Why Do Great Shows Get Cancelled?

The world of television is a cruel, cruel place sometimes. For those of us who love to watch TV shows, there's always something new around the corner. In fact, last year, there were over 350 shows that were scripted. That's A LOT of television to take in, and with so many choices, it's no wonder some unfortunate shows get the axe.

I have a friend who downloads the entire Internet. He so far has 37 percent on his hard-drives. He watches every show, knows every actor and all the news related to new stuff coming out. So when he harassed me to watch Firefly, a space sci-fi written by a nerd god Joss Whedon, I wasn't really interested. It took him months to make me see it. And when I finally did, it was surprisingly fun, smart and imaginative.

The opening credits start with a slow guitar ballad country-style and end with a scene of wild horses running on the prairie and then a spaceship flies overhead. Horses and spaceships, I know it sounds strange, but bear with me. This space western set in the year 2517 follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a "Firefly-class" spaceship, as they travel and smuggle their way through the unknown parts of the galaxy, to distant colonies with a Wild West vibe (say that three times quickly) evading the authorities, bad guys, other crooks and deadly space zombie-like Reavers. And everybody speaks English but swears in Chinese, even the old hobo in some alley (based on the idea the two last big superpowers on Earth were the US and China).

Are you interested yet? You should be. Go and find it, watch it and get back to this post. I'll wait.

There we go. Did you notice it's the only sci-fi show that has no sound in the space flight sequences? Yep, vacuum of space makes no sound. Firefly got canceled after only eleven episodes (fourteen are available on the DVD in season 1), even though at the time it already started creating a cult-like following. There are still guys running around conventions in big brown dusters calling themselves 'Browncoats', after the scrappy rebellion force fighting the evil interstellar corporation made up of inner, richer planets. Firefly still generates plenty of rumors regarding its resurrection, even though it was canceled by FOX almost 13 years ago. Joss Whedon later became the writer and director of a little movie called The Avengers. In the end Hollywood did recognize his talent, and he is now celebrated as an icon of geek culture, a smart and legitimate writer and a passable director.

For every series that gets the rare opportunity to make enough episodes and seasons to fill a whole shelf full of DVDs (if you're into that ancient technology), there's a Firefly. For every long-running series like Supernatural and The Simpsons that is going on for what seems like forever, there's a Jericho, and Freaks and Geeks -- shows that, when mentioned in casual conversation, cause fans to wince with the pain of powerful nostalgia. What might have been if only the network didn't cut it early? Why is my show cancelled? Why do all the good shows get cancelled? Why wasn't my favorite show given a chance!?

Arrested Development follows the Bluths, a formerly wealthy and completely crazy family, as a level-headed son takes over his family's affairs after his father is put in jail.
The reason its so funny is because it's the ultimate portrayal of dysfunctional family relationships. There are no sane members of this family, period. The show chronicles the lives of a bunch of spoiled, manipulative and self centered narcissists that go out of their way to make life more difficult for each other. And the amount of easter eggs alone was enough to make people rewatch it and creat charts (charts!) or references that go back and forth between the three original seasons. Although Netflix has picked this show back up and released a fourth season, the fact is that this show was canceled for a long time.

Some shows like Breaking Bad were almost canceled halfway through, and some shows like Wonderfalls and recently Hannibal, both created by Bryan Fuller, got chopped as well because of poor viewership numbers, even as the critics adored them.

Maybe the 'brilliant' shows are too niche or ahead of their time which leads to a small devoted audience, or an audience which grows steadily over a long period of time until it becomes labeled as underrated. And of course, if it's a network show, you can't forget the adds. More and more people are watching shows via file-sharing and other methods which don't allow for them to be counted in the viewership. My guess is that many of these forward-looking viewers are doing it first and foremost to avoid commercials, which does give an accurate picture of how many people are willing to sit through one minute of commercial for every two minutes of content. And it is the ones who watch the ads who pay the bills -- advertisers will not support a show where their ads are not also viewed. Sadly, I suspect that the people refusing to waste their lives watching endless ads are the exact audience for the more intelligent shows.

Ultimately, the shows get cancelled for a very simple reason -- not enough people show up to watch them. Networks have high expectations and with alternative cable channels and internet media to compete with these networks, the viewership numbers seem small and begin to fall, and yet the networks do not adjust their expectations.

Fortunately, there are more and more forms of distribution arriving and so we'll start to see different business models emerge -- Netflix, for example, produced the House of Cards by itself and released the whole first season on the same day. House of Cards is directed by David Fincher, one of the greatest directors of our time, to whom I will get back to some time in the future.

Great shows come and go all the time, and it stings when the ones you love get extinguished well before their time. But with streaming services producing their own shows and not relying on the ancient rating systems, you can be sure we're going to see great TV in the future. As Fincher himself said: "The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that's dead. A stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic. The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there's reason to believe they will do it."