What does it take to keep a TV show from being canceled?

Image Gallery: TV Shows "Star Trek: The Original Series," famous for beloved characters like Spock, was the first show to be saved from cancellation by fans. See more pictures of TV shows.
GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

We all have our favorite TV programs, from half-hour cartoon comedies to hour-long dramas. But has one of your favorite shows ever faced cancellation? When a show gets low ratings, networks will often try changing time slots and upping their marketing game to get more viewers. Other times, it feels like someone at the network has it in for your favorite show. No matter what the reason, sometimes even the best shows don't pull the viewership they need to keep them on air. It might seem hopeless when your favorite show is going to be canceled, but that's not always the case -- there are things you can do to help your shows stay on the air.

Fans have more power than you might think, and the long history of fans saving their favorite shows from being canceled starts in the 1960s. While networks place a lot of weight on Nielsen ratings, they're not the only determining factor in the lifespan of a show. Some shows have even come back years after cancellation, thanks to fan loyalty.

While strong fan-organized campaigns have saved quite a few shows from the chopping block, that's not always all it takes to keep a TV show from being canceled. Let's take a look at the elements that have worked in the past to save shows from cancellation or resurrect canceled shows that were beloved by fans.

Fan Campaigns

Good, old-fashioned letter-writing campaigns have saved a number of shows from the chopping block. In fact, the first show fans ever saved from cancellation, "Star Trek: The Original Series," was the result of an organized letter-writing campaign. When fans were working to keep the show on the air in 1968, they didn't have the benefit of the Internet. Instead, Bjo and John Trimble, who were experienced at running and promoting art shows, used their marketing prowess to organize fan letters. They sent a "how-to" letter out to fellow Trekkies, encouraging them to write in to NBC to support the show. The network listened, and "Star Trek: The Original Series" went on to air for an additional season.

Of course, in the age of the Internet, campaigns like this are easier to organize. Fans of the FOX series "Friday Night Lights," for example, went beyond letters and even e-mails. They organized a Facebook group and online petitions to support the show, which continued for five seasons despite low ratings.

It wasn't just online action that saved "Friday Night Lights," though. The latest trend with fan action has gone beyond just e-mails, letters and petitions. Fans still barrage network executives with letters of support, but it's becoming more and more common to include some kind of symbol that represents the show to really grab executives' attention.

In the case of "Friday Night Lights," fans sent light bulbs to network executives. Gimmicks have helped save other shows, too. To show their support, "Roswell" fans sent in bottles of Tabasco sauce (a favorite of one of the show's characters), and fans of "Jericho" sent CBS a whopping 20 tons of peanuts (in response to a character's declaration of "Nuts!" in the season finale).

Gimmicks aren't always successful, though, even when they've worked in the past. Tabasco sauce helped keep "Roswell" on the air for three seasons, but low ratings did it in after that. So what else can help a show survive?

Reviving Shows

The cast members of "Arrested Development" went their separate ways when the show was cancelled after three seasons, despite attempts by fans to keep it on the air.
The cast members of "Arrested Development" went their separate ways when the show was cancelled after three seasons, despite attempts by fans to keep it on the air.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Letters, petitions and gimmicks have helped save some TV shows, but that's not always enough. Despite a rabid fan base that organized a letter-writing campaign, online petitions, an online community and even banana baskets sent to FOX executives, "Arrested Development" was canceled after only three seasons. Ratings were too low, despite six Emmy wins. There was a possibility that Showtime would pick up the series, but in the end it came down to creator Mitch Hurwitz and the cast. In a 2006 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hurwitz said, "In truth, I had taken it as far as I felt I could as a series. I told the story I wanted to tell, and we were getting to a point where I think a lot of the actors were ready to move on." The lesson there? Sometimes it's just time for a show to end, despite the most passionate appeals from fans.

While direct fan action has helped keep some shows on the air, there have been a couple of cases where fans have been able to save their favorite shows just by being fans. When a show that didn't perform ratings-wise has stellar DVD sales and very high syndication ratings after it's canceled, sometimes the network will take another look at producing new episodes.

"Family Guy" is a classic example of indirect action saving a show. Shortly after FOX canceled the series in 2002, the first 28 episodes came out on DVD and sold more than 400,000 copies in just the first month. When Cartoon Network's Adult Swim picked up the series in syndication the next year and ratings spiked, FOX took notice and relaunched the series in 2005. "Futurama" followed suit just a few years later. 20th Century Fox saw the comedy's high ratings on Adult Swim and produced four direct-to-DVD movies. Sales of those DVDs convinced Comedy Central to begin producing new episodes of "Futurama" in 2009.

So what does it take to save a TV show from being canceled? A rabid fan base goes a long way. In the end, though, even the most valiant fan efforts can be thwarted if the talent or producers are ready for the show to end, or ratings stay too low.

For more great TV articles, check out the links on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Armstrong, Mark. "WB Heeds 'Roswell,' 'Felicity' Fan Mail." E!Online. May 15, 2000. (April 8, 2011)http://www.eonline.com/on/shows/chelsea/chelseaness/b39854_wb_heeds_roswell_felicity_fan_mail.html
  • Ausiello, Michael. "Exclusive: 'Friday Night Lights' sets end date." Entertainment Weekly. Feb. 10, 2010. (April 8, 2011)http://insidetv.ew.com/2010/02/10/friday-night-lights-to-end/
  • Ford, Sam. "Light Bulbs and Eye Drops: FNL Fan Care Packages for NBC." MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. Feb. 14, 2008. (April 8, 2011)http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/2008/02/light_bulbs_and_eye_drops_fnl.php
  • Goodman, Tim. "Die-Hard 'Arrested Development' fans already feeling sting of loss." SFGate. Nov. 14, 2005. (April 12, 2011)http://articles.sfgate.com/2005-11-14/entertainment/17399371_1_network-cuts-fox-arrested
  • Kiarnit. "Banana ball gift baskets are shipping to FOX." The O.P. April 11, 2005. (April 12, 2011)http://the-op.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?t=849
  • Schneider, Michael. "'Futurama' returns with new episodes." June 9, 2009. (April 12, 2011)http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118004722%3FrefCatId%3D14
  • Snierson, Dan. "'Development' Hell." Entertainment Weekly. March 31, 2006. (April 12, 2011)http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1178690,00.html
  • Stack, Tim. "A Brief History of the 'Family Guy' -- Important dates in the life of the animated series from Fox." Entertainment Weekly. April 18, 2005. (April 12, 2011)http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1049746,00.html
  • Stelter, Brian. "A TV Show Hopes to Cover a Lot of Ground in Postapocalyptic Kansas." The New York Times. Feb. 12, 2008. (April 8, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/12/arts/television/12jeri.html
  • Tyler, Greg. "Bjo Trimble." Trekplace. August 1999. (April 6, 2011)http://www.trekplace.com/bjotrimble.html