hollywood logic

Sorry, Hate-Watchers: AMC Had Three Good Reasons to Un-Cancel The Killing

Joel Kinnaman
Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman in The Killing Photo: Chris Large/AMC

Last week, AMC officially ordered a third season of The Killing, resurrecting a show it had declared canceled last summer. Second chances for misfit series aren’t uncommon these days, though usually such resuscitations are conducted by another outlet (Buffy, Cougar Town, Southland) rather than the rare occasions when a show is revived by the network that first did the, er, killing (Family Guy). But while there had been rumors of a third season of The Killing since October, the AMC announcement was still somewhat surprising: The series didn’t seem to possess the sort of impassioned fan base usually associated with such revivals and in fact had attracted a very loud hate-watching contingent. As Vulture commenter (and 30 Rock fan) “Moonvest” succinctly summed up, “So many beloved shows that fans fought so hard to bring back, and The Killing gets a second life? Veronica Mars fans must be rioting in the street right now.” And yet, for better or worse, most network programming decisions are not determined by the consensus of Internet chat rooms and comments sections. Deciding which shows live or die — or live again — is often a complicated process, with a slew of factors at play. And in the case of The Killing, it turns out there are at least three reasons why AMC’s un-cancellation of the show wasn’t a totally bonkers idea.

1. Fox TV Studios, which owns and produces the show, made AMC an offer it couldn’t refuse.
As much as networks like to talk about how much they love shows for their creative content, how much a show costs is always a major consideration in deciding whether or not it’s renewed. Back when ER was the biggest thing on TV, NBC came close to not renewing it at one point because producer Warner Bros. Television wanted a gigantic increase in the price per episode that the Peacock paid them for it (the so-called “license fee”). Warner didn’t get everything it wanted, but NBC mostly caved because ER was too important to lose. The Killing was sort of ER in reverse: AMC, with its smash hit The Walking Dead and successes such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, didn’t need The Killing to return — as its initial cancellation demonstrated. On the other hand, Fox TV Studios (FTVS) really wanted another season: According to industry insiders, The Killing has done very well for the studio in international markets, generating solid license fees from overseas broadcasters. (The show’s Danish inspiration is also a huge worldwide hit: Apparently gloomy, driven cops are the international language.) But without the platform of AMC (or another major cable network), FTVS wouldn’t have any more episodes of The Killing to sell. It needed to keep the show alive, which may be why, within minutes of AMC’s cancellation, FTVS had issued a statement flatly declaring its intention to “find another home for the show.”

FTVS chief David Madden, deferring to AMC, declined to discuss just what happened between the cancellation announcement and the subsequent reversal. But two industry insiders familiar with the negotiations say it’s actually pretty simple: FTVS, after failing to find a new cable home for The Killing, returned to AMC with an offer to license the show at a notably less expensive per-episode rate than what the network had paid for seasons one and two. (The two sides have kept a lid on just how much FTVS cut its price.) A show that AMC executives had deemed not worth saving at one price point suddenly became attractive again. While he wouldn’t discuss financial details, AMC president and general manager Charlie Collier confirmed to Vulture that price was a factor in his decision to un-cancel the show. “We came to an arrangement that worked for both of us,” he said. Collier maintains that AMC’s initial statement announcing the cancellation of The Killing, which noted how “difficult” the decision was, wasn’t an example of Hollywood-speak. “It really was a very hard decision,” he said. “It was still a show we were passionate about. Even after we canceled it, we never really got it out of our system.” 

What about the reports suggesting that Netflix would play a crucial role in the salvation of The Killing, not unlike the way DirecTV helped keep Friday Night Lights alive? A person familiar with the situation says FTVS is still talking to Netflix about a deal for streaming rights to the show. But the fact that AMC and FTVS proceeded with production of season three without any guarantee of such an agreement simply underscores that strong international markets, not Netflix cash, is what prevented The Killing from a final burial. If and when a Netflix deal happens, it will simply add to the studio’s profits on the show.

2. The ratings for The Killing weren’t great, but they weren’t awful either.
Even the most skilled PR spinner couldn’t find a way to call The Killing a hit, either in its first or second season: It averaged around 2 million same-day viewers in season one, and after the season finale’s alienating lack of closure, the audience fell by more than 20 percent in season two. When AMC executives originally decided to walk away from the series, that decline was no doubt one of the key factors in making the final call. (For the record, Collier told us the decision “was never about one single piece of data.”) But here’s the other side of the Nielsen equation: Once DVR playback over seven days is factored in, The Killing drew an average weekly audience of 2.3 million viewers in season two, according to Nielsen figures. And even without the DVR bump, the show still attracted 1.6 million each week. Compared to The Walking Dead’s 10 million-plus weekly fan club, that’s a pathetic number. Even compared to Mad Men, a critical masterpiece that has never been a Nielsen powerhouse and usually pulls in around 2.5 million same-day viewers, season two of The Killing fell short. But AMC (and other cable networks) have discovered it’s very easy to pull in far fewer viewers than what The Killing earned last year. The network’s Rubicon barely managed to cross 1 million viewers each week. FX’s much-touted comedy Legit drew under 1 million with its debut last week. And in Breaking Bad’s third season, back in 2010, it had all the critical love in the world and still averaged fewer than 1.5 million same-day viewers many weeks, and never got above 2 million. (Its most recent batch of season-five episodes had grown to around 2.6 million viewers.) Bottom line: While the ratings for The Killing never bolstered the argument in favor of renewal, they weren’t so bad as to preclude the idea altogether.

3. Because of the show’s procedural format, AMC can try to attract new viewers to season three.
Viewers who’ve never seen highly serialized shows such as Mad Men or Breaking Bad are unlikely to watch the new seasons of either series unless they first decide to do some heavy marathoning of past episodes. But season three of The Killing will begin with an entirely new mystery (if the same key characters) and so won’t require viewers to have any prior familiarity; it will be just as accessible to newbies as to those diehards who stuck it out through the first two seasons. One of the chief selling points of Fox’s dearly departed 24 was the fact that it hit the reset button every January, allowing the network to simultaneously take advantage of the show’s previous buzz while also hyping each season as a brand-new adventure. While The Killing doesn’t have the same “you gotta see this” energy, AMC will be able to push the idea that new viewers can jump in for a wholly original mystery. There’s no guarantee audiences will buy this pitch, particularly if early critical reviews conclude The Killing’s producers didn’t learn from past mistakes. It’s even possible that a big chunk of the season-two audience was made up of frustrated old viewers who only stuck around for closure on the Larsen murder and will now balk at the idea of signing up for another rain-soaked slog mystery. But there’s also at least a shot that the reboot could end up pulling in bigger crowds. And here’s something else that might help AMC woo fresh eyeballs: Series stars Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman are beginning to take on a higher profile outside of the show. Enos, currently in the tepid Gangster Squad, will also be seen in this summer’s Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z. Kinnaman, meanwhile, is in Terrence Malick’s upcoming Knight of Cups, but, more visibly, he has been cast as the lead in next year’s Robocop remake. If these movies turn the actors into even more recognizable faces, selling The Killing will be at least a little bit easier.

Why AMC Decided to Un-Cancel The Killing