Wasn’t That Show Cancelled? – part two

by: Nichola Dobson / Independent Scholar


My last column began to address the increasingly common practise of short-lived and cancelled shows being re-packaged and sold on DVD. The column concluded with something of a cliff-hanger as I began to consider the networks part in this new form of distribution and consumption.

In the past, network decisions to cancel popular shows, or often cult shows who don’t have the mass appeal the sponsors are looking for, have been greeted with letter writing campaigns and more recently Internet campaigns to save the show. Star Trek: Enterprise saw fans involved in a letter writing campaign which included writing to people in the US government, (though with no success) and Quantum Leap’s fan campaign was successful enough to keep the show going for another two seasons.

As discussed in the previous column, it is now common practise for cancelled shows to be released on DVD format regardless of the length of the run. This has the effect of enabling fans to relive their viewing experience as well as potentially introduce new audiences to shows which are no longer on air. In the case of the anicom [1] Family Guy, the release of complete seasons on DVD had a very different effect and impact.

Since the launch of The Simpsons, and King of the Hill, the Fox network has long been a supporter of the anicom. The increasing inclusion of anicom in the lineup set the network apart in the big four as a home for animation. Despite this, Family Guy was treated differently to its long running contemporaries with frequent schedule moves which are rarely positive.

Family Guy’s future had looked poor when after the second season it was about to be cancelled, however, following a management restructure at FOX, the show was renewed for another season. Nonetheless it was scheduled on a Thursday night against popular NBC live action sitcom Friends and as a result it was not renewed for a fourth season.[2] This is a clear example of unsupportive scheduling affecting the performance of a show. Upon examining the ratings for the entire life of Family Guy it is clear that the key problem was the slot it was given. When the show began it performed well on Sunday nights, but when it changed to a Thursday night in the second year, the ratings dropped dramatically. This is also seen in the first season when, during September it was shown on a Thursday for two nights and the ratings were under half of the previous weeks, then it was put back on to Sunday and the ratings picked right up again. Despite the improved ratings the show was cancelled in 2002 after three seasons on the air.

Unlike Quantum Leap, the fan campaigns mounted on the Internet for Family Guy were not enough to save the show. However high DVD sales (and the support of cable channel Cartoon Network, and their Adult Swim slot, which aired re-runs) following cancellation demonstrated to Fox the popularity of the show. In 2005 the show was reinstated on the Fox network and scheduled on Sunday evening. There are very few shows which return to the same network that they had previously been cancelled from.[3] Not only did the network reverse its original decision but also aired another of Family Guy creator, Seth McFarlane’s anicoms. American Dad joined the network in 2005 as part of the Sunday evening line-up and is now in its second season.

Family Guy
Family Guy

Matt Groening’s second primetime anicom Futurama was subject to similar treatment by the Fox network. Despite the fact that the show was fairly adult in nature, after much moving around, Fox aired Futurama in its Sunday night line up but is scheduled immediately after Sunday night football. This early evening time slot is unusual for an adult show, even the family live action sitcom Malcolm in the Middle aired at a later time, though Futurama is arguably less suitable for an early evening audience.

Despite a large fan base, as evidenced by web based campaigns of support for the show Futurama was cancelled in season five, with eight remaining episodes held back from broadcast until much later in the year. The show was picked up in syndication by the Cartoon Network for Adult Swim, but like Family Guy has been very successful on DVD. But this time the DVD sales were not enough to convince Fox to revive Futurama, however cable network Comedy Central is rumoured (confirmed by cast members) to be commissioning 13 new episodes of the series. (At the moment there is still no concrete information of an air date.) Comedy Central has also been a supporter of anicom for a long time, as home of South Park and previously Dr Katz, Duckman and The Critic. Perhaps this is a more suitable home for a show which was always a little too adult for the primetime Sunday night audience.

But this leaves me with the question of why was Family Guy reinstated when Futurama wasn’t. Did Fox feel that 5 seasons of Futurama was enough but Family Guy still had more to offer? Fox are producing the episodes which will air on Comedy Central, so they want to be involved, they just don’t have space for it in their anicom line up? Do high DVD sales really make that much difference to the networks? Perhaps this was a one-off situation which will not be repeated, and for some shows, like Invasion it’s just as well. (See previous column).

DVD releases, combined with increasing on-line activity are clearly influencing networks behaviour as the audiences are faced with alternative distribution methods. It seems that as long as the technology supports these alternatives to the big four, and indeed cable, TV on demand, even cancelled TV will be able to live on out with the traditional fall to spring season. Additionally the globalised audiences will be able to share their experiences with the other countries that bit sooner. Just think of the activity on the internet fan boards if the US and Britain got to watch Lost at the same time!

[1] Anicom is a term for the animated sitcom as described by Dobson, N. (2003) “Nitpicking “The Simpsons”: Critique and Continuity in Constructed Realities”, Animation Journal 2003 p85.
[2] Radio interview excerpt from www.stewiesminions.com/interview.
[3] One notable example is Doctor Who which returned to the BBC after 16 years off air. Flow Volume 4, Issue 4.

Image Credits:
1. Futurama
2. Family Guy

Please feel free to comment.


  • About uncommon executive programming strategies

    Last summer, in Mexico City, an executive on television programming told me: “a program is a living animal”. I guess, in relation with cancelled shows, new technologies are opening more effective windows to talk with the dead. However this “paranormal” phenomenon is not a new one. This role of maintaining loyal audiences and gauging their responses has been played for decades by syndication programming. Syndication has maintained alive shows as old as I love Lucy and too many others already cancelled shows. Probably internet and DVDs technologies are giving to networks a fastest and more accurate response on current audience interests and product economic performance. However, this piece opens a door for an interesting discussion. Which are the factors that play a role in the dynamics of the decision making process, particularly when it comes to challenge a common fact, such as cancelled programs rarely come back to the screen? How to assess industrial, institutional, group and individual specific weight on the case of an uncommon programming decision? Executives praise themselves to know what audiences want. What they see in the social context gives them a clue of what they consider the most likely audiences preferences in a given moment. That may give us the clue for these different outcomes. This “living thing” as this executive said, is feed with strategies based on judgments from a group of professionals that assume they are connected with the viewers aspirations and the social, cultural and political pulse in historical moments. They are maybe wrong. But they make the decisions. Then, should we ask them?

  • Family Guy

    The selling of television programs on DVD has become a very common practice. Even shows that seemed somewhat unpopular have appeared on DVD. Apparently the selling of these programs is working because the shelves continue to remain filled with new releases of a television series. However although these shows seem to do well on DVD, I do not foresee many of them being re-aired on television. I think for some of the programs, showing new episodes are merely a trial and error idea of the networks. For Family Guy, when it was re-aired at a different time, it did very well and was therefore continued, but how many of those types of shows will keep high ratings on television. I think that FOX did not continue with Futurama because they already had Family Guy and did not need both shows. I think the sale of DVDs may become important in the ratings a show is receiving and will become a form of feedback for that particular show. I also think that DVDs will affect syndication of the shows.

  • DVDs Reviving Shows

    I think that the high DVD sales bringing a television show back onto the air is a rare phenomenon. Bringing a cancelled show back on the air is a huge risks that networks are afraid to make. It could be a huge loss of profit it a revived show fails. Because of the big increase in Family Guy DVD sales it was brought back onto the air. I dont think its necessary for all show with large fanbases and high DVD sales need to be revived. A network would most likely bring a show back just to make more money which means that there is a possibility that the show will change or reduce in quality, which is what I think has happened to Family Guy. I still like the show, but there is a different style to the new episodes which I dont find as funny as the older ones. A show being cancelled doesnt mean its gone forever because of DVDs and internet. There is no need to bring back every show that has a colt following or high DVD sales. DVDs let the shows live on past there time on the air.

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