How Family Guy Got Canceled Twice and Still Made Seth MacFarlane a Star

(Credit: Fox)

The most coveted time period on TV has unquestionably become the post-Super Bowl time slot. Over the past two decades, it's seen everything from established series to promising new ones, each time drawing a huge crowd. In 1999, Fox (a subsidiary of News Corp (NASDAQ: NWS  ) ) gave its post-Super Bowl bump to a pair of animated shows -- one a fan favorite and the other a promising up-and-comer titled Family Guy. Fifteen years and one amazing story later, the show has grown into a proven money-making empire that still hits a chord with audiences.

Let's backtrack. Family Guy started off like any other show. It was a simple premise about a dim but (mostly) well-meaning family man with a wife, two kids, a baby hell-bent on world domination, and an alcoholic dog who could talk.... OK, so maybe it wasn't like any other show. Regardless, it was still insanely funny, and with the benefit of a Super Bowl-themed episode of The Simpsons airing ahead of it, the show got sampled by over 22 million people.

Of course, tons of people watching an episode of your show is no guarantee they'll continue to tune in, and that's what happened to Family Guy. In fact, the series holds the dubious honor of being cancelled on TWO separate occasions. But the fans wouldn't let it go. The show's small but extremely loyal audience rallied behind it, watching reruns on Cartoon Network and buying DVDs in record numbers. Eventually the network realized the show may not have the largest audience, but it was the right audience.

The 18-49 demographic were in love with Peter Griffin and his family and they had no problem spending money to see more of them. Unlike other networks, Fox actually listened to its audience. Even today, that's still somewhat of a foreign concept.

So how did Family Guy work its magic?

It began with a unique deal with Cartoon Network. Under the terms, the show's 50 produced episodes would essentially be free in exchange for promotion of the DVDs, and then the network would pay an extremely low cost after a set period of time. The gamble worked and those airings, paired with rising home entertainment sales, proved to be a profitable combination. (The first set of 28 episodes sold 2.8 million in 2003.)

However the show wasn't content as just a TV show. Creator Seth MacFarlane had grander plans to make the series even more of a pop culture force. In 2007, with the blessing of George Lucas, Family Guy created what would be the first of three spoofs of the original Star Wars trilogy. Known as the "Blue Harvest" trilogy, the hour-long episodes were initially released solely on DVD and, not surprisingly, they sold very well.

In the years since, the series has continued to thrive with a strong consumer products program that's yielded apparel, action figures, video games, and, of course, more DVDs. It also has dominated in syndication with constant airings on Cartoon Network, TBS, and Tribune Media networks across the country, and all at a price now vastly inflated from when its reruns first hit the airways. MacFarlane and his crew could have easily rested on their laurels, but they take great pride in the series and even greater pride in pushing the envelope.

Last November, the series shockingly killed off Brian, the Griffin's lovable dog. The outcry was deafening. If you had any question if Family Guy fans were still watching, those questions quickly disappeared. The public laid into MacFarlane, who seemed genuinely surprised the fans had so much passion for an animated character. Audiences were even more enraged when MacFarlane seemed apathetic to the matter, but ultimately he knew something viewers didn't ... just a few weeks later, Brian came back and things returned to normal. Of course, on a show where one of the characters has his own time machine, it wasn't entirely a surprise the beloved pooch would rejoin the living.

Brian aside, the series has always pushed the limits as MacFarlane, who is also a talented singer, occasionally adds satirical songs into many episodes that touch on a number of hot topics.

Knowing all of this, it came as a surprise when the Academy Awards asked him to host their ceremony in 2013. When MacFarlane took to the stage to perform a song called "We Saw Your Boobs," the public seemed surprised.... MacFarlane's fans were not. This is a man who created a movie about a pot-smoking, hard-drinking, foul-mouth teddy bear named Ted and saw it gross $500 million worldwide. He knows how to find humor in odd situations.

The MacFarlane empire

People don't always give MacFarlane a lot of credit for what he's accomplished with Family Guy and his arsenal of other projects. However, Fox certainly knows what a talent he is ... at least now. The man has had a huge impact on the company's bottom line. MacFarlane not only produces Family Guy, but he also is behind spin-off series The Cleveland Show and American Dad. While both shows are now ending their run on Fox, they were both big successes for the network. (Dad will move to TBS this year and characters from Cleveland will be spun back in to Family Guy).

MacFarlane is also an executive producer on the network's Dads, which (of course) has been assaulted by critics for its low-brow humor. He's also working with Fox to relaunch Carl Sagan's Cosmos with famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and eventually will help reboot Hanna-Barbara gem The Flintstones. In other words, Fox will never doubt the man again (especially after missing out on Ted and opening the door for Universal to swoop in).

It's fitting that MacFarlane is attached to The Flintstones reboot. Not only was working for Hanna-Barbara productions one of his first jobs, but Family Guy is the only series since The Flintstones to earn an Emmy nomination for "Best Comedy Series." As if you needed any more proof of the show's success.

Family Guy has proven itself to be a truly unique success story, and in this age of binge-watching and time-shifting, it could be the last of its kind. Networks today are trigger-happy when it comes to canceling shows, and as a result their viewers are gun-shy about picking up new ones. Family Guy bucked the trend as a show thanks to Fox bucking a few trends as a network. In fact, as the show prepares to celebrate its 15th anniversary this weekend, it's clear this eventually became a symbiotic relationship.

As Peter once said, "Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'" And as Brian responded, "Peter, those are Cheerios."

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Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 11:01 PM, saphirantcross wrote:

    I love the last paragraph: "Want to figure out how to profit on business analysis like this?" Entertainment is a closed-end business: manipulating stockholders to buy and returning little to nothing is what big media is all about. Fox could give a crap about it's stockholders.

    Besides, Family Guy is all about the 18-24 demographic. It's still on the air because it has it's finger on the pulse of what college kids find funny and no one else. (Their newest writers are all around that age.) People complaining about it's declining quality: you watched it and loved it when you were that age. If you're 24+, they don't care if you like it anymore. Go watch something else.

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 11:14 PM, wiseandwonderful wrote:

    I am 70 years old, and I find the The Family Guy to be one of the funniest, smartest and most daring shows on tv., and I watch it daily. MacFarlane can say the outrageous and hilarious things via cartoon characters that no live action actor would dare.

    You may think his demographic is 18-24, but you would be wrong.

    He's a brilliant satirist and commentator on the madness of living in the USA, circa 2014, and like Jon Stewart, Colbert and Bill Maher, he is also very, very smart and very, very funny.

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 11:32 PM, jaimieleemcginn wrote:

    I have to differ with you as well on the demographics that you believe are targeted by the show. My husband and I are in our thirties. We watch this show everyday and tape new shows every Sunday. We wait to watch that new tapping with our father, who is in his sixties. We love the humor, the break from rigidness and the characters whom we have come to know. It's amazing that I can admit to watching a cartoon at my age, and I will continue to watch it as long as they put it on the air.

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 1:35 PM, krazygranny wrote:

    goes to show millions are sick n tired of all the PC junk out there

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 2:44 PM, drdoorjammer wrote:

    The person who wrote the demographics are for 18 to 24 you.....having been a big fan of comedy from a young age ..I am now 61 ..there are 3 shows I watch like clockwork........NCIS, Doctor Who, and Family Guy wife loves Stewie and she is 60 yo whomever wrote that really has no clue about what they are saying ......but good try older folks like good adult comedy ..and I can't wait to see Seth's new film ....A thousand ways to die in the West ..saw the trailer and laughed my backside off

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