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What Hannibal's cancellation — and possible renewal — tells us about the future of TV

Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) would very much appreciate the kindness of a revival after his recent, tragic cancellation.
Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) would very much appreciate the kindness of a revival after his recent, tragic cancellation.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

On June 22, 2015, NBC canceled Hannibal. That's what the headlines (including this one) said, and it was probably the best way to communicate what had transpired: the network had announced that the brilliant serial killer drama would be allowed to finish its currently airing, abysmally rated third season, but after that, NBC would air no more episodes.

So, yes, that was technically a "cancellation," but in our modern TV landscape, that term has come to mean less and less. See, even though Hannibal is one of the lowest-rated shows on broadcast television, it boasts a ridiculously dedicated fanbase and better ratings once DVR playback and streaming are taken into account. And all of that means it's at least somewhat likely — if not quite a given — that Hannibal will live again, to the degree that the series' creator and showrunner, Bryan Fuller, is giving interviews and openly admitting the show could very well live again.

And while that's of paramount importance to Hannibal fans, it also provides a window into the increasingly complicated world of TV economics — and why shows that are canceled are more likely than ever to be uncanceled.

That's a story of interest to anyone who cares about television.

First things first, NBC didn't really "cancel" Hannibal


Hannibal isn't so sure how he feels about us splitting hairs on this point. (NBC)

"Cancel" implies that NBC bears the sole responsibility for determining whether more episodes of Hannibal will be produced in the future. And throughout almost all of television history, that would have been true. But in the case of Hannibal, which is propped up by a complicated combination of deals made in other countries, it's just not.

Indeed, Hannibal's relationship with NBC seems to have largely been a way for the series' production partners (which include Sony Pictures Television and the American division of French company Gaumont) to convince foreign buyers that it was a serious US TV show. The US television industry remains the most popular producer of the medium in the world, and Fuller has indicated that NBC's link to Hannibal allowed Gaumont to cut deals for the show all over the globe. (To briefly explain why this is the case, foreign broadcasters often place a premium on shows from certain American networks. As one of the oldest, NBC would likely benefit from that sort of treatment.)

NBC was on board with Hannibal from the very beginning, but as the show progressed and became more popular in other countries, it was less important for NBC to remain involved, at least from a strictly monetary perspective. The network helped get the show made and sold, but its role going forward seemed limited to being a US network that would air the program.

So NBC was a way for Gaumont to say, "Yes, we have worked with US networks before." Indeed, Entertainment Weekly reported that NBC was only paying $185,000 per episode to air Hannibal, a minuscule fee when most TV series command per-episode fees (known as "licensing fees") in the seven figures.

The conclusion here is simple: though NBC's airing of Hannibal helped Gaumont sell the show in other countries, NBC's involvement accounted for less and less of the show's financial picture with each passing year. So when NBC announced its plan to stop airing Hannibal, all Gaumont had to do was pivot to finding someone else to air the show.

Hannibal studio Gaumont has many options for a new US partner

Take a look at this chart, which details the relationship between networks and the shows they produce:

how tv business work graphic

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Studios make shows, which they sell to networks. Networks collect ad revenue, but the studio collects almost every other form of profit. For more on this relationship, check out our explainer on how and why TV shows are canceled.

In decades past, the TV network used to hold all the power, because it was the only distributor of television content. The studios that produced TV shows sold to a limited marketplace comprised of only a handful of content providers. Obviously, that's no longer the case, thanks to the rise of cable and streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon.

So the balance of power has shifted toward the studios, and in many cases, the cancellation of a beloved show is less about a network ushering a show into the graveyard and more about it saying, "This doesn't work for us, but maybe it will work somewhere else." The impetus is ultimately on the studio to find that "somewhere else," something that is happening with increasing frequency.

A&E's Longmire has gone to Netflix, which also revived AMC's The Killing and Fox's long-dead Arrested Development. Yahoo Screen revived NBC's Community, and Hulu has renewed The Mindy Project after Fox canceled it. And Netflix picked up NBC's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt before the network had aired a second of it. And those are just a few of the more prominent examples.

Initially, Amazon Prime emerged as Hannibal's most likely savior, but that's no longer an option


Amazon has streaming rights to the first three seasons of Hannibal. (NBC)

When NBC first announced that it would no longer be airing Hannibal, essentially every conversation about the show's future began with Amazon Prime — and though nobody has directly confirmed this, it would be very surprising if Gaumont's efforts weren't focused most extensively on the consumer giant's streaming video service.

Here's why: Amazon currently has exclusive streaming rights to Hannibal's first three seasons. And the company will retain those rights, even if potential future episodes debut on another streaming service entirely. It's not unheard of for two different streaming services to share the rights to a single show — Hulu owns the rights to the first five seasons of Community, for example, while Yahoo controls the sixth — but it's far from an ideal situation. That's why Amazon seemed a likely contender to renew Hannibal, while Netflix was almost certainly a no-go, as Fuller readily acknowledged.

However, it appears that neither Amazon nor Netflix is interested. As Fuller tweeted on July 6, 2015:

Hannibal tweet

Amazon's decision isn't totally surprising. The company has yet to pick up a series that's been canceled by another network, something Netflix, Hulu, and Yahoo (its main competitors) have all done at one point or another. Amazon has purchased exclusive rights to British imports — like the fantastic comedy Catastrophe. But it has yet to, say, resurrect Arrested Development (as Netflix did) or save The Mindy Project (as Hulu did).

That's not to say Amazon will never continue production of a show that's already been canceled elsewhere. As I explained when Yahoo saved Community, picking up a beloved canceled show offers an instant credibility boost to a fledgling content provider. And Amazon Prime is still very much in Netflix's shadow. But it won't be starting its attempt to garner viewer goodwill with Hannibal.

Three other possible suitors for future episodes

The Mindy Project

Can you imagine if Mindy Lahiri and Hannibal Lecter were on the same streaming service? (Fox)

No potential Hannibal partner is as logical a fit as Amazon was, but there are so many players out there that we can't immediately discount anybody. (After all, lots of people thought it wouldn't make sense for Community to go anywhere but Hulu, and look how that turned out.)

What's more, all the data we have suggests Hannibal's tail is a long one, with viewers catching up with episodes after their first airing. That's not ideal for a broadcast network, which relies on live ad viewership, but it's perfect for a streaming site, which relies on subscription fees and having as large a library as possible.

So, with the caveat that this is all speculation on my part, here are three possible players:

Hulu: A longer shot for Hannibal than many fans might expect, given that Hulu is owned, in part, by NBC, which literally just canceled the show. But Hulu is doing its best to ditch its reputation as "the site you use to catch up on reruns" by diving headfirst into original programming. That's one of the reasons it acquired The Mindy Project earlier in 2015. Hannibal could be a good fit, too.

Crackle or the Playstation Network: Remember how I mentioned above that Sony is one of Hannibal's producers? I did that so I could later mention Crackle, Sony's woebegone streaming service that doesn't seem to be a very high priority for the company. Could Crackle afford Hannibal like Amazon and Hulu almost certainly could? It's doubtful, since the licensing fee is probably going to increase from what NBC was paying. (Remember: the overseas deals that have supported Hannibal's low price in the US were predicated on the show airing on NBC.) But stranger things have happened. Also: Sony's Playstation Network is venturing into original programming, as with the superpowered cop drama Powers, making Playstation another Sony-related option to consider.

A cable network to be named later: This seems like the longest shot, because cable networks are more dependent on ratings than streaming services are, and most have far more limited acquisitions budgets than streaming services do. But there are a bunch of cable channels that might not mind dealing with Hannibal's low ratings in return for some good critical buzz for a few years. This is purely speculation on my part, but you could make a good argument for A&E (which programs Bates Motel, another fictional serial killer prequel) or Sundance (which airs lots of outre, artsy programming).

What this means for all TV fans


Perhaps Hannibal will invite us all to an elegant dinner party, and that will be how the show continues. (NBC)

The good and bad thing about the new cancellation world is that cancellation increasingly isn't the end, until it's the end. And the nebulous rules that define when a show is "over" grow harder and harder to pin down. By and large, a show is officially dead when its cast's contracts expire — a fate that has actually already befallen Hannibal but even then, a show might be revived years later in some form or another. And in Hannibal's case, it seems that provisions have already been made to deal with the expiration of cast contracts.

This is good, because it gives fans a reason to hope for the return canceled shows — and more hope with every year, as more and more content providers get into the streaming game. Take, for instance, Shudder, AMC's nascent streaming service dedicated entirely to horror. Is that a potential home for more Hannibal? We currently don't have any idea — and won't unless some sort of deal is made.

But this is also bad, because it eliminates certainty and replaces it with a world of doubt. Yes, that canceled show you loved might one day come back from the dead. But it also might not come back, and even if it doesn't, there's always hope for a movie or something somewhere down the line, as happened with Veronica Mars. Stories have to end at some point, and as crude as the "old" process was, the network making that decision used to at least offer closure. Now, however, there's just a giant sea of stories in flux, stories that might be over or that might resume at some point, on a platform we haven't even imagined yet.