Why a TV Network Would Cancel Its Highest-Rated Drama

Why a TV Network Would Cancel Its Highest-Rated Drama

A&E’s “Longmire,” which recently wrapped up its third season, is the second highest-rated program on the network (second only to “Duck Dynasty”) and the most popular original dramatic production the network has ever aired.  It’s an unassuming police procedural that breathes new life into cop and mystery cliches with a unique setting, the big sky country of Wyoming, and a terrific lead character, gruff old cowboy sheriff Walt Longmire.  Indian characters and the local reservation add some interesting twists as well.  The cast has an easy chemistry that makes watching the show like catching up with old friends at a weekly poker game.

So of course, A&E just canceled “Longmire,” after a cliffhanger season ending that teased big reveals in the stories of the main characters, and left the survival of one in doubt.

That seems like a very odd decision, but as Deadline Hollywood explains, there are some cold business calculations behind it.  For one thing, the sizable audience for “Longmire” skewed older, and advertisers are evidently more desperate than ever to rope in young viewers with lots of disposable income.  Demographics have always been a factor in programming decisions, but it wasn’t so long ago that shows catering far more explicitly to an older audience – “Matlock,” “Diagnosis Murder,” etc. – could do good business and run for many years.  Now we’ve got a network literally throwing such an audience away.

Also, the behind-the-scenes economics of the production played a role in its demise, as well as the cancellation of the popular show that used to precede “Longmire” on Monday nights, “The Glades.”  A&E wants to own its shows, and those programs came from outside producers, so they got the axe.  

It is also noted by Deadline that A&E is basically getting out of the scripted-drama business altogether, with only one veteran program (“Bates Motel”) and one new show (a remake of the superb French walking-dead-but-not-quite-zombies show “The Returned”) on their schedule.  The economics of the reality show – cheap to produce, brings in younger viewers, easily replaced with a churn of new reality programming on fairly short notice – are chipping away at scripted drama, even as the art form undergoes a much-touted Golden Age.  

A&E is killing off popular and well-reviewed programs, in part, because they can get an advertiser-friendly audience more easily and affordably with reality programming.  Interesting that would come at the same time Netflix is getting so heavily into the drama business, but of course their business model is much different, more about pulling in a total volume of subscribers than targeting appeals to specific advertiser-friendly demographics.  Maybe they, or some other network, will rescue “Longmire,” or at least put the cast together for a TV-movie to give fans some closure.