A number of TV channels who were dabbling in Peak TV prestige drama programming are swearing off it, euphemistically making announcements along the lines of, “we thought we could profit by bringing you something meaningful and well-made, but whoops, we were wrong, so more reality TV and action movies for you!” Earlier this year, Cinemax announced they weren’t going to continue the exquisite Victorian medical drama The Knick, as they’d decided to revert to their old model of “high-octane action dramas.” WGN recently canceled its highest rated drama, Outsiders, in the wake of Sinclair Media Group taking over from Tribune Media. The Hollywood Reporter wrote at the beginning of this month, “Once WGN America passed on… Outsiders, you knew something was up, and now its acclaimed series Underground also looks headed either elsewhere or for extinction… [Sinclair Media Group] took one look at the numbers that high-end scripted fare is doing, then glanced over at the budget and came up with a pretty firm ‘Nope’ to signal a retreat into perhaps a cheaper world of reality programming.” Now, Underground, WGN’s story about escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad, has officially been canceled.
Peter Kern, the President and CEO of Tribune Media Company, gave a depressing statement that points to a paradox of contemporary television — that the creativity, nuance, daring, and diversity we’re seeing in today’s TV landscape are fundamentally accepted by the companies who fund them insomuch as they’re profitable. TV may be a fruitful terrain for bold storytelling, but unlike Hollywood v. the indie film scene, TV’s still, even at its most innovative, overarchingly beholden to corporate positioning.
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. This move is designed to deliver additional value for our advertising and distribution partners and offer viewers more original content across our air. Despite Underground being a terrific and important series, it no longer fits with our new direction and we have reached the difficult decision not to renew it for a third season.
Season 1 of Underground had an average of 1 million viewers per episode, but its second dropped by nearly half, despite critical praise, particularly for bold storytelling choices, like “Minty,” an episode devoting an hour to a near-monologue delivered by Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman.
Apparently, Sony TV saw this coming, and had already been attempting to find another network or streaming service for Underground. The Hollywood Reporter says that OWN and BET were both being courted, but allegedly both passed due to the high cost of the series — $5 million per episode. However, John Legend, who executive produces the series, seems optimistic, and wrote a series of Tweets both criticizing Sinclair and starting a discussion about where Underground could go next.
(The New York Times just recently published a long article about this factor.)
Hopefully they will find a place to continue the story. Between this and Netflix’s cancelation of The Get Down last week, TV’s been showing its lame, socially apathetic (or in the case of Sinclair, conservative and perhaps worse than apathetic) corporatism in its cancellation of two major shows panoramically depicting black historical narratives.