Tuesday, WGN America announced the cancellation of it’s critically acclaimed drama Underground, and Black Twitter went off to say the least. While it’s easy to suggest that Underground’s cancellation is due to “Hollywood racism,” this instance is a bit more complex than the latter.
Last year, John Landgraf, head of the FX network, stated that we were entering the era of “peak TV,” suggesting that networks and streaming services were producing more content than viewers can watch; however, with the news of WGNA’s Underground, in addition to high cost scripted programs at other networks, it seems like the era of peak television driven by an explosion of cable originals could possibly be winding down.
“As WGN America evolves and broadens the scope and scale of its portfolio of series, we recently announced that resources will be reallocated to a new strategy to increase our relevance within the rapidly changing television landscape,” Tribune Media president and CEO Peter Kern said in a statement. He added that despite being a “terrific” and “important,” the series “no longer fits with our new direction.”
“If you take a look at the ratings that WGNA generates, it doesn’t justify the type of spending that they do on the original programming side,” said Sinclair Chief Executive Officer Christopher Ripley. Outsiders, which won’t be renewed, drew just 387,000 viewers in the first five months of this year, according to Nielsen.
TV networks have been pouring money into original series to compete with fast-growing streaming services, like Netflix and Amazon which combined will spend an estimated $11 billion this year on TV shows and movies, including the rights to shows that have already aired elsewhere. TV ratings are down just about everywhere as cord cutting accelerates and less popular networks are left out of new cable-like TV services from Hulu, YouTube etc.
WGNA is not the only network that has cut back on their original programming. A&E recently announced that despite it’s success, Bates Motel will be the last scripted show on the network that use to be solely focused on biographies, documentaries and reality shows like Duck Dynasty. The audience grew over the past two years; however, it never reached 1 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.
MTV international networks actually increased their audiences by focusing on unscripted shows. Now, MTV in America is following suit. The network canceled the scripted comedy series Loosely Exactly Nicole and Mary + Jane and released new reality shows such as My Super Sweet Sixteen.
MTV is also moving back towards focusing on reality shows like The Real World and Jersey Shore. Five years ago, the network invested heavily in scripted programming, but ratings dropped because that’s not what viewers expected, according to Bob Bakish, CEO of the parent company.
It’s clear that with so much content circulating the market, the days of a single successful show changing a channel’s reputation is clearly over.
We are hopeful that Underground will find a home at another network; however, Underground showrunner Misha Green currently has a deal to run Jordan Peele’s new HBO series. Only time will tell what lies ahead for the ground breaking underground railroad series.