With more than 5.2 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute or preparing for old age by brushing up on synopses of Matlock episodes. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,354,589-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: List of television series that changed networks
What it’s about: Most television shows are developed by and for a network and spend their runs, long or short, as that network’s property. But sometimes one network’s loss is another’s gain, as a series is canceled only to find a new home further down the dial.
Strangest fact: In the early days of television, network-switching was common enough that a half-dozen shows wound up on ABC, CBS, and NBC. Several were game shows like Let’s Make A Deal, the 1950s’ Pantomime Quiz, or Down You Go, whose formats were durable enough to travel well. But sci-fi adventure series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and early sitcom Bachelor Father hit the trifecta as well (in fact, Tom Corbett was also on the long-defunct DuMont network, more on that later).
Not every itinerant show is in the distant past. Anthology series Hallmark Hall Of Fame has aired continuously since 1951, and has moved from NBC to CBS to PBS, back to CBS, then to ABC, then back to CBS, then back to ABC, before finally landing on (surprise!) the Hallmark Channel in 2014. That run is topped only by The Arthur Murray Party, a show Wikipedia calls “basically one long advertisement for [the titular] chain of dance studios.” Murray aired from 1950 to 1960 and managed to move nine times, including two runs apiece on ABC, NBC, and DuMont, and three on CBS.
Biggest controversy: When CBS canceled Airwolf, USA managed to revive the show without any of the original cast—including the helicopter! Star Jan-Michael Vincent was written out of the story after appearing in the first USA episode; a body double for co-star Ernest Borgnine was killed off in an explosion; an entirely new cast was enlisted; and helicopter footage (which was considerable, given that it was a show about a helicopter) was 100 percent recycled from the show’s original run on CBS. (Sad side note: After CBS canceled the show, the helicopter itself was sold and became an ambulance copter in Germany. It crashed six years later, killing all three aboard.)
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Switching networks is usually the kiss of death. A long list of hit shows, including Diff’rent Strokes, Family Matters, Get Smart, The Hogan Family, Scrubs, T.J. Hooker, and Taxi, were canceled after long runs, picked up by another network, and then quickly canceled again. In each instance, none of the ratings or story problems that typically affect a long-in-the-tooth series were rectified by their new network.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Teenage girls with supernatural powers seem to be immune to that kiss of death. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was routinely the second- or third-rated show on The WB during its five-season run on that network. Despite that, the network didn’t want to give the cast more money to return for season six, so the show was picked up by UPN, where it became one of the strongest-performing shows for its new network as well.
Likewise, Sabrina The Teenage Witch did well in four seasons on ABC, but the network balked at the cost of renewing the show. The WB stepped in, and the show ran for three more seasons.
Also noteworthy: Only one series has ever moved to a bigger network. Assuming a hierarchy that goes ABC/CBS/NBC is greater than Fox is greater than WB/UPN/CW is greater than cable (or even cable is greater than WB/UPN/CW), shows have always moved laterally or down the chain. This isn’t always a bad thing, as low ratings by CBS’s standards can be high ratings for basic cable. As such, American Dad!, Cougar Town, The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd, Futurama, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Nashville all went from low ratings on broadcast TV to varying degrees of success on cable.
The only show ever to get promoted to the big leagues was Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher’s panel discussion show that ran for four years on Comedy Central before being picked up by ABC, where it ran for five more before being canceled in a storm of controversy, when Maher opined that the 9/11 hijackers’ actions were despicable, but not cowardly, as then-president Bush had described them. After Maher was warned by Press Secretary Ari Fleischer that “people have to watch what they say,” advertisers began leaving the show, and it was soon canceled, though ABC insisted it was due to low ratings and not the controversy. Maher essentially moved the show to a third network—HBO—under a different name, where he continues to this day.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Nearly every link on the list is to a TV show or network, but the list includes a link to network change, which explains the process of a series switching networks, and then… a different list of series that changed networks, with a great degree of overlap with this one, but additional series from Canada and Australia and a list of shows that survived the UPN/WB merger.
Further down the Wormhole: As early as 1946, America already had three major broadcast networks: NBC, CBS, and DuMont. Two years before ABC joined the fray, DuMont Laboratories, which invented a cathode ray tube durable enough to bring television to the consumer market, launched a network of TV stations so people who bought their TVs would have something to watch. The short-lived, largely forgotten network was known for innovative programming and made stars of Ernie Kovacs and Jackie Gleason. We’ll tune into the DuMont Television Network next week.