weeks, 13 tops.

It was a hit!

Oh, they were screwed, unbelievably screwed. As a loss leader, they figured they could eat six or eight million bucks over the course of the season, since they’d make that back in advertising on their cheap, highly-successful sitcoms like Mork & Mindy and Happy Days. But remember, a million bucks back in 1978 equals $3,302,929.45 today! With a million-dollar-per-episode budget, the show was looking to eat up something like $67 MILLION dollars in the course of a year! They simply couldn’t afford success like that! Added to which, they weren’t making any money: All their new sitcoms had quickly bombed. Only “Angie” would make it to a second season. Even massive hits like “Mork and Mindy” massively faltered around the time Galactica appeared, and never recovered.

As “Fantastic Films” reported in 1981, ABC had “Angered the television gods, and would pay.”

What could they do? They couldn’t just cancel a hit, but they couldn’t afford to keep it on, so, in the worst traditions of corrupt politicos who don’t want the votes from the ghetto to count, they gerrymandered. They moved Galactica all over the schedule, pre-empted it like crazy, reran episodes endlessly. The audience wanted to watch it, but they couldn’t find it. How many times was it jerked around on the schedule? I don’t know, but I *do* know the only shows in the entire history of TV that have been shuffled around more than Galactica are WKRP in Cincinnati and 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Even so, it only sank to 22nd in the ratings, which isn’t terrible, even in 1979. Low enough to cancel it, however. But even this worked against them: Their new shows having failed, their old shows failing, and a high-profile success that damn near bankrupted them - to this day, it’s still a bit unclear how much money Galactica ate up. Adjusting for inflation, it’s certainly no less than $67 million, but there’s a lot of front-end development costs, advertising, and stuff like that. Reasonable estimates - adjusted for inflation - are in the range of $100 million, and I’ve seen some that run as high as $140 million. As a result of this debacle, ABC fell from it’s decade-long reign as the highest rated network to third place, and, on top of all that, they got a lot of bad press from cancelling the show. Remember that kid who killed himself when they announced it wasn’t coming back? Remember how Larson - a very successful producer in those days - complained about them cancelling a show with ratings that clearly justified a second season, though probably at a reduced budget? Remember the fan write-in campaigns?

Write-in Campaigns were new, effectively invented by Harlan Ellison in the bid to save Trek in the late sixties. Nowadays, a character can’t change haircuts without a petition complaining to the broadcaster, but back then such things were few and far between, and kind of scary for the suits, who like telling the audience what to do, and not the other way around.

Another plan was hatched: We’ll bring Galactica back in an even-more-half-assed fashion. This was Galactica: 1980. The show was intended (By the network) with one thing in mind: To be such an embarrassment that no one could say “Galactica” again without wincing. This show, too, was born to die, but more than that, it was born to sully, born to kill.

And it did.

So that’s how it works in the big leagues, kids. That’s why so many shows that have potential wither on the vine and die.

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