This critics’ roundtable on “egregiously canceled shows” brings up the obvious question: what is an unfair cancellation? Most of the shows on lists like these (even shows like Frank’s Place and Firefly where network politics were probably a factor in the cancellation) failed the basic test for a viable show: they did not perform better than the shows they replaced, or the shows the network could replace them with. It’s hard to argue that a show was unfairly canceled when the network could slide in another show and get better ratings.
Now, as we are often told, some shows started off with poor ratings and eventually became hits because the network gave them another chance. (Cheers is the most famous test case.) Normally these are shows on struggling networks where bad ratings are not, by their standards, all that bad. Cheers was lucky enough to be on NBC at a time when NBC had almost nothing except The A-Team. Friday Night Lights was similarly lucky to be on a version of NBC that’s almost as badly off as it was in the early ’80s. If these shows had been on the NBC of the late ’90s, which still had actual hit shows and the ability — or perceived ability — to create new hits, they would not have been so lucky; Freaks and Geeks was on NBC when it wasn’t desperate, and a non-desperate network can’t put up with F&G’s level of ratings.
Then there’s Arrested Development, the fairest of all unfair cancellations; a show that was given so many chances by Fox that even the show itself acknowledged this. (“We’ve been given plenty of chances. Maybe we’re just not that likable.”) It’s hard to argue that Fox had a civic duty to do more than 53 episodes of an expensive show that couldn’t get good ratings under any circumstances.
I think a truly unfair cancellation would be a show that has actually proven its ability to perform at a fairly good level, cancelled by a network that doesn’t actually have much to replace it with. Whatever my personal feelings about Family Guy, its cancellation was obviously a mistake (acknowledged and corrected by Fox) because it had proven its ability to out-draw other Fox shows, even other Fox shows that lasted longer. Deadwood is another case in point; HBO execs clearly believed they could put shows in its place that would do better, and of course, they couldn’t. These genuinely unfair cancellations usually happen to a show in its second or third season: it tends to be a show that did well early on, then faltered for some reason (change in time slot, usually), and the network gives up on it instead of trying to figure out how it can get back to where it was early on.