In Defense of TV Cancellations

By Joshua Alston
By day's end, we'll have a complete picture of what the broadcast television schedules will look like for fall. The CW, the final network to announce its fall slate, will likely confirm today what's been reported in the Hollywood trades for weeks—Privileged is out, and the Gossip Girl spinoff is probably not happening. But nothing the CW could announce will compare to the programming shockers already laid out this week.

In notable cancellations, ABC axed Samantha Who?, the Christina Applegate comedy that was critically acclaimed and nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Emmy for Jean Smart. When it premiered in 2007, Samantha bolted out of the gate as the top-rated new sitcom. But without a strong lead-in, the ratings foundered, and now the show is missing from ABC's schedule. NBC, meanwhile, euthanized My Name Is Earl, which, like Samantha, was about a character's effort to repair bad karma and got off to a good start before wobbling in viewership numbers. CBS will retire two multi-season dramas, Without a Trace and The Unit.

But there were also notable saves: NBC rescued the cult hit Chuck, which will return with a slashed production budget and a product placement deal with Subway that strongly suggests new plots involving $5 foot-long sandwiches. The Peacock also re-upped the creatively flagging Heroes, albeit for a shorter seasons. (An episode order has yet to be finalized.) Fox brought back all of its freshman drama series from this year, including the Joss Whedon-created Dollhouse, which looked all but dead. ABC will hold onto the once-mighty Ugly Betty, though moving it to Friday nights isn't exactly a vote of confidence.

Every year, the same routine, and every year, fans react in the same way, either with elation or horror, and usually both emotions are misplaced. I understand them, though. The beauty of a television series is that it requires such an investment of time and attention. We become attached to television characters in a way we can't get attached to characters in a one-off movie or book because we spend so much time with them. Within every one of us is an Annie Wilkes, the deranged, profanity-averse superfan of Stephen King's Misery. We want our shows back, and when we don't get them, we get upset.

The problem is that television is a business, and businesses have to make money. When a show can't turn in a decent profit, it has to either go away or find a way to make money. The trend lately is to attempt to split the difference. Take the case of Friday Night Lights, the NBC show that has over time become more the property of DirecTV, which foots a big chunk of the production costs in exchange for the right to broadcast it first. Fans of the show who are not DirecTV customers have to wait until NBC picks it up afterward. Worse things have happened than that, to be sure, but these latest saves seem a little more fraught. How many times will Chuck (Zachary Levi) suddenly have a hankering for Subway before audiences get annoyed?

The fact is that the creative viability of a show and its financial viability are intertwined; when the money isn't coming in, something has to give. Think of David E. Kelley's old legal drama The Practice, which fired nearly all of its top-line stars in order to bring the show back. Or CBS's Jericho, which returned after an unprecedented grassroots campaign, only to come back with production cuts so dramatic, even a casual viewer could tell how much cheaper the show looked. It's a tough decision, but if a show is on life support, and it's clearly suffering, do you pull the plug?

I say yes. I've suffered as much as anyone with television cancellations (I still ache for more Pushing Daisies), but as a wise man once wrote, it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It's always fashionable to dump on the networks, but as much as is said about the all-consuming quest for ratings, I still believe that network television is an industry that tries new, daring and different things and gives them a chance to find an audience. Does it always work out? No. But when it does (see Lost, 30 Rock) the results give us a destination once a week. And when it doesn't, well, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and give something else a try. Or you could read a book or something.