Why Hulu, Netflix, and Others Don't Need to Revive Canceled TV Shows

When reports surfaced recently that both Netflix and DirecTV were “in early talks” with Fox Television to possibly resurrect the recently axed AMC drama The Killing, all I could do was laugh. No offense to fans of The Killing—there’s a time and a place to rail against the quality of that show, and that time is “the last calendar year” and the place is “the internet”—because my laughter did not have much to do with the show itself.

No, the laughter was reserved for the misguided—and, frankly, ridiculous—game the various forces in the television industry like to play now. Every single time a show with a moderate profile gets canceled, the rumors and reports start flying. This show is going to Netflix. That show is going to Hulu. And DirecTV might be interested in both. This year alone, we’ve had to go through this silly dance with Terra Nova (because any of those outlets can support that stupid-high budget), The River, and The Secret Circle, among others that I probably lost due to rage blackouts. The Killing is the latest in a long line of shows to get buzz about a possible second life despite not really deserving it.

To Netflix, DirecTV, Hulu and anyone else who might be compelled by the idea of resurrecting a barely cold television body like they’re Pushing Daisies' Ned: Knock it off. I’m pleading with you. Not only is reheating nasty leftovers a bad idea for creative reasons, but it also doesn’t make a whole lot of business sense, either.

Setting aside the very real possibility that most of these “stories” we see about shows possibly finding a new home post-cancellation are likely concocted by a crack team of savvy agents, publicists, and studio people (and therefore barely true, so “in early talks” could mean as little as Fox TV texted someone at Netflix “Rosie Larsen” and Netflix responded with a “:/” emoticon), the constant barrage of possible last-second pickups is unsettling. I think we’re all well aware that Hollywood can, at times, be creativity bankrupt and think that keeping a “known” property going is a better idea than trying something new (or in the case of most of these shows, something better). Television is risk-averse. The devil you know is better than the one you do not.

But we’ve long-known that industrial powers are creatively bankrupt or risk-averse, however you want to characterize it. The issue here is that recently, that typical operating procedure has coalesced with more contemporary industry trends, resulting in a lot of unnecessary discussion and poor decision-making.

Original Programming, Everywhere

Over the last few years, more and more cable networks and content providers have tried to get involved in the original scripted programming game. What was once a realm for just the broadcast networks—and then a realm for just the broadcast networks and HBO, Showtime, and FX—has been blown open by AMC and its successes with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. And it’s not just previously middling, unscripted-focused networks like A & E or History that are making a run at finding their version of Mad Men, it’s also providers like DirecTV, Netflix, and Hulu as well.

Make no question, DirecTV, Netflix, Hulu and other digital content providers should make a concerted effort to bring new content to their stables. As a generally well-regarded satellite provider, DirecTV has the capital to make the Audience Network work. And clearly, people are continuing to flock to Netflix and Hulu on a regular basis, so it makes absolute sense that those entities would like to intermix “new” programming with old favorites and episodes that just aired last night. It’s a win on all fronts of those three providers (along with any others, really) to produce and distribute new shows: We win, because more original programming is nice, and theoretically, they win, because they can provide a little extra incentive to drive eyes to their network or web service.

And of course, all three have already successfully helped develop and distribute programming, both brand-new and “new-to-you,” if you will. DirecTV made big waves by coming in and saving Friday Night Lights at the end of Season 2, helping the series last three more glorious seasons. Netflix already brought us Lillyhammer, which wasn’t great but served as an okay start, and House of Cards is coming soon. Hulu gave us Battleground, one of the more overlooked shows of 2012.

The issue isn’t that these content providers should stick to showing us things we could have already watched elsewhere, because they absolutely can and should keep trying to develop original programming. But the key word there is "original."* Resurrecting shows that were discarded by another network isn’t exactly in-line with a strategy based on brand-new or original content. DirecTV’s decision to keep Damages alive hasn’t necessarily backfired, but it hasn’t necessarily paid off, either, and DirecTV has given indications at times that it might be out of the reviving business. Netflix and Hulu are always part of these media rumors (no matter how valid they may be), but neither has actually gone past the flirting stage with a recently canceled show—and that’s because both companies know it won’t work.

* A key point here: I think both Netflix and Hulu have done a great job with bringing international content to the U.S. Hulu in particular has thrived with the likes of Misfits, Rev., and Prisoners of War, among many, many others. These content providers are filling an influential void with that programming and I would argue that doing so creates better brand equity than reviving dead shows. At least now Hulu is known for something other than just last night’s episodes.

The Big Bluth Elephant in the Room

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s the big Bluth elephant in the room: Arrested Development. That show is being resurrected by Netflix with new episodes coming early next year, and well, many people love Arrested Development, so it stands to reason that this deal will work out for the show’s producers, the studio, Netflix, and viewers. Although it may seem like it contradicts everything that I've said thus far, I totally agree with that. Bringing back Arrested Development is a major get for Netflix—albeit one it paid a great deal of money for—and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t bring lots of money and cultural clout to the company's struggling image.

But there are a number of reasons why to Netflix doesn’t actually contradict what I’m getting at. First of all, it’s Arrested Development. No matter your opinion on The Killing, Terra Nova or Pan Am, you can at least admit that AD is a more well-known entity. Second, I would argue that AD’s longer time away from airwaves and the weird circumstances surrounding the constant revival talks since its departure from said airwaves makes it a particularly unique experience that goes above and beyond “well, ABC didn’t have room for The River after eight episodes, so let’s do more.”

Finally, though, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that a lot of people likely first watched Arrested Development on Netflix, so they already, in some way, associate the show with the content provider (sorry, Fox). Chances are, you or someone you know finally gave in to all the after-the-fact buzz and watched the comedy on Netflix Instant sometime in the past few years, burned through all 53 episodes in 10 days, then complained that there weren’t more and railed against Fox (and maybe even pretended to have seen it years ago).

The point is, Arrested Development has been on Netflix Instant for a long time and more people probably found the show there than on Fox. There’s a brand synergy there that directly stems from the Netflix user experience, which, when combined with the general positive rub that comes from bringing back a beloved cult comedy, makes total sense for Netflix.

Most of the shows that get brought up in the "swoop in for the save" conversations these days are ones that were just canceled and therefore weren’t given much or any time to actually cultivate an audience on the possible saviors' platforms. Maybe a lot of people watched season one of The Killing on Netflix once it was put up for streaming, and maybe a boatload of people watched Terra Nova on Hulu because they couldn’t catch it Monday nights in the fall. But I find it hard to believe those things, and even if those lines of reasoning are true, the amount of people who watched those two shows online still likely pales in comparison to the number of Arrested Development streams on Netflix.

Don't Be a Dumping Ground

Therefore, in considering shows like The River or Terra Nova or The Killing, these growing content providers are not only picking up shows that weren’t particularly beloved in the first place, they also aren’t thinking about how the shows will fit alongside their "regular" content (i.e. just-aired episodes from last night or full runs of much older programming). Granted, this is a problem the providers will have to face with brand-new, entirely original programming as well, as anyone who watched Battleground on Hulu can attest to. Whether the programming is new or “new,” Hulu, Netflix, and their kin have to figure out how to blend it with everything else in the back catalogs.

In any event, much like the struggles AMC has encountered outside of its “big three” programs, Netflix, Hulu, DirecTV, Amazon and whoever else is going to discover that building up a stable of original programming and a real, palpable brand is extremely difficult. AMC has the two best shows on television and the most popular show in basic cable history and the network is still a mess. You can’t just say you’re going to start bringing in original programming and then everything works out.

The choices have to be strategic, and while I think Netflix, Hulu, and DirecTV have been pretty wise to stay away from some of the shows that, frankly, don’t deserve a second life, getting wrapped up in the conversation each time isn’t good for business either.** They shouldn’t want to be the dumping ground for presumed-better networks’ trash.

** Again, I think that industry forces are probably at work with some of these stories, as are fans, who, through the power of social media, can make it appear as if there is a large, or at least loud and active, base who wants to see more of a show. Still though, just as there is no value in letting publicity people or studios sway decision-making, there certainly isn’t value in letting what’s trending on Twitter play any role in what airs where.

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