With all the cancellation announcements that occurred last week, fans of shows like Revolution, Almost Human, Dracula, Star-Crossed and more are taking to the streets to rally for a savior that will keep their favorite TV series alive, and this ultimately leads to the onslaught of dreaded Save My Show campaigns. But so often these efforts result in wasted time and money and ignore the fact that the cancellations were driven by hard business decisions, not—as generally accepted—antipathy toward a particular show. As much as fans and bloggers like to armchair quarterback the cancellations and renewals that occur each year, the network executives are the ones tasked with assuring that their companies make the fiscally responsible moves to keep their companies afloat. And in doing so, they have followed the older television production model that relies heavily on advertising revenue (driven by the ratings) as the primary means of income.
But perhaps the current telecommunication landscape holds the potential of a new model that would shift the financial burden and allow a low-rated television series to remain in production. This could work by creating a means by which the fans could contribute to financing a show through having the networks pre-sell subscriptions for an upcoming season. This would involve paying somewhere around $3 per episode (the current going rate at Amazon and iTunes) for between six and twelve episodes. The per episode cost might be higher or lower depending on how expensive the series is to produce and the episode count would probably not extend beyond twelve or thirteen to keep the overall production costs within reason. And the networks could establish the target number of subscriptions that would need to be pre-sold to keep the show in production, maybe as low as a few hundred thousand for some cable entries and possibly approaching a million for a broadcast network show. The subscription pre-sales could be run similar to a Kickstarter campaign: if the target number is reached, then the subscribers are charged otherwise they are not. And the networks could run the subscription pre-sales themselves (or with a close partner) to cut down on the costs associated with a middleman like Amazon or iTunes and assure most of the money goes toward the production costs.
This model would invest the fans in the future of a series and—to borrow a tired cliche—get them to put their money where their mouth is. If the series is successfully funded, then the subscribers would perhaps get their episode downloads in advance of a general release, after which the series would be made available for purchase from services like Amazon and iTunes. And this would also give the networks an additional asset because they would have original programming available to them which they could slot into gaps in the schedule during low viewership times such as the Winter and Summer months. Since a good chunk of the financing for the series would have come upfront, the add revenue would not have to be as high and may just add to the bottom line if pre-sales generated enough money to cover the production costs. This works into a win-win situation for the fans and the networks and allows low-rated shows to avert cancellation and potentially build enough episodes for an eventual syndication run and/or multiple DVD sets, both of which would generate additional revenue.
Fans of television series (especially sci fi) have shown they will go to great lengths to keep their shows alive and spend large amounts of money to generate interest for their cause (just look at the amount that Jericho fans spent for their nuts campaign and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles fans spent on their publicity campaign). But ninety-nine percent of the time that is effort and money gone to waste. Why not redirect those energies and dollars down a more productive path that could go to financing additional seasons of a cancelled TV series? A twelve episode subscription could run somewhere between $24 and $60 which is doable for most fans and allows them to demonstrate how tangible their support for a show really is. And the fans themselves will generate much word-of-mouth publicity, reducing or even eliminating the need for advertising the pre-sales.
This new approach for producing a television series and may at first make network executives as well as production companies and studios hesitate. But in this age of dwindling ratings for the broadcast networks, it may offer a viable alternative path for producing episodic television that shifts the financial burden at least partly away from the networks and also distances these shows from the clutches of the Nielsen ratings that have dictated their fates for so long. And in some cases there are long term financial benefits to to keeping a show going which is not generating sufficient short term profits based on the old production model (the multi-billion dollar franchise that Star Trek grew into is a clear example of this). It certainly can’t hurt to dabble with the concept and several recent cancellations could make good test cases like NBC’s Revolution which has a loyal fanbase and is not too far from a syndication friendly count of episodes or The CW’s Star-Crossed which has developed a notable following and has lower production costs.
Based on recent feedback I have heard, the fans are willing to take the leap, so now it is up to the network executives to give this model a good hard look (possibly adding their own tweaks) and see if it presents a practicable means of keeping lower rated shows with strong fanbases in production and profitable (or maybe even as an option for producing new shows). The support from the fans is there, and they look to the networks to take the next step to see if this can become a reasonable option going forward.