Adam J Purcell Ponders… Canned TV

Published: 23rd February 2004

Canned TV

As ever, I hope this won't descend into a rant but the odds aren't good! This time I want to talk about Cancelled Television Series...

I don't have any great insights into this apparently worsening problem but I would like to think out loud, as it were. I am trying to figure out what is going wrong in the television industry, especially concerning Sci-Fi and Fantasy programmes and even more especially on US TV networks.

The axe has fallen on many a series in recent years but it was the announcement that the WB network were scrapping Angel that has really gotten me thinking.

Clearly this isn't a new phenomenon, the fan outcry that returned the original Star Trek to the screens (if only for one more year - and a dubious animated series) is well known. I can't help wonder if a similar outcry will occur when the modern Star Trek is eventually killed off, somehow I doubt it. Had the suits known how much money the Star Trek franchise would eventually make would they have cancelled it? Back then, certainly not. I'm not so sure about now, however.

There was a time, or so it seemed to me, that series lived or died on their ratings. The higher the ratings, the more the channels could charge for the adverts and the more the production company could charge the channels for the episodes. Yes, this would always have been a slightly simplistic look at the affair but at one time it wouldn't have been far off. Then came along demographics (dictionary definition: The characteristics of human populations and population segments, especially when used to identify consumer markets). Now it was much less important how many people tuned into a programme, now advertisers wanted certain types of people to see their adverts, though quantities of those still mattered. This, I think, is where our problems really began.

Even more recently another factor began to evolve - the 'lead-in'. TV remote controls are not a new piece of hardware in most homes, to say the least, but the TV station bosses are clearly concerned about their power! If a series fails to keep the audience from the previous programme on that channel, or better still improve upon it, then things are looking grim. They want you glued to their channel all night rather than flick between them and their rivals. I can certainly imagine that the studios might want to see viewing numbers by the second, or at least by the scene. It is a terrifying thought that they might attempt to graft together a programme containing only the most popular types of on screen antics and clone that ad-infinitum. Except they've already done this. What other possible reason could there be for all these clip shows - "I luv the 80's", "Top 100 Screen Villains", "The World's Worst Drivers, Ever!", "Krusty's Home Videos" or "When Wet Flannels Attack!".

This leads us into the next problem - money. Genre series aren't cheap to make. Gone are the days of the nil budget Sci-Fi series such as Doctor Who or Blake's Seven. Wobbly sets, washing up liquid bottle space ships and men in boiler suites sprayed silver or green are long gone. We have all become far too cynical and used to lavish production values. Star Wars, of course, was the start of this, even though, ironically, it wasn't by any means a large budget film it was still way out the league of a typical 'build and shoot it all in 5 days' TV show. Star Trek: The Next Generation was the final nail in the coffin of cheap Sci-Fi with it's high production values, particularly going into season two and beyond. What does it cost to put together a nostalgia clips show, much less some ropey old CCTV or viewer donated camcorder footage? Virtually nothing in comparison to your average episode of Firefly, Jake 2.0 or Crusade, without doubt. Add in the fact that, in raw ratings figures at least, these cheap shows often beat their more expensive rivals and we really do have a big problem.

What about the demographics though? On the face of it the demographics for most genre series are extremely good. Advertisers are often said to not care about anyone over 45. They want the young people with the proportionally large expendable income. Haven't we got those types in spades? Yes, and I know Babylon 5 was saved each year by its excellent demographics despite rather lacklustre gross viewing figures. Clearly that isn't holding as much sway as it used to, however. Perhaps the reality is that it is simply harder to sell to this key demographic, or our little part of it. Perhaps they can't find enough companies who have something these 'geeks' would want to buy. The latest BWM? Nah... The latest computer? Maybe, but most know enough about the subject, or know someone who does, that such adverts fall on largely deaf ears. Far easier to sell junk food and washing powder to your "Worst Home Video Attacks 2" crowd. We may be part of the key demographic but I suspect advertisers now consider us to be the worst part of that group.

Then there is the latest fad (I hope it's a fad...) - Reality TV programmes. Clearly aimed at much the same people who are fixated by soap operas and celebrity culture. In terms of production cost they've got to be a higher than the clip shows but I doubt anywhere near the cost of a decent Sci-Fi or Fantasy series. The most popular of them get huge ratings and generate an awful lot of general media interest. When was the last time that a 'cult' TV series had as much interest? How often do you hear people, general everyday people, talking about the goings on in the 'Big Brother House', or whatever the equivalent is in your part of the world? The last Sci-Fi show I remember getting anything even remotely close to that kind of exposure was the X-Files - that was a decade ago and was considered an exception even back then.

Where does that leave us? There is some evidence that the studios are, or were, trying to counter these problems and make cult TV more accessible to the masses. They really were trying to save these series. But at what cost? The behind the scenes wranglings between TNT and J. Michael Straczynski over Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade shed some light on this. Apparently they wanted more 'sex and violence'. JMS happily agreed to some minor changes, mainly changing of aspects of Crusade he wasn't so happy about to begin with (such as the dreadful uniforms) but wasn't prepared to accede to the more salacious suggestions. Crusade was cancelled before a single episode had even aired, though the 13 already filmed were later screened. I am sure there are other examples of series dumbed down in an attempt not to scare off 'normal audiences'. Arguably Star Trek falls into that category, most notably Voyager and Enterprise, though it isn't clear cut in this case - some of the effect may be simply down tired producers and writers trapped in an over used concept. Perhaps a slightly less controversial example is Alias. The first season of Alias pulled you into the web of intrigue, agents and double agents. You didn't know who was working for who or what anyone's agendas truly were. Okay, it started to get a little incredible that our sexy heroine, Sydney, could keep fooling everyone that she wasn't a double agent but that was the point - maybe the bad guys, Sloane and his SD-6, did know but were playing her? It kept you guessing and thinking. As the plot thickened every week it is easy to see that new viewers might be put off. Casual couch potatoes might ignore the plot and just sit back and enjoy Sydney kick boxing the bad guys but clearly ABC didn't want to take the chance. Come the middle of the second season there was effectively a sweeping aside of the complicated double agent plot and a greatly simplified variant swapped in.

How many series with built in complex, pre-determined, arcs still exist? A list of such series might include: Crusade, Firely, Farscape, Odyssey 5 and John Doe. They were all cancelled. In fact, with the exception of Farscape, none survived past their first season - Firefly and Crusade not even getting as far as that. This doesn't bode well for intelligent science fiction programmes. It has become all too common for the networks to pull the plug on new programmes after only a handful of episodes have screened whereas before they would at least give them an entire season. Instant success is what they appear to be after, forgetting their own histories with the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even The X-Files, that had rather limited viewership until at least their second seasons but eventually became iconic success stories.

That appears to leave us with the blandest and most populist genre series and, perhaps if we're lucky, the odd unexpected instant hits such as Dead Like Me and Carnivale - both, probably uncoincidentally, shown on subscription TV channels in the US. This raises another complication into the mix. It is usual in the US, and increasingly in the UK too, for TV channels not to make their own programmes but instead buy them from a studio. It is the TV network/channel/station that orders the episodes of the programme to be made and they cough up the majority of the money for the production costs. It is the network that effectively decides when a programme is going to be axed, irrespective of how well the series may be doing overseas or on DVD, etc. - they don't generally get the money from these enterprises, the studio does. It's all a very complicated situation, especially once you start to factor in the differences between network and syndicated programmes, so I won't go into more details in this pondering! This situation has lead to series moving between TV networks, two notable ones are Buffy going from WB to UPN and Babylon 5 leaving the defunct PTEN for TNT. Unfortunately it is rare for this to happen for axed series, in fact every time one does get canned the fans all rush about praying another network will take it up. One thing that is clear - protest campaigns, petitions and threats to stop watching their channel are no longer having any effect whatsoever.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with few, if any, options. Those of us outside of the US at least tend to know the fate of such series before we have a chance to really get into them. Sky One has recently been pushing both Jake 2.0 and The Handler heavily in the UK, trailers at every advert break for weeks, if not months. Just as these series start to actually air we find out that they have been cancelled in the US, not that Sky will advertise that fact. There have been exceptional cases where an overseas TV station might stump up a significant amount of money to save a series that is struggling in America. I can, off the top of my head, think of one such case - Due South. The BBC, the Canadian CTV network and Germany's Pro Sieben Media AG funded a third season after US network CBS pulled the plug. Such financial courage is, however, much less likely to occur if only a handful of episodes were made before the axe fell.

That's where we find ourselves and there is nothing to be done but continue to watch and support whatever good series do emerge, even if they do only last a few weeks. Perhaps eventually people will tire of repetitive Reality TV and 15 second attention span Clip Shows. Until then it is probably books for us, and the odd web site like Staggering Stories! Enjoy your favorite TV series while you can - there may be far fewer in the future.


  1. Inexhaustive List of Cancelled TV Series (around Feb 2004)
  2. Angel (WB)
  3. Birds of Prey (WB)
  4. Crusade (TNT)
  5. Doctor Who (BBC)
  6. Farscape (Sci-Fi)
  7. Firefly (Fox)
  8. Futurama (Fox)
  9. Jake 2.0 (UPN)
  10. John Doe (Fox)
  11. Millennium (Sci-Fi)
  12. Odyssey 5 (Showtime)
  13. Star Cops (BBC)
  14. Strange (BBC)
  15. The Lone Gunmen (Fox)
  16. Total Recall 2070 (Showtime)