Word comes in today that TBS, already the noble shelter of NBC-banished Conan O'Brien, has decided to pick up the ailing cult-favorite comedy Cougar Town from ABC for a fourth season, which will air next year. "Hooray!" fans of wine comedy the nation over exclaim. In fact this is cause for celebration for everybody who watches TV, not solely Cougarheads. (Cougarers? Cougies? Townsfolk?)
Time was, a network would be loath to hand a show over to another network. The thinking was that if a show fails on your network (happens all the time!) it's the show fault. But if the show were to go on another network and succeed, it would be your fault (you're fired!). In movies you could call it the Home Alone rule (or the Gump doctrine, or the Speed philosophy): In the case of Michael Jackson's young friend's breakout role, Warner Bros. let the property go into the black hole of turnaround after the budget started swelling, making it available to anyone who would cover the money they'd already sunk into the project. Fox stepped up and the, duh, it became a monster hit. As the legend goes, the Warner exec who let the movie slip away was harshly given the axe, thus leaving all future production executives with a deep, ingrain fear of letting things get poached.
Sure the stakes often feel higher in film than they do in television — had Arrested Development been tossed out by Fox only to be picked up by, say, HBO to success and continued acclaim, it probably wouldn't smart in the same way a blockbuster movie coulda-woulda-shoulda situation might. But still, it's a mark of professional failure and embarrassment; it wasn't the show's fault, it was yours.
But somehow that thinking seems to be starting to change, the topic seems more open for discussion. A show jumping from one network to another isn't an entirely new phenomenon, but recently the possibility of a show being rescued from the brink of oblivion seems a lot greater. We can credit emerging cable networks for that. A few years ago, NBC did all the development work on Southland, a smart cop show from E.R.'s John Wells, only to cancel it after one misfire season. But then TNT fished it out of the trash bin, cleaned it off and shaved its budget, and now it's just been renewed for a fifth season! A true success story that was, from a distance at least, a painless transfer.
Obviously cable networks don't have remotely the same ratings burden as the networks, so this isn't simply a case of ABC not knowing a good thing while they had it and foolishly letting Cougar Town go. After all, they kept this limping puppy on for three seasons despite pretty abysmal ratings. Rather it's more of an example of how more outlets mean more chances for more things. Hopefully we'll see more of this transferring — Damages from FX to DirectTV, etc. — in the future. A show gets a big platform initially, attracts a devoted audience, and then goes somewhere smaller where it can play out as it wants to. (Theater does this: Avenue Q and Rent both moved off-Broadway recently and are both still chugging along.) And TV networks can gain from these deals: TBS purchased all of Cougar Town's back episodes, meaning ABC has made some semblance of syndication money on a show it wasn't likely to otherwise. ABC spares themselves from looking like jerks by encouraging a show along and then, when ABC finally has to cut the cord, everyone still wins in the end.
So we hope to see this trend become more consistent, as there have already been some missed opportunities: We really wish Syfy had saved Sarah Connor Chronicles or that TNT had taken up the cause of Prime Suspect, and we think that the tragically overlooked Kings could have been good for somebody (maybe AMC?). So let's not let these golden opportunities pass us by, Hollywood folks. Cougar Town is the future! And did anyone think we'd be saying that a few years ago?