Exclusive: How to rescue a scripted series from cancellation

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Shows get cancelled all the time, but a fortunate few get a second chance when a new network or platform steps in to renew them. Mark Layton finds out what it takes to pull a series back from the brink

It is never welcome news when a show gets cancelled, but it can feel particularly unfortunate when a scripted series is canned; potentially ending on a cliffhanger that will never be resolved.

While this is the price that is sometimes paid to tell stories in the profit- and ratings-focused medium of television, cancellation is not always the end.

Commissioners might backtrack and stay their hand from the chopping block, sure, but more unusual is that, every once in a while, a third-party network or platform steps in to save the day and gives a show a second chance at life.

Almost Paradise

Finding the right fit

There is no real hard-and-fast rulebook for rescuing shows from cancellation, and decisions, it seems, are very much taken on a case-by-case basis by networks and platforms.

Lauren Anderson, head of AVOD original content and programming at Amazon Studios, tells TBI that there are “regular conversations” about stepping in to renew another network’s show, but “every show is a bit different”. Just the same as when making an original commission or show acquisition, the series has got to make sense for the service and its audience.

Amazon-owned AVOD service Freevee brought back two scripted shows this year; handing second seasons to both American Rust, the Jeff Daniels-led crime drama that was dropped by Showtime, and Almost Paradise, another crime drama, which originated on NewsNation (fka WGN America).

The latter decision, Anderson reveals, was an easy one to make: not only had Freevee become the show’s streaming home since its cancellation, but the AVOD had an existing partnership with Almost Paradise producer Electric Entertainment via its original commission Leverage: Redemption, a revival of 2008-2012 series Leverage.

That revival was born after the streamer saw the positive audience response to Leverage, which it had licensed, in much the same way as it has similarly brought back Bosch as Bosch: Legacy.

Anderson sees renewing Almost Paradise as an extension of the same strategy. Leverage: Redemption and Almost Paradise not only share a production company, but also a cast member in Christian Kane – who has a devoted fan following, known as Kaniacs – and Anderson says there was clear opportunity to bring existing viewers more of what they enjoy.

(Networks should be sure that) “the show has a core fan base and that producers believe there is still creative energy left and compelling storylines to be told.”

Jeff Bader, NBC Entertainment

For Almost Paradise, the synergies were clear, whereas Anderson says that American Rust is “a totally different example,” with the decision coming down to timing, as well as, again, whether it would appeal to the audience and how it would fit amongst the service’s existing offering.

“At the same time that they were hoping they could find a home, we also saw an opportunity based on the quality of the show, the incredible cast and the creators of the show,” says Anderson. “We thought that our audience on Freevee was aligned with the audience of American Rust and we felt we could support the show, both with series that we had coming prior to American Rust on our service and those that were going to come after.”

For American Rust show creator Daniel Futterman, being picked up by Freevee was one of those rare opportunities to continue the series. He says he feels “incredibly fortunate” that Anderson was interested in picking up the show and for keeping the production very much as it always had been.

“We were all in agreement; let’s make the show that we were making. That meant bringing back the same cast and making the show for the same budget. Besides that, we were given free rein with story.”

The sole impact that the transition from Showtime to Freevee had, reveals Futterman, was that “due to the downtime while we were looking for a home (and then the natural time it took to get the deals done) we lost some treasured writers and crew who needed to take other jobs.

“But we’ve got all our cast back and have filled positions that were open with tremendously talented new folks.”

American Rust

The ultimate pilot process

Over at NBC, meanwhile, Jeff Bader, president of program planning & strategy for NBC Entertainment, says that a show pick-up must “make sense financially,” while networks should be sure that “the show has a core fan base and that producers believe there is still creative energy left and compelling storylines to be told.”

Earlier this year, NBC picked up action-drama series Magnum P.I., a remake of the 1980s series of the same name, for a fifth season after it was dropped from its original home on CBS.

Also, last year, NBC concluded cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine with its eighth season. The show could have come to an end much sooner, as it was cancelled by original commissioner Fox after its fifth season, with NBC stepping in the very next day to give the popular programme another three years.

“Both shows were owned by our studio, Universal Television, so the risk factor was much lower than if we were buying them from an outside studio,” says Bader, who adds: “Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a top show on Hulu and is still showing signs of growth.”

Aside from fan loyalty, there are other clear benefits to saving a show rather than developing a new original series.

“You have a built-in audience; you have built-in awareness; you have a creative team – if you believe in the fundamentals of the original series then that means that the creative team has executed on the vision that you think aligns with what audiences want to watch. Obviously, you have performance data; in some cases you have the cast, or a portion of the cast,” says Anderson, who likens rescuing a series to “the ultimate pilot process.”

She explains: “You have a proof of concept. In old school pilot processes, you put the show together, you have a pilot, then based on that you decide that you’re going to make many more episodes – whereas if you rescue a show then you’ve got not just a first episode but many episodes to say, ‘yes, I think that this works.’”

Bader adds: “With an existing series, you have a built-in fanbase and you don’t need to spend money introducing the show to viewers.” However, despite all the pros, the NBC exec cautions that there is a possible, and rather obvious, con in rescuing a cancelled show – the fact that it was cancelled in the first place. “The show could be losing its lustre on another network and just because it’s moving doesn’t mean it will become a hit.”

Magnum P.I.

Rights & timings

Delving into the nitty gritty of these deals, in the US, Bader reveals: “The previous network doesn’t benefit when the show is picked up by someone else. Only the studio benefits since they own the show. Networks don’t own the shows nor have rights to previous seasons.”

However, that is not necessarily the case in every territory. Jeremy Roberts, head of film & TV at London-based specialist media law firm Sheridans, says that in the UK: “The issues are really ones of rights and timings.”

He explains: “Firstly, who has the right to produce the subsequent season? For shows produced in the UK for the main PSB channels, the producer will usually have that right. For the rest, it will often be owned or controlled by the broadcaster or platform – although there is usually a turnaround mechanism allowing the producer to reacquire the subsequent season rights on pre-agreed terms.”

These turnaround terms will normally give the original broadcaster or platform some kind of carried interest, explains Roberts, “perhaps in the form of a passive rights fee or profit share, or both. They are also likely to have some remaining broadcast rights in the earlier seasons. A deal might have to be done on those, as the new buyer may not want the previous seasons on a competing platform.”

Then, beyond the original broadcaster or platform’s rights, the producer will need to look at issues such as underlying rights, scriptwriters and cast.

“If the cancelled series is based on a novel, there may be a turnaround provision where the right to produce further seasons reverts to the owner, although a properly negotiated acquisition agreement should give the producer an opportunity to place the series elsewhere before the turnaround kicks in,” says Roberts.

“A main writer, or showrunner, of a previous season might have an option to write some of the episodes of the new season. Usually, that’s fine – indeed desirable – but sometimes those writer options have no time limit, and, if a long period of time has passed, the writer may no longer be the right person.”

The cast, he explains, is usually optioned for subsequent seasons for 12 months, so, by the time the original broadcaster or platform has cancelled, the cast options may have expired. If they have, cast availability may be an issue, and cast deals will have to be redone.

Any network or platform looking to rescue a show from an early demise should keep these issues in mind, but when the right opportunity to take on the right show presents itself, the potential rewards appear clear.

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