Some shows just don’t hook people, no matter how good they’re supposed to be. They can get all kinds of acclaim, truckloads of awards and nominations, but for whatever reason, not enough people tune in to watch.
A few of these shows have a cult following later, an audience that grows following the show’s run. Sometimes poor viewership is due to terrible marketing, sometimes it’s a show plunked into a horrible timeslot, up against heavy competition, or simply bounced around so much that everyone forgets about it.
Let’s take a look at eight of these award-winning shows that suffered from neglect.
‘Sports Night’ (1998-2000)
Almost Aaron Sorkin’s prequel to ‘The Newsroom,’ ‘Sports Night’ dissected the lives of a team putting together a sports show similar to ESPN’s ‘Sportscenter.’ It ran from 1998 to 2000, showcasing some of Sorkin’s tendencies that would be used in future works like ‘The West Wing,’ and ‘The Social Network’ – fast-paced dialogue, repetition, characters walking and talking.
The show won Emmys for directing, editing, and cinematography for a comedy series. William H. Macy was nominated for Outstanding Guest Actor for playing Sam Donovan, a ratings consultant. While Donovan discussed Sports Night’s ratings struggles on the show, the real-life executives at ABC were doing the same.
Maybe viewers weren’t ready for Sorkin.
After ABC’s cancellation, the show garnered interest from cable channels such as HBO, but Sorkin decided instead to move onto putting together ‘The West Wing.’ Probably a wise move.
‘Once and Again’ (1999-2002)
From the creators of ‘thirtysomething,’ came another ABC show about fortysomethings with children, separated from their spouses, who start dating. The show featured a unique element, as talking-head type interviews in black and white revealed the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
The show’s first season had mediocre ratings, but had the potential for improvement given numerous awards and nominations, including lead actress Sela Ward winning a Golden Globe and Emmy for her performance as Lily Manning. Well, this did nothing.
‘Once and Again’ may have been the victim of schedule changes, as it bounced around all over ABC. In a head-spinning fashion, it debuted on Tuesdays, then moved to Mondays, switched back to Tuesdays, then to Wednesdays, then to Fridays, then to a different time on Fridays, and back to Mondays again. Sela Ward said she couldn’t “remember what night we’re on half the time.”
This can’t happen with a new show, especially one where storylines arc across episodes. The hard realism of ‘Once and Again’ could only be fully realized seven years after cancellation, after the third and final season was finally released on DVD.
‘Buffalo Bill’ (1983-1984)
Perhaps ahead of its time in terms of the anti-hero character leading a TV series, ‘Buffalo Bill’ centered around Bill Bittinger (Dabney Coleman), the host of a daytime talk-show in Buffalo, NY. Despite a clean on-air personality, behind-the-scenes his character left little to root for.
Joanna Cassidy won a 1984 Golden Globe for her work portraying Jo-Jo White, the talk show’s producer who had the difficult job of keeping Bittinger in check.
The unlikableness of Bittinger, while giving the show a uniqueness, may also have been the reason the show failed to maintain viewers.
Still, the behind-the-scenes look at a talk show may have inspired ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ which would find success on HBO years later. It also featured a cunning character, played by Garry Shandling. Larry Sanders, however, did have a softer side than Bill Bittinger.
The creator of ‘Buffalo Bill,’ Jay Tarses, would go on to make ‘The Slap Maxwell Story,’ again starring Coleman. It’s a show that could also be featured in this list, winning awards, but being cancelled after one season due to poor ratings.
‘Arrested Development’ (2003–2006)
While the revival of ‘Arrested Development’ on Netflix showed strong data for viewers, this was not the case for the original series when it aired on FOX.
Over three seasons, the series earned an impressive six Emmys and a Golden Globe, but never cracked top ratings. Nearing the show’s demise, storylines featured a “Save our Bluths” (SOBs) campaign, poking fun at the soon-to-be-cancelled show.
The comedy was different than anything else on TV at the time—a single-camera show, with a narrator, meta-jokes, irony, focusing on a family beyond dysfunction. The strange style of the show may have initially deterred any kind of audience. Or maybe FOX just didn’t do enough to promote ‘Arrested Development.’
Below, David Cross, who plays Tobias, sums it up better than I can, and with plenty more cursing.
‘Pushing Daisies’ (2007–2009)
A show about a pie-maker who can reanimate the dead might be a hard sell to anyone, unless you’re a pie-maker, or a… reanimator. To ABC’s credit, they did their best to give ‘Pushing Daisies’ a chance to succeed. The quirky show was heavily promoted, and as a result, did a solid 13 million U.S. viewers for the pilot episode. But things would take a steep decline.
There were some great characters and fun moments on the show. Since Ned could not touch anyone he had reanimated or they would permanently die, this led to plenty of bizarre kisses with Chuck while maintaining some sort of barrier, be it a sheet of plastic or a pair of beekeeper suits.
Over just 22 episodes, the show was nominated for an astounding 18 Emmys, winning seven of them. Kristin Chenoweth was nominated for her supporting role as Olive Snook for both seasons, winning the Emmy in 2009.
The steep ratings decline was partially due to some unforeseen circumstances. The 2007-2008 writer’s strike allowed only nine episodes of the first season to air out of an intended 22. While most established shows found a way to recover, ‘Pushing Daisies,’ a show trying to build an audience, never did.
‘Commander In Chief’ (2005–2006)
Like ‘Pushing Daisies,’ this Geena Davis vehicle started off with some strong ratings, at one time even leading in its timeslot. But the show’s decline over just eight months is truly remarkable.
‘Commander In Chief’ centered on Davis as the first female President of the United States, a role she inherits due to the sudden death of the elected President. For her performance as Mackenzie Allen, Davis won a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
After creator and showrunner Rob Lurie was behind schedule, ABC decided to bring in a new showrunner. And that’s never good, even if that replacement happens to be the great Steven Bochco. Following hiatus after hiatus, the addition of Mark-Paul Gosselaar, another showrunner change, and a move from Tuesdays to Thursdays, the show had its own kind of sudden death.
‘United States of Tara’ (2009-2011)
Usually cable channels like Showtime have a greater tolerance for a dip in ratings. ‘United States of Tara’ at least ran for three seasons before getting axed.
The show, created by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of ‘Juno,’ Diablo Cody, and produced by the biggest producer of them all, Steven Spielberg, centered around lead character Tara.
Toni Collette played an actor’s dream role as Tara, a character with multiple personalities. This allowed Collette to play different characters within each episode — '50s housewife, rebellious teenager, a male Vietnam vet, and more. Collette owned the role, earning herself an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 2009, and a Golden Globe in 2010.
The first season of the show did well for cable as Showtime had its best ratings since 2004. The debut beat out previous premieres of ‘Weeds’ and ‘Californication’ by a significant margin. Ratings dropped a whole lot following the first season, and even more for the third season. Showtime was forced to pull the plug. Sorry, I don’t really have an explanation for the viewer decline for this one. Your thoughts?
Although not a true series finale, the show at least ended with three full seasons, which Netflix acquired the rights to stream for those who didn’t watch the first time around.
‘Boss’ (2011 – 2012)
Starz gave ‘Boss’ an early blessing by renewing it for a second season before the series even began. Why wouldn’t they? It had Kelsey Grammer pouring every ounce into Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, it had Gus Van Sant producing and directing, and it was beautifully shot on location in Chicago.
More than that, it was a gutsy show, well-written, different, and pretty much anything you could ask for from a political drama. In fact, it’s difficult to find anything negative written about the series.
‘Boss’ earned several nominations, and Grammer won a Golden Globe for portraying Kane.
But the show never got off the ground. It premiered with ratings that were low even in comparison to other series debuts. Grammer’s Globe win did nothing to boost ratings for the second season. Starz CEO Chris Albrecht told The Hollywood Reporter, “At some point, if an audience isn't building, it's going to drop off.”
If the so-called “Seinfeld-curse” made it difficult for the core cast to find new shows, what about for Grammer who played Frasier Crane for 20 years? It’s possible that potential viewers saw him as Crane and not Kane.
So what are your thoughts? Can you explain why ratings were so low for some of these award winning shows?
I watched "Once and Again" and "Sports Night" for as long as they ran but the TV ratings pollsters never called me. I gave "Commander in Chief" a good try then lost interest after perhaps half a dozen episodes. It had a good premise and started with a few good episodes then began to show a lack of innovation or originality.
Message Posted On Oct 31st, 2013, 5:49 am
I was a little unsure of Kelsey Grammer playing the role but after the first 10 minutes I forgot all about Frasier Crane. It's a real shame this didn't catch on I haven't watched the second series yet I kind of liked how the first one ended and don't want to be left hanging like they normally do when these shows end.
Message Posted On Oct 31st, 2013, 3:58 am
I think Boss was seen in a different light by Chicagoans who understand the Daley years. Outside of Chicago, it's easy to understand how viewers wouldn't get the power of the mayor's office in that city and the corruption that went with it. Some of the specifics were fictional, but as any Chicagoan knows, the events of the show were based on real events in the city. Viewers from elsewhere in the country that didn't make those connections likely thought it was all claptrap.
Level 2 (20%) Since: 20/Feb/08
Message Posted On Oct 30th, 2013, 10:09 am
I loved "Boss," but I have to admit I was never a Kelsey Grammer fan in the past. Perhaps this is why I was willing to see him in a dramatic role. I just think the same folks who watched him in comedic roles just weren't able to look at him as a dramatic actor and in a political drama none the less. It is sad because this show was a real showcase for his acting abilities.
Level 2 (78%) Since: 12/Oct/07
Message Posted On Oct 30th, 2013, 5:07 am
Pushing Daisies was the BEST!!! So quirky and witty... I loved it.
Level 2 (22%) Points: 7.4 Since: 23/Apr/13
Message Posted On Oct 30th, 2013, 4:54 am
Thought I'd see forefly on the list, but that never got any awards i suspect... Which still baffles me
Level 1 (47%) Since: 02/Apr/13
Message Posted On Oct 29th, 2013, 11:46 pm
Have to say i thought Boss was excellent and was surprised when it got cancelled a fine drama,loved dead like me as well as pushing daisies both almost the same show but both wonderful series.
Level 1 (59%) Since: 16/Mar/10
Message Posted On Oct 29th, 2013, 10:20 pm
I watched Boss. Ham-handed political nonsense and empty self indulgent dialogue. It was the CSI of politic drama and it offended me so much I couldn't finish the first season.
msd85 (Crazed Contributor)
Level 39 (90%) Points: 17874.5 Since: 07/Jul/10
Message Posted On Oct 29th, 2013, 5:29 pm
Ah, Pushing Daisies, a show I still love and own in its (short) entirety on Blu-Ray. You're spot on about why it died too. The writers' strike completely curtailed producers' plans for the first season. It just never recovered after that. What a shame.
Message Posted On Oct 29th, 2013, 4:22 pm
One of the best political shows EVER. Starz
must have had a mind meltdown when they cacelled it.
I will be thinking about Mayor Kane and how it ended for him for years to come