When you want to make jokes about cancellation, Fox is the go-to-punchline. (Failure jokes are reserved for NBC.)
Fox famously canceled Arrested Development, Firefly, Futurama, and Family Guy.
But then Fox went soft.
It gave Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles a second season, and then the following year gave Dollhouse a second season. It not only resurrected Family Guy but gave its creator, Seth McFarlane, two more shows as penance. And then despite the fact that Fringe has had three seasons of so-so to dismal ratings, it gave Fringe yet another season.
Has Fox returned to its evil, show-killing ways? Not quite. Remember, Fox is a business, not an arts foundation that rewards quality programming.
1. Each show was given a fair shake: Lie to Me got three seasons, all without ever making much of a dent on ratings or national conversations. Human Target got two seasons and underwent a massive revamp — changing the music, adding thinly written female characters, butchering the theme song — that didn’t do anything to improve the ratings. Breaking In not only premiered after American Idol and squandered the lead-in, it was such a generic sitcom that people forget it when listing generic sitcoms (Happy Endings, Perfect Couples, Mad Love …)
Chicago Code is the most painful cancellation here. It was by far the best show canceled this spring. But it never found a true audience with the young demographic, despite considerable promotion during the football season. And Chicago Code never had the sort of critical cheerleading that creator Shawn Ryan’s other show, Terriers, got. Critics were too busy picking at the small flaws (like the not-quite-believable undercover cop) or comparing it to the stellar fifth season of The Shield to really fight for it.
In other words, these shows weren’t treated like Firefly or Futurama — or the most part, no batting them around different time slots, no showing episodes radically out of order.
2. It’s very rare that a show “finds an audience.” Everyone points to Seinfeld and Cheers. They had bad ratings in their first season, then became network flagships that dominated the competition. But Cheers and Seinfeld were a long time ago. Try to point to a more recent example from the new media landscape — with TiVos and torrents — and you can’t do it. Sure Bones, The Office, and How I Met Your Mother grew quite a bit after their first-season struggles, but those never had dismal ratings. Unlike Mother, Brittany Spears guest starring on the canceled shows won’t be enough to save them.
3. Fox is a risk-taking network. Date a lot of dangerous guys, in other words, and expect a lot of breakups. Many of the shows the network cancels — especially Breaking In — were crazy ideas that had a slim chance of succeeding on a network. But that’s a point in Fox’s favor. It gave these shows a chance — even for 13 episodes — to show what it could do. For all the flack Fox gets for canceling Firefly, greenlighting a show about sci-fi outlaw cowboys flying around in space is insane.
4. Fox is a highly rated network. The best place for your
beloved show with a niche audience? NBC. NBC doesn’t expect good
ratings. It’s thankful just to be on television. But thanks to American
Idol, Fox regularly dominates Nielsen ratings. While NBC will keep a show
like Community on for a while (because its replacement might have even
worse ratings), Fox’s expectations for levels of success are much,
much higher. Sure, it makes enough money to renew these shows out of the
goodness of its heart. But why let squeaky wheels slow it down? As NBC found
back when it lost Friends and Seinfeld, the fastest way to lose dominance is to
only have a few strong-performing shows. Your junior varsity performers have to
be darn good as well.