The death of a television show used to be a simple affair: Networks would gather at the end of the season, evaluate ratings and budgets, and decide which shows would come back in the fall. With rare exceptions, that decision was final, because with so few networks producing original programming, most axed shows had no other options. But when NBC announced the cancellation of Hannibal on June 22nd after the third season was barely three episodes in, it was hard for fans to know if they should even bother to mourn it. With so many basic cable and online streaming networks hungry to house established original shows, the life cycle of the marginal cult TV hit is growing longer and longer.
Hannibal’s cancellation may stick: Because different companies own the rights to different Thomas Harris books in the Hannibal Lecter series it’s based on, it was questionable whether the show was going to be able to adapt The Silence of the Lambs for its fourth season, which would be the next logical step in its timeline. While the show’s creator Bryan Fuller has promised creative workarounds regardless of the situation, the uncertainty might deter other networks from picking it up. Nonetheless, Hannibal’s production company, Gaumont TV, is shopping it around for a new home, and critics are speculating that NBC made the announcement early in order to give it more time to find one. The show’s ratings on NBC were too small to keep it alive on a major network, but its fanatical viewers might be incentive enough for a smaller one. As has been proven by the resurrection of shows as varied as The Killing, Community, and Arrested Development in recent years, if there’s one thing smaller networks value as much as ratings, it’s an established fanbase.
In TV’s earlier days, fans alone could be enough to convince a big network to keep a show. In 1968, the second season of NBC’s Star Trek had fairly middling ratings, and the show’s production costs were high enough that its future was seen as being in doubt. A letter-writing campaign from viewers targeted NBC’s offices for months, sending more than 116,000 pieces of mail and convincing the network to keep it for a third season with a reduced budget—after which it was canceled, as ratings declined further in its Friday night timeslot.
In 2006, the same old-fashioned trick worked again: CBS un-canceled the post-apocalyptic drama Jericho after fans sent 20 tons of nuts to the network’s offices (in reference to a crucial plot point). The show returned for a second season, but once again its ratings failed to improve, and it ended up in the same “canceled too soon” graveyard occupied by so many cult favorites (Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Paul Feig’s Freaks and Geeks, and Winnie Holzman’s My So-Called Life among them). Another member of that family was Emmy-winning comedy Arrested Development, which lasted three seasons (two of them abbreviated) on Fox, mostly because of critical support, before finally getting the axe.
But Arrested Development lived on as a fan favorite, first on DVD, and then on Netflix, where its serialized narrative was far easier to appreciate. Fox couldn’t make the show work in its structured programming blocks, but Netflix saw the opportunity to tap into the show’s growing core of supporters, and revived it for a fourth season in 2011, with a fifth—featuring 17 episodes—now in the works. Netflix and its streaming competitors don’t release their ratings figures, but they’re almost beside the point. What Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and their competitors care about is subscribers, and the easiest way to pull new paying customers in is to offer them something familiar.
That was Yahoo’s thinking when it decided to bring the NBC sitcom Community back from the dead last year. The show had long struggled to keep its head above water on network TV, weathering cast departures and the firing (and re-hiring) of its creator Dan Harmon. After its well-received but little-watched fifth season, even Harmon seemed comfortable with the idea of letting go, noting as much in a blog post. But still, it came back, valued by Yahoo for an audience that could help the show trend on Twitter, if not make major waves in Thursday night viewership.
That’s what Hannibal has working in its favor: devotees who might not count for much in NBC’s Nielsen ratings, but who have much greater impact online. That’s why the change.org petition pleading for the show’s renewal isn’t just addressed to NBC, but also to Netflix and other online networks. Any quantifiable demonstration of viewer passion, no matter how pleading, looks good, and Netflix has apparently been inundated with calls on the matter. Pity the poor phone operators at the streaming networks, to be sure, but as Star Trek fans knew in 1968, sometimes the simplest methods are the best.