Zombies vs. Lazarus: The digital resurrection of canceled television

Used to be, when a TV show got canceled, it was dead and it stayed dead. But with the rise of the digital age, shows are coming back from the grave right and left.

This week, news broke that the remaining eight episodes of the ABC (s DIS) sitcom Don’t Trust the B In Apartment 23, which was taken off the air in January, would be posted to ABC.com, Hulu and iTunes.

The announcement is a boon for fans of the show, but they shouldn’t get their hopes up that successful online distribution will mean another season of the show; much of the cast has already moved on to other projects.

However, another show may truly get a second life: Also this week, rumors spread that Microsoft (s MSFT) is looking at rebooting NBC’s (s CMCST) Heroes, which was canceled in 2010, for Xbox and MSN distribution.

As television continues its evolution from a single box that sits in your living room to a multi-platform experience across many devices, resurrections like these are increasingly common — though sometimes they’re less like Lazarus, and more like zombies.

Netflix (s NFLX) is of course a front runner in the rebirth business, thanks to picking up Arrested Development (only one more month, Bluth fans!).


But there’s a deep history to this practice. For instance: In late 2009, producer Ashton Kutcher turned to YouTube (s GOOG) to screen the unaired five episodes of model drama The Beautiful Life, which had just been canceled by The CW. (s WB)

However, while the TBL channel is currently at over five million views, not one of the five episodes on it has surpassed a million views.

They’re all still online, along with a plea posted by Kutcher saying that they’d be able to produce more episodes if the channel’s subscriber count hit a certain, unspecified threshold.


Whatever that threshold was, it was greater than 35,000 subscribers — which is the channel’s current standing, four years later. But TBL does deserve credit for being an early example of a show realizing the potential power of digital distribution — arguably ahead of its time in that respect.

The key is transitioning from digital distribution to actually producing new episodes. The most daring and ultimately successful example of this isn’t necessarily Joss Whedon getting to make a feature film follow-up to Firefly or the return of Veronica Mars as a feature — the real kickoff of digital distribution having real meaning for canceled shows comes from the early 2000s, and DVDs.

The Fox (s NWS) animated series Family Guy first premiered in 1999, and was canceled in 2002. But thanks to blockbuster DVD sales of the first three seasons, it was brought back to the airwaves in 2005, and has remained a key part of Fox’s schedule ever since. Creator Seth MacFarlane has even gone on to create at least two other shows for the network.

(Personal anecdote: I was working as a clerk in a DVD store in 2003, and I keenly remember how we couldn’t keep Family Guy box sets on the shelves; they sold out like crazy.)

Sometimes, things need to end. Sometimes, shows don’t work or don’t connect with a wide audience, and those involved are ready to move on. The Onion satirized this beautifully in the aftermath of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign with this piece headined “Stars Of Canceled Show Terrified Fans Will Raise Money For Movie,” centered around recently-terminated NBC sitcom Animal Practice.

The episodes of Animal Practice left unaired after its cancelation are currently available online, though it’s unlikely to come back — a zombie, for better or worse.

But as the industry figures out how to make original content on the web sustainable and profitable, we’ll see more and more examples of Lazarus.