Bill, please: “Hannibal” serves up its last meal

One month ago, Hannibal‘s fate was sealed by its broadcaster NBC as the network announced that it had cancelled the beloved-but-unwatched show. For a while, a renewal seemed possible as Amazon and Netflix were rumoured to be interested, but no good news have transpired; instead, the actors’ contracts have lapsed and showrunner Bryan Fuller is looking forward to his next project.

Hannibal is a fantastic show, and I would have loved to see it go on to complete its 7-season run as envisioned by Fuller. I’m not alone in this view, as the web has lit up with obituaries and laments for the show. Plenty of people have directed their disappointment, and sometimes vitriol, at NBC for ruining Fuller’s vision and forcing one of TV’s best shows to end its run early.

But is anybody to blame? Let’s investigate.

NBC had no choice

At first glance, NBC is the one to blame for Hannibal‘s impending demise. After all, the network cancelled the show. Right?

Well, yes, the network cancelled it, but it literally could not afford to keep it on air.

To understand this in more detail, here’s a quick run-down of how the TV content business works: a studio produces a TV show, which is offered to networks for a licensing fee. The network pays the licensing fee and airs the show, airing advertisements during the show to make a return on the licensing fee and a further profit.

The simple truth was that Hannibal was not making NBC any money. Garamont, the studio that produces Hannibal, charged NBC a measly $750,000 per episode in Hannibal‘s first season. This fee dropped to just $185,000 in the currently-airing third season. That’s a 75% drop.

And yet NBC chose to cancel their option on a fourth season. This goes to show how dire their returns on Hannibal must have been. Nobody wanted to air advertisements when Hannibal was on air.

So who’s to blame for the lack of advertising revenue? The short answer to that: a lack of viewers. Nobody was watching Hannibal. Therefore, no advertiser wanted to spend money on advertisements during the show’s airtime.

Hannibal’s death slot

To explain the show’s lack of viewers, people may blame Hannibal‘s initial timeslot on Fridays at 10pm, also known as the “death slot” because ratings are historically the lowest in that timeslot.

So, again, is NBC to blame? Well, yes. NBC did assign Hannibal to air in the “death slot”. But there are a few factors that may mitigate the network’s decision.

First, the show was clearly unsuitable for network television anyway. If you haven’t already watched the show, let’s just say that the level of gore and horror present would have gotten the show in trouble with the censors on any other day. However, by some chance, Hannibal passed through unscathed, I suspect partly because NBC promised to air it only after 10pm, a less family-friendly timeslot.

Also, NBC knew that they were paying a low rate for this show, and so they could have figured that they could get away with putting it in a bad timeslot. After all, a low licensing fee for Hannibal meant that the level of advertising revenue for NBC to break even was also low.

At this point, you may still be convinced that NBC had already condemned Hannibal to fail with the bad timeslot. You shouldn’t, because in the third season, NBC moved its airtime to Thursdays at 10pm instead. This move, coupled with the obscenely low licensing fee, should have helped secure Hannibal’s survival. It didn’t happen.

A dead man walking

To understand why, check out the ratings for the third season so far:

Episode 1 “Antipasto”: 0.7 rating in the 18-49 age range, 2.57 million viewers who watched live and in the same day
Episode 2 “Primavera”: 0.5, 1.74m
Episode 3 “Secondo”: 0.5, 1.69m

(NBC cancelled Hannibal on 22 June, after this episode)

Episode 4 “Aperitivo”: 0.4, 1.60m
Episode 5 “Contorno”: 0.4, 1.29m
Episode 6 “Dolce”: 0.4, 1.40m
Episode 7 “Digestivo”: 0.4, 1.20m (At a new airtime of Saturdays 10pm for the rest of the season)
Episode 8 “The Great Red Dragon”: 0.3, 1.00m

The premiere of Hannibal‘s third season matched its least-rated episode so far. The bad numbers just kept going down as the season progressed. This was a death knell.

Thus, inevitably, NBC cut Hannibal‘s throat.

A understandable demise

The way I see it, this decision was the best NBC could have made in its own interest. Even though Hannibal was acclaimed by critics, it has not received any awards or nominations at the bigger award ceremonies (such as the Emmys or Golden Globes), which may well have helped bolster its reputation and keep it alive.

Nobody was watching Hannibal when it aired on NBC. Nobody was giving Hannibal any awards or nominations. This is why Hannibal has been cancelled.

What could have been?

Now for some speculation – if Hannibal had been on another network, could it have survived? Yes, it could have. CBS’s The Good Wife comes to mind as an example: despite its anemic ratings, it is critically-acclaimed and often nominated for Emmys and other awards, which must have been a huge factor in CBS’s decision to keep it alive for six seasons and counting.

FX’s The Americans is another shining example. Its ratings are worse than that of Hannibal. However, it airs on a cable network, which means that its ratings are less important for its survival versus network television. This is because cable television networks also sell subscriptions for revenue, meaning that they don’t depend so much on advertising revenue to break even on a show. Its universal critical acclaim doesn’t hurt too.

Arrivedeci, Hannibal

Sadly, things have turned out the way they have. Hannibal has five episodes to air in its third season, and that looks to be the end of its remarkable run.

Fans of the show may moan that the show was prematurely killed, but take a positive look at it: for three seasons, we have been privileged to see one of the most graphic, beautiful, horrific, and unsettling shows. For 39 episodes, we will have, with great unease and relish, watched Bryan Fuller tackle the iconic Hannibal Lecter series and create a truly worthy adaptation, as well as a sublime show in its own right.

Hannibal may be ending, but it will do so as one of TV’s best shows.


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