Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) NBC has never treated Community particularly well.
The quirky show did not have a huge audience, but it did have a loyal one. And in the about-to-conclude TV season it had a larger audience than Parks & Recreation, which despite heavy promotion has never been a highly rated show. Community has been a perennial bubble show -- with fans never knowing if it would come back the following year.
Even with renewals, it has suffered inconsistent time slots, weird, midseason start dates that the network seemed to keep secret until the last minute, and little promotion. Most damning, the show's creator, Dan Harmon, was forced out before season 4 in order to bring in executive producers who would theoretically make the show less weird and bring it a wider audience.
The price of normal
That experiment not only made Community less weird, it made it less interesting. Fewer people tuned in, making it somewhat surprising when last year NBC not only renewed the show for a 13-episode season, it brought Harmon back.
Despite the ill will created by the bland season 4 and the fact that NBC once again launched the show randomly at midseason with limited promotion, the series had a large creative revival and maintained the ratings that earned it a renewal the previous year, despite airing opposite the biggest sitcom on TV.
"Community didn't hit it out of the park in season 5 but it didn't blow it either, staying very close to the season 4 average, which had earned a renewal. It averaged a 1.5 rating in adults 18-49, down 0.1 from last season, and actually gained viewership — 3.7 million vs. 3.5 million last season," Deadline reported. "It outrated NBC's other returning Thursday comedy, Parks & Recreation, which has been renewed, despite facing much stiffer competition in CBS' The Big Bang Theory."
There are no standards under which Community can be called a hit, but increasing viewership while airing against one of the biggest shows on television (that likely draws from the same audience pool) should have kept the show on the air.
The economics of television
When a network is doing well it generally has few spots on the prime time schedule for shows with consistent but small audiences. In many cases it makes sense to cancel a show that's doing OK but has a low ceiling to replace it with one that has the potential to become a hit.
That's likely why Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) canceled the much-reviled Dads though it received OK ratings (at least by Fox sitcom standards). After one season the network can somewhat tell if a series can grow into a hit like Seinfeld did after a slow start or whether it's of limited appeal.
NBC, however, is not Fox, which boasts a mostly stable lineup with lots of strong shows and few openings. NBC has generally struggled in prime time with its lone bright spots being Sunday Night Football (which costs NBC around $1 billion a year),The Voice, and new hit The Blacklist.
Because NBC has struggled with sitcoms in general in recent years (with the failure of Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World as two expensive examples), the network has largely abandoned them on its 2014 schedule. The only sitcoms on the new schedule are About a Boy (which was launched at midseason this year) and the new Marry Me. Even the not-canceled Parks & Recreation does not have a home as NBC plans to use it at midseason when a new show has invariably failed.
That's where the return of Parks & Recreation and the cancellation of Community makes little sense.
It's hard to imagine that more than two of the four hour-long dramas NBC has on its fall schedule will last the season. More likely than not, only one will succeed leaving the network three hours to fill with midseason replacements. You can only successfully promote one or two midseason series launches to give the shows any hopes of success. The pairing of Parks & Rec with Community could have given the network a viable hour it could have dropped anywhere on the schedule with predictable, acceptable results while promotion dollars (and ad time in high-profile spots like during Sunday Night Football) can be lavished on new shows.
To put it in baseball terms Community was a utility player-- someone not good enough at any one position to start, but an acceptable backup for anyone on the field.
The economics for Sony don't matter like they once did
The story of Community is not unlike the one of Arrested Development. Both shows have loyal but small audiences and both were always on the brink of cancellation. Arrested Development was brought back last year by Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), whose subscription-driven business model makes a loyal audience more valuable there than on broadcast television. Harmon has even shared on his blog that Sony (NYSE:SNE), which owns the show, had raised the idea of finding it another home (though he did not seem thrilled by the prospects).
I will confess, however, that when Sony called me on Friday with the news, there was brief discussion at the end of the call about the concept of the show living elsewhere, and I was definitely in the "eh" column. For a million reasons, some selfish, some creative, one logistic, five sexual, three racist (in a good way) and, oddly, nine isometric... I said "eh" on a Friday afternoon, I will change it to a "sure, let's talk" on Monday morning and Sony can do their thing. I'm not going to be the guy that recancels canceled Community.
The window for reviving the show is likely small -- especially with lead Joel McHale being rumored as a possible replacement for Craig Ferguson on CBS (NYSE:CBS).
It's also important to note that while the series fell three episodes short of the magic 100 number that used to be considered the minimum needed for syndication, that threshold has mostly disappeared and Community already airs in syndication on Comedy Central. It's also available on Hulu.
A few years ago hitting 100 episodes might have been worth it for Sony to either produce a handful of episodes only for syndication or find the show a new home even if it loses money airing a short last season. Now with so many outlets vying for content, the 100-episode mark is no longer a standard and coming up short won't cost Sony any money.
Unfortunately for Community fans NBC was the most logical platform for the program and a revival on another network or cable channel seems unlikely. This isn't Cougar Town, which was early in its life cycle when it jumped from ABC to TBS. Community deserved one more year (and probably not the movie from the show's fans' "six seasons and a movie" hash tag), and NBC should have given it to the series' loyal fans who probably would watch no matter what night or time it aired.
An Arrested Development-like resurrection down the line seems possible but unlikely. Whether that happens depends on how the show performs in syndication, which can sometimes add fans to undiscovered gems like Community.
But fans shouldn't entirely lose hope ... perhaps. As the character Abed said this season, "We'll definitely be back next year. If not, it'll be because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization. And that's canon."
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He is sad Community was canceled. The Motley Fool recommends Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.