What Happens When Your TV Show Gets Cancelled

Last week when it was announced that ABC wouldn’t be renewing American Crime, I received the news like a punch in the gut.

I knew, intellectually, that it might happen: although our reviews were stellar

[Deadline critic Dominic Patten called season 3 “the strongest installment yet in the Emmy-winning anthology series from John Ridley and ABC” and compared the show to HBO’s The Wire] our ratings were not good.

Understanding ratings is a whole thing – it’s complicated and mathematical. I barely get it. Though if you’re game, try these two articles (from Steve Krakauer and The Futon Critic website, respectively) in an attempt to increase your knowledge. Know this, the Nielsen company measures who’s watching a show live and the same day (on DVR) and then measures who has watched it (on DVR) within the next 7 days. Consequently you’ll get info on ratings like this:

For the week of March 30th, tvbythenumbers.com – reported NBC’s This Is Us was rated a 3.4 Live + Same Day / and went up 56% in the next 7 days to a rating of 5.3. Grey’s Anatomy, that same week was tracked with a 2.0 and went up to a 3.5 – a 75% increase.

American Crime season 3 premiered with a .5 rating and averaged a .4. I couldn’t find the Live + 7 numbers – probably because they weren’t significant. Disappointing, for sure.

Since TV is, ultimately, a money-making business, it’s all about how to give advertisers the most bang for their buck. The writing was on the wall that we would likely get cancelled.

And yet, when I heard the news, I felt the blow. I was surprised it felt personal.

After all, as a member of the team that created this season, I was deep in the process. As writers, we argued about these characters, wrestled with their choices and charted a path from one end of the season to the other. Like working on any piece of art, the experience is layered: it’s not only about the work itself, but also about the collaborators. The actors, directors, production staff and the crew were all part of my experience. For viewers, it was just the end result they witnessed. For us it was our reality for months.

What I’m reminded of here, is what I learned in theatre long ago. There’s no control over audiences. Quality work doesn’t guarantee commercial success. Heartfelt creations don’t insure standing ovations or even good reviews. I can theorize about why our show didn’t garner enough viewers (too emotionally hard hitting in these difficult times?), but theorizing isn’t the point. Theorizing isn’t the crux of what happens when your show is cancelled.

One thing I did immediately, when I heard, was to reach out by email to John Ridley and Michael McDonald, our Executive Producers to express my sadness and to wish them well. I sent another note to my agent and manager to find out what the job landscape holds.

The crux of my experience post cancellation is around processing my grief. Grief is grief whether you’re moving through the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. The same muscles I’ve used in the face of industry “no thank yous” are at play here. The same skills I lean into after any disappointment – these are the skills I’ve been using the last few days. Ultimately, it’s about gentleness in the face of a challenge.

I’m listing a few of my methods below:

  • Feel the feelings.
  • Rest.
  • Take it slowly.
  • Write about it.
  • List the benefits of the experience.
  • Talk to people and stay engaged.
  • Meditate/pray.
  • Take walks.
  • Start something new.

Each of these has been useful in the past week. I’m taking it day by day.

There’s no question I have been forever changed by my time on American Crime. I will be working with some of these people again – I feel it. And our work was excellent. I know that in my soul.

Now, there are new creative opportunities bubbling up around me. That is the story of my life. I am responsible for generating many of them. I keep my heart open. My open heart beckons even more possibilities.

Perhaps the key thing that happened to me in the face of my show getting cancelled, is realizing, again, that I can show up at the page no matter what, no matter when. In that way I have the power. Gently, I can lean into it. And a new impulse always comes.

What’s your new impulse?

Be gentle.

And let me know how it goes.

By | 2017-12-01T18:09:11+00:00 May 18th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

About the Author:

Steve Harper
STEVE HARPER is a writer, producer and actor. He was on the writing staff of the Emmy Award winning ABC show American Crime (created by John Ridley) and spent two seasons writing for the USA Network show Covert Affairs. Steve's original web series SEND ME, about time traveling black people (writer, actor and Executive Producer) was nominated for a 2016 Emmy. As a playwright he has written more than 20 works that have been produced across the country. Through yourcreativelife.com, Steve has been working with artists of all kinds since 2008, helping them achieve clarity and focus in their creative careers. His specialty is working with artists as they write dramatic scripts. Steve has run workshops in New York, L.A. and in between. Through live events, online seminars, and his channels on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, he’s helped thousands of writers and artists. Steve taught for The Harvardwood Writers Group, Young Playwrights and The Creative Gym. He’s been an instructor at the UCLA Extension School and a guest artist at Interlochen School for the Arts, Drexel University’s summer program in L.A. and USC’s Annenberg School. A graduate of Yale, The A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard and the playwriting program at Juilliard, he was certified by the Creativity Coaching Association in 2013.