Earlier this year a favorite old website died, its passing scarcely noticed. TV By the Numbers used to post up-to-the-second ratings data for network and cable TV shows. Soon after its launch in 2007, it became known as a kind of ICU ward for TV shows in critical condition. TVBN pushed out stories every day to serve the devoted fan bases of ratings-challenged shows. “Pushing Daisies: Renew or Cancel?” was a typical (and maybe quintessential) headline on the site.
TVBN even had its own mascot — the Cancel Bear. “You don’t have to outrun the bear,” the editors explained, “you just have to outrun the other guy!” This little insight was a revelation for many viewers, who thought network executives still based their decisions on how shows performed in their time period. We all have a list of favorite shows in our youth that were cancelled because they only drew 20 million viewers instead of 30 million viewers. David Letterman even made an after-school special to help us cope with the heartbreak.
In the ’90s, though, the federal government relaxed the ownership rules for studios and networks, and this wound up changing the networks’ cancel culture. For the first time, TV shows could become free agents — so if one network cancelled a promising series, it could potentially be shopped to another. There are probably still people working at NBC who rue the day in 1997 when the network cancelled JAG: Judge Advocate General after one season. The show, which came in 79th in the Nielsen ratings that year, was quickly scooped up by CBS and given a more favorable time period. JAG went on to air over 200 episodes and produce a little spinoff called … NCIS.
In the 2000s, a new chapter. Audiences began tuning into niche networks like the WB and cable channels like TNT got into the originals business. At the same time, DVRs made time-shifting possible. More than ever, it made sense not to cancel a promising show right away, but evaluate its potential upside even if its ratings were plodding along the ocean floor. A fine example of this was Supernatural, which spent years getting trounced in the ratings by the likes of Grey’s Anatomy, the NFL and Big Bang Theory. But Supernatural developed its fan base more effectively than any other show in the not-very-long-or-storied history of the CW network. And every spring, as the Cancel Bear emerged from its cave looking for breakfast, other CW programs were easier to catch.
Today, for all we know, the Cancel Bear is still roaming the hallways at Disney, Netflix, Apple, and other streaming platforms, but we can’t track its movements anymore. Netflix decided early on that it wouldn’t publish ratings data, and other streamers have followed suit. This opacity — combined with the practice of streamers dropping all episodes of a season at one time — has effectively ended the old weekly rituals of checking the overnights for your favorite endangered show.
But that’s OK, because there may not be such a thing as an “endangered show” anymore. I’m reminded of this right now because A.P. Bio, a well-received but little-watched comedy starring Glenn Howerton and Patton Oswalt, was supposedly cancelled in May of 2019. And yet, here it is, back for a third season, not on its old home of NBC, but on the Peacock streaming channel, owned by NBCUniversal.
When did this more current trend of un-cancelling shows begin? I’m not sure if it was when The Mindy Project came back, but let’s start there. Mindy Kaling’s signature comedy aired for three seasons on Fox beginning in 2012. When the network pulled the plug, Hulu — acting on its own, although it was one-third owned by Fox — picked it up. The Mindy Project relaunched that fall with 26 episodes and kept going. Kaling was able to bring her series to a satisfying end after season six.
Also around that same time, Netflix picked up The Killing from AMC and Longmire from A&E after those two networks failed to renew them. It snapped up Black Mirror from Channel 4, which isn’t even a U.S. network. These weren’t old favorites being dusted off as revivals (e.g., Arrested Development, Community). These were shows that had never been bigger than niche, were never going to be bigger than niche, but they were desirable to a streaming platform that needed fresh, proven content.
Just as the DVR gave networks added incentive to hang onto good shows, the economics driving Peak TV are keeping alive shows that have any kind of pulse with their audience and critics. As long as they can find a new platform before the cast and crew go drifting off to other projects, the show can survive at least one cancellation. And as a sign that un-cancel culture is still evolving, this year brought us the case of a show that wasn't saved by Netflix but saved from Netflix — One Day at a Time, now airing on cable’s Pop TV after getting the heave-ho from red letter N.
In other words, one channel’s trash might well be Pop TV’s, or Britbox’s, or Sundance Now’s treasure. The Expanse, the Hugo Award-winning space allegory about the Cold War, was a critical favorite with a devoted fan base when Syfy cancelled it in 2018. Scott Snowden has reported on the business end of that decision, but in the end, he writes, “being cancelled by Syfy was probably the best thing that could have happened.” That’s because Jeff Bezos loved The Expanse. Amazon Prime Video quickly acquired the show, aired a fourth season to renewed acclaim, and is gearing up for Season 5.
Then there’s Lucifer, based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. It aired three seasons on Fox which then cancelled it. The show’s studio shopped it around, and Netflix said “sold.” It recently launched its COVID-delayed fifth season.
Speaking of COVID-19, fans of Designated Survivor will say, “Haven’t I seen this movie?” That’s because Kiefer Sutherland’s mild-mannered government bureaucrat — who became the president of these United States after the rest of the executive branch was killed in Season 1 — faced his greatest peril in Season 3: a pandemic. As we now know, that was the pitch that got the show killed by ABC. Only after Netflix un-cancelled Designated Survivor were we treated to this eerily up-to-date storyline.
How far will un-cancel culture go? I think it won't be unusual to see a show survive multiple pink slips if its creator is willing to be humble and resourceful. A show’s trajectory might look like that of I Ship It, only in reverse — starting at ABC, say, then un-cancelling to Freeform, rolling over to Disney+, and finally playing out the string at Quibi. Doesn’t sound great, unless you love that show.
In 20 years, then, we’ve gone from “save our show” to “you can’t kill that show with a stick.” Un-cancel culture is a win for any fan who has loved and lost.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Ratings, Peacock, Pop TV, TNT, The WB, A.P. Bio, Black Mirror, Designated Survivor, The Expanse, JAG, The Killing, Lucifer, The Mindy Project, NCIS, One Day at a Time (2017 series), Supernatural, Cancelations, Renewals & Pickups