Trump learns an old Hollywood truth: It sucks to get cancelled
Show business understands Donald Trump’s pain.
Finding out your TV series has been cancelled is never easy, especially when you’re the star. Deep down, you feel responsible: Maybe if you’d played the role differently, a lot of your friends and colleagues would still have jobs.
All of that is even more frustrating when your show is “on the bubble.” That’s Hollywood talk for a TV show whose ratings dance on the razor’s edge — not so low that cancellation is inevitable, but low enough that the bad news could come any day. You hang on and hope.
The Trump Show has been on the bubble for some time. The president never polled over 50 percent, and throughout this election year, surveys indicated most viewers preferred to watch someone else take over the role of “Commander-in-chief.”
And yet there was his fan base to consider. Most bubble shows are on the bubble — staying in contention despite weak numbers — because of that loyal base: a fully-engaged audience that won’t miss an episode. We all know people like that. They message friends and family about the show, post fan photos on Instagram and participate in Facebook conversations every time a new cast member or story line emerges.
Television executives love that kind of fierce devotion — even with small numbers, they can sell this zeal and commitment to advertisers. Companies making everything from toothpaste to toilet paper are eager to air commercials at viewers they know won’t touch that dial, even if it means sitting through a gaggle of 30-second ads.
The leading man of a bubble show is always flooded with messages from super-fans. They encourage the star to hang in there and not worry: His show will go on. It will never be cancelled, not when so many are so sure he’s the best actor in the world, telling stories that touch people in a way no one else can.
But eventually the bad news arrives.
Back in boardrooms and executive suites, the numbers don’t add up. Ratings are low, production costs high. A new show in development looks like a winner; the pilot scores well in focus groups.
The decision is made to cut losses and move on.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it doesn’t end there. The star and his ardent audience simply refuse to surrender. They shift into campaign mode and launch an online crusade to keep the show in production. It’s a longshot, but every now and then it works. The network might cave in — like CBS did with a show called “Jericho” — or another network could pick the series up. After fan petitions, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” moved from Fox — where it was cancelled — to NBC, where it’s still on the air.
For the devoted and their favorite star, hope is eternal. Until it isn’t.
For every “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” there are a dozen series like “Arrested Development” — viewers sent thousands of bananas to network executives (it was an inside joke from the show), but Fox cancelled it anyway. Netflix made a few more episodes but they didn’t click. In the end, the numbers are always the numbers.
All that’s left at this point is for the star and his fans to work through a show biz version of Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief: it starts with denial (“My show isn’t cancelled!”) then moves on to anger (“How dare they cancel my show!”). After that, there’s bargaining (“Just give me one more season; send me to another network.”), depression (“I’m a has-been. I’ll never work in this town again.”), and finally acceptance (“Fine. I’ll go relax in Florida or host a talk show on NewsMax.”).
And the die-hard viewers? For most of them, life simply goes on. There are bills to pay, work to do, kids to take care of. At night, they turn on the TV after a long day and find another series to watch in place of the old one. Once and a while, they’ll check out the former favorite in re-runs on cable, but it won’t feel the same. The wardrobe, lighting, script and sets suddenly seem out-of-date and out-of-place.
The old show is frozen in time, as it must be, but the viewer has kept moving forward.
That’s life. In Hollywood, in Washington, and everywhere else.
And, Mr. President, that’s okay.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.