Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.
Here’s a pop quiz: what are your top five favorite TV shows of all time?
Got ’em? Okay, great. Now, what shows immediately came to mind? The West Wing? Breaking Bad? All in the Family? The Sopranos?
Hold that thought. This is a multi-part quiz.
So you’ve got your list. Now here’s a quick follow-up question: What do all of these shows have in common? I ask this because no matter what shows you’re thinking of – comedy or drama, network or cable, new shows or old – they all share one undeniable trait, without exception.
They’ve all been canceled. Every single one.
(Side note for the nit-pickers: If a show you thought of is currently on the air, in production, and/or between seasons – say, Game of Thrones or Transparent or House of Cards or whatever – trust me…one day it’ll face the same unavoidable fate).
Why? Because nothing lasts forever. That’s true in life, and it’s certainly true in television. Stellar ratings? Doesn’t matter. Critical acclaim? Doesn’t matter. Reinvented television and restored the vision of a little blind girl in Kansas? Does. Not. Matter. Sooner or later, every show that lives eventually dies. You already know this as a viewer. And sooner or later, you’ll deal with it as a writer.
The “cause of death” of a given series will vary wildly from one show to another. Maybe the show premiered to low ratings, and it was doomed from day one. Maybe, after a long-running winning streak in the Nielsens, its numbers sank so low that there was no hope of recovery. Maybe the showrunner decided she’d achieved everything she set out to, and it was simply time to bring the show to an end. Maybe the show’s star wanted to leave and pursue other things. Maybe there was a regime change at the network, and the incoming administration was itching to get rid of it. Maybe a changed in the show’s time slot killed it. The list of “maybes” goes on and on.
Seen from the outside (meaning, from the average audience member’s point of view), a show’s cancellation usually amounts to little more than an, “Aw, that sucks!” and maybe an angry tweet or two fired off into the social media-sphere. Or, from the more die-hard fans, you might hear the occasional cry of, “I’m still mad they canceled Buffy/Battlestar Galactica/The Flintstones!” years after a show is dead and buried. Long story short, people vent their frustration over the cancellation of their favorite show(s), and then pretty much get on with their lives.
But it’s a bit different for writers and other folks who work in television, especially if the canceled show in question happens to currently employ us. In that case, a canceled show is much more than a mild annoyance or a disruption to our weekly TV-watching routine; it’s a direct gut punch to our ability to make a living.
To enter this business is to make a trade off, one that can be extremely uncomfortable at times. We accept the freedom and personal fulfillment that comes with working in an industry that’s primarily creative, and in exchange, we say goodbye to cool things like steady paychecks and job security. In other words, we’re freelancers. We roam from show to show, network to network, seeking employment like hired gunslingers in the Old West. Competition is fierce, your reputation is everything, and career stability is, at best, ephemeral. And still, for some crazy reason, we can’t resist it.
So how do you deal with cancellation from the inside? It differs from person to person, and one’s particular circumstances are certainly an important factor. Are you single? Married? Have kids? Medical bills? All of these things can affect how hard the stress of sudden unemployment will hit you. But no matter who you are, having the plug pulled on the show you’re working on sucks. Always. Sometimes it’s abrupt, and literally happens in the middle of shooting an episode. Other times, your show might be “on the bubble” (meaning “on the chopping block”) for so long, that cancellation comes as sweet relief; at least now you know you’re free to move on.
As a writer, the best thing you can do for yourself is plan ahead. Way ahead. Save your money. Nurture your relationships with other writers, showrunners, and network/studio executives (IMPORTANT: Do this before you need their help!). And, most importantly, keep a new writing sample or two ready to send off at a moment’s notice. Even if the show you’re working on is doing well ratings-wise and you feel confident that you’ll returning with it next season, all of these things still apply, because you never know when things might suddenly take a turn for the worst (nightmare scenario: The show gets renewed for another season, but you don’t get asked back).
Dealing with cancellation never really gets easier, but it’s a reality to which you learn to adapt as the years go by. It’s not a worry that should dominate your day-to-day thinking, because if it did, you’d never be able to get anything done. Just know that no show lasts forever, but if you play your cards right, there will always be another job out there waiting for you.
- More articles by Eric Haywood
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