Saturday, August 2, 2014

Yahoo is trying to purchase credibility with the Community renewal

Three cheers for Community. Courtesy of Justin Lubin/NBC

1. Wait. Wasn't Community canceled?

Yes. Yes it was. NBC, the home of the show for five seasons, decided it didn't want it back in May. That was, needless to say, a dark day for fans of the beloved cult sitcom. You might even say it was part of the darkest timeline.

2. Why should I care?

Though it has gotten as long-in-the-tooth as any show in its fifth season, Community is still capable of half-hours that are as good as any in television history. In terms of comedy, it's long been one of the funniest things around.

The series centers on the students (and, increasingly, the faculty) of a weird little community college in Colorado, but that's only a launchpad for what the show is really interested in: contemplating the intricate nuances of human relationships via a complete deconstruction of American pop culture. That makes the show sound headier than it really is, since it's ultimately just a goofy sitcom, but it's a series that almost always swings for the fences, and that means that on any given week, it can be one of the best shows on TV or one of the worst. That it manages to fall on the right side of that line as often as it does is why it has inspired such passion among its fans.

Also, the show has a fair share of exciting backstage drama. Always low-rated, the series has only eked out renewal by the skin of its teeth more times than fans can count by this point. There was also a whole thing where the show's creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired and then, improbably and uniquely in television history, unfired a year later. So if you like the show, there's always a lot to get worked up about. This means that someone, somewhere on the Internet, is always decrying the show's poor treatment at the hands of NBC and/or the American public's failure to embrace it.

3. But wait. It was renewed somehow?

Yes, again, improbably and on the last possible day it could be before its cast member's contracts expired. The web site Yahoo!, looking to expand into streaming content, has decided to bring the show back for a 13-episode sixth season that will likely debut early next year. (Previous reports said it would be back in the fall, but Harmon said on Twitterthat the season would be written in the fall.) Thus, it joins Arrested Development (revived by Netflix for a fourth season seven years after the original run left the air) in the pantheon of cult comedies unexpectedly renewed by streaming services looking to become major players in the programming game.

4. What does Yahoo! want with a low-rated cult comedy anyway?

Your attention. Even if you've never watched Community before today, Yahoo! has it now.

Now that Netflix has Orange Is The New Black and all of those other critically acclaimed, much discussed shows, it's easy to forget that when the streaming service was trying to break into the original content game, it essentially had to buy credibility. It did that in two ways. First, it ponied up in a bidding war with other networks to secure the rights to House Of Cards, which would put it in bed with known names David Fincher and Kevin Spacey. And then, it made the fourth season of Arrested happen, something that no other network had been able to do. Those moves made Netflix an instant player in a way that its chief competitors, Hulu and Amazon Prime, have been unable to manage.

Yahoo! has been poking along in the streaming game for a few years now. Among other things, it produced the excellent, very funny series Burning Love for a couple of seasons. But it lagged behind even Hulu and Amazon in terms of garnering media buzz and audience attention, stuck back with sites like YouTube and Crackle, which are also trying to find ways to get you to notice all of their original scripted content and mostly struggling to do so.

Even if the sixth season of Community is a crime against God and man, there will be a lot of articles harrumphing about how Yahoo! never should have brought the show back, which will only draw attention to the fact that Yahoo! has scripted streaming content. You can buy credibility in this particular game, and that's just what Yahoo! is hoping to do.

5. But how can Yahoo! just un-cancel the show?

This is trickier, but think of it this way: Any television show you watch, whether on TV or on your computer, isn't actually owned by the network or site that broadcasts it. It's owned by a production company, usually the television arm of a major Hollywood studio. (In the case of Community, that's Sony Pictures Television, which makes Jeff Winger a corporate cousin of Spider-Man, sort of.)

The network that airs the show is really just renting it from the studio, for a certain amount of time. The network then broadcasts the show a certain number of times (or within a certain window) and collects all ad revenue it receives from those broadcasts. To be able to do this, it pays what is called a "licensing fee" to the studio that makes the show. When a network cancels a show, then, it's simply saying that it will no longer be paying the licensing fee to the studio in order to broadcast the program.

When it comes to the studio, however, it can make a lot of sense to keep that program alive by any means necessary, as the studio makes all of its money via things like syndication, cable rerun deals, online streaming revenues, and foreign sales. One of the things that's helped Community is that Sony is particularly ruthless when it's time to get a canceled program picked up again. Among other things, it managed to convince Fox to order a fourth season of Til Death after the network yanked the show from its schedule a handful of episodes into season three. It's likely this was accomplished by dropping the program's licensing fee to near zero, meaning Fox was essentially collecting only profit from any broadcasts of the show, no matter how low-rated.

Making the Community deal all the more unexpected was that it happened on the absolute last day it could, when Sony still had contracts with the actors in the show's cast. On July 1, it would have had to renegotiate, and the actors' rates likely would have gone up quite a bit, as casts of cult comedies are very much in demand nowadays. (The six cast members of last season's beloved but canceled cult comedy, Happy Endings, are all regulars on other shows, for instance.) But on June 30, it still had those actors locked in at their current rate and still committed to Community above all other programs. It's rare for deals to close that late, but not unprecedented.

According to this essential interview with Sony Pictures Television president of programming and production, Zack Van Amburg, the studio met with many suitors when it came time to revive Community. Many expected the show to be revived by Hulu, which controls (and continues to control) exclusive streaming rights to the first five seasons, but Yahoo! was better able to make the money work out, thanks to its deep reserves of cash. (Van Amburg says the sixth season's budget should not be appreciably different from the fifth season's budget on NBC.) It's a weird deal from one perspective, thanks to Hulu still having the first five years of the show, but, again, Yahoo! has your attention now.

6. Does this mean Yahoo! is going to revive more shows now?

Probably not. There are the actor contract issues already mentioned, and those sorts of issues were the reason that fourth season of Arrested Development had the whole cast all together in only one scene. Plus, when it comes time to coast off the acquired credibility from a program that gained acclaim elsewhere, it's rare for a network or site to do it more than once. DirecTV did, with Friday Night Lights and Damages, but then it got out of the acquisitions game. Netflix is unlikely to pick other shows up after Arrested Development. HBO and Showtime built their names without picking up other shows at all (though both tried, with Sports Night and Arrested, respectively). Acquiring a show with lots of acclaim and buzz works, but it only works once or twice. To really build your site out as a place for great programming requires developing your own shows.

7. #SIXSEASONSANDAMOVIE, RIGHT?!

Maybe! That Van Amburg interview indicates Sony will try to make the movie happen. And the chief marketing officer of Yahoo!, Kathy Savitt, said to Vulture that the site hopes the show can run past the famed six seasons of the hashtag fans of the series have embraced as a sign of how long they hoped the show would run. (It's a joke from the classic fake clip show episode, "Paradigms Of Human Memory," relating to the swiftly canceled, hilariously inept NBC superhero show The Cape.) So anything's possible.

The real question is if the show will be any good at this point. Season five was a solid return to form after a disastrous fourth season, but it still wasn't up to the level of the first three seasons (particularly the near perfect first two years). And it's very, very rare for shows to abruptly get better once they're past five seasons or 100 episodes (a mark Community will hit in its sixth season). Perhaps the best answer to this question is to look at another genre-bending show that switched networks between seasons five and six: Buffy The Vampire Slayer. And while that show's sixth season is pretty damn great (and pushes the audience in unexpected ways), there are few who would pick it as their absolute favorite. With Dan Harmon at the helm, anything is possible, but it will be hard for the show to recapture the magic. That's just how television works.

Live Q&A until 4 p.m.

Thanks for your questions, everybody! The comments are now closed!

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