The UK broadcast of Supernatural has gone all to hell. I, like many others, was deeply disappointed by the news that Sky Living will not be showing season nine, which has just completed its broadcast in the US on the CW. At the time of writing there are rumours that Netflix will take up the series – and rumours on the Internet must be true, right? – but in the meantime UK fans of Supernatural have been left in limbo or, dare I say, purgatory. One of the most distressing parts of this is that the announcement was made on 19 March, around the time that fans would normally be expecting to hear that the series was about to start. It is particularly odd for me as I found out about this just this a week ago, so this may be old news to many. But the cancellation was only announced on Sky Living’s website (which I never visit) and then picked up by Digital Spy and Scifinow.co.uk, again websites I never look at. I always received my Supernatural news through the Supernatural on Sky Living Facebook page, which has admittedly been quiet of late, but goodness knows how Facebook organise what appears on your feed. I just assumed I was missing it. So given that season eight began on Sky Living on 2 July in 2013, and also that the shows I am currently watching – Game of Thrones, Fargo, Agents of Shield and 24: Live Another Day – are coming to the end of their current runs, I decided it was time to check to see when my regular summer show was coming back. Imagine my surprise.
The timing of the announcement is only the first of a number of potentially inflammatory issues regarding this situation. The second is the wording of the press release, which pays scant lip service to feelings of the UK fans of Supernatural (and indeed of Cougar Town, which was dropped in the same release. I don’t watch it but let’s not forget them). First off, there’s no explanation given as to why the new season is not going to be shown. The second statement in the release acknowledges that Sky “understand fans of the show may be disappointed.” Not only is this grammatically incorrect, since the press release is about two shows, not one, but also the idea that fans ‘may’ be disappointed is of course ridiculous, or at least naively hopeful. Is there any fan of any show likely to be anything other than disappointed/hurt/angry when suddenly finding out it is not being shown anymore? But, the press release goes on, Sky Living “appreciate your passion for TV…and these shows in particular.” That’s very nice of them to say, but clearly they do not appreciate this enough to actually show them. Not to worry, Sky say, because Supernatural/Cougar Town fans might be able to console themselves with the upcoming summer line up including Ladyboys, America’s Next Top Model and Hitched, a new documentary following married couples during their first year. Wow. I can feel my Supernatural blues just melting away.
Another problem is that the press release encourages viewers to get in touch, but on the Sky community forum pages, one in particular, the responses to the fans queries are equally dismissive. Jordan-a, a community co-ordinator, responds that the decision to drop the series was due to licencing reasons. Another co-ordinator, Panlop-B, responds that “all licenses have time limits and some are not renewed when expired (can be due to multiple reasons – the most common being the studio has cancelled the show.)…We’d love to continue showing this great series but unfortunately Sky have decided not to renew their licensing arrangement with Supernatural”. So Sky would really like to continue to air the show, but have decided not to. Okay then. Another Sky poster, Mark TWH, says he does not know why Supernatural hasn’t been renewed, but adds that in some cases negotiations for rights don’t go well and “at some point we do have to be prepared to say no”, the implication being that perhaps the rights for Supernatural were becoming too expensive. Finally Stacey M, Sky Community Manager steps in and closes the forum down to further posts on the grounds that the viewers’ questions – why has the show been cancelled – have been answered. Well, sort of. It was to do with the licensing. We did not renew it. We either don’t know or won’t say why.
So the truth is not yet out there but either the CW decided to start playing hardball with the rights and priced Supernatural out of the market or Sky decided that Supernatural wasn’t drawing enough viewers to warrant the cost, and so elected not to renew the license. I can only speculate but the former seems less likely to me. Supernatural has always been the little show that could, and that hasn’t changed. It seems like a very odd time to start upping the costs.
Whatever the reasons, the decision, and the manner in which it has been handled, is symptomatic of the contempt that Sky has shown for Supernatural since its takeover of Living TV in 2010 and the rebranding of Living TV as Sky Living in February 2011. At that point fans were awaiting the start of season six of Supernatural, which traditionally began on Living TV around January/February, and was shown so that by the finale it had almost caught up with the US. In 2011 season six, which was of course the first series under Sera Gamble and the first that followed the end of the original five-year arc, simply failed to appear. Fans waited and waited, until season six finally rolled up in June 2011, running through the summer. Since then the show has run a full year behind, each season starting in the UK just as it ended in the US, which is why we’ve only just found out season nine is not airing. This is a real shame, as it does look rather good.
One of the many interesting things about this turn of events is that is demonstrates how much things have both changed and stayed the same in the world of global TV. When The X-Files first aired in the UK, terrestrial viewers saw it a year after the US broadcast. Season One of The X-Files began in the USA in September 1993, first airing in the UK on Sky One in January 1994, and then on BBC2 for terrestrial viewers in September 1994. As I’ve discussed elsewhere in a piece written for The Cult TV Book (2010), midway through the broadcast of the second season – which again ran a year behind the US, beginning in September 1995 – the show switched from BBC2 to BBC1, and once the season’s last episode aired in February 1996, the BBC was inundated with calls to begin showing season three immediately. This was, of course, locked up by Sky One, who continued to air the show prior to its terrestrial broadcast. Terrestrial viewers either had to get Sky, or wait. It is important to remember that back in 1993 only a relatively small proportion of the UK subscribed to satellite (Sky) TV, so while the hiatus was deeply annoying, I accepted it, mainly because firstly I couldn’t afford Sky TV (and aside from The X-Files and The Simpsons, which I’ve always been able to take or leave, there was little else worth watching on Sky to make the investment worthwhile) and second this was the early days of the Internet and the world of TV was much larger then. It was easier to wait because you were simply less likely to find out what was happening on US television. There wasn’t that sense of panic and impatience that seems to revolve around cult shows these days, with friends overseas talking about how good the new season is prompting a sense of pressure for those who have to wait. It seems far more important now to be up to date than it was in the mid 1990s. Buffy the Vampire Slayer met a similar fate, starting in the US in the spring of 1997, debuting on Sky One in January 1998, and finally appearing on terrestrial TV on BBC2 in December 1998, by which time season two was well underway in America. At this point I was still renting a flat and so was unable to screw a giant dish to the wall, but by this time my wife and I felt more of that sense of urgency about watching the show (because it was Buffy of course) and began to turn to friends who had a satellite receiver to record it for us.
So Supernatural, as it appeared on Living TV, followed a kind of UK broadcast tradition set up by The X-Files and Buffy amongst others, starting in the January after its US September premiere and running without a hiatus, therefore catching up to the US as the series reached a climax. Since the turn of the millennia the TV landscape in the UK has changed drastically. Cable suppliers like Virgin Media, and the advent of Freeview, mean that UK viewers have far more access to a broad range of TV channels, and to a broad range of cult TV, without necessarily having pay the Murdoch Sky empire its pound of flesh. The fact that Living TV was freely available either via Virgin or Freeview meant that although it was a non-terrestrial channel, it was neither as inaccessible nor as expensive/exclusive as Sky One had been. The trade off is that shows on these channels now never turn up on terrestrial TV, or very rarely.
Sky responded to the widening access to popular American shows for non-subscribers by not only buying Living TV, but also by purchasing exclusive rights to various key series. In 2007 Virgin Mediaelected to drop the basic Sky channels from its cable package, prompting a vigorous advertising campaign from Sky, drawing on the appeal of Sky One’s most popular American shows, 24 and Lost.
Offering a cheap monthly subscription of just £15, alongside free installation and a catch up weekend for both shows, the campaign encouraged viewers to switch to Sky so they could keep watching. As a result of an impasse between Virgin and Sky over a new distribution deal, unlucky customers found themselves caught in the middle, much as they did when Sky announced the formation of Sky Atlantic in October 2010. Initially billed as the home of HBO, Sky Atlantic’s biggest coup was to outbid the BBC for the highly popular Mad Men, meaning viewers who had followed the series for free (except for paying the license fee) suddenly had to fork out for a premium Sky package to get it. The situation was made worse by the sudden, outrageous success of Game of Thrones in 2011 which, until its arrival on streaming platforms Blinkbox and Now TV, was only available in the UK via Sky or the very expensive HBO DVD box sets that arrive a year later. This, if nothing else, has led Game of Thrones to become the most illegally downloaded show in history.
Curiously this means that while the TV landscape in the UK has changed, with for example the likes of Blinkbox and Now TV providing options for those willing or able to watch on computer screens or who have a Smart TV, for more traditional viewers the options to see Game of Thrones are almost identical to those available to viewers of The X-Files in 1994. Pay for Sky, or wait a year. Up to you. The only difference is that now you have to pay for Game of Thrones one way or another, however long you wait.
So where am I going with all this? For all cult TV as a concept and cult TV shows are attracting a lot of attention and ink these days, the nature of the industry serves to create a hierarchy within cult TV. While the CW may be committed to its small but loyal legions (pun intended) of Supernatural fans, clearly there aren’t enough in the UK to warrant Sky Living’s equal support, leaving UK fans at the mercy of the industry, hoping against hope that someone else will pick up the series, just as they were about to drag out their grease-burgers and beer coolers and settle down to see what happened when the angels fell from heaven. At the other end of the market those willing to pay can watch Game of Thrones 24 hours after the US broadcast, or via legal online streaming more or less as soon as the series ends, a decision doubtless meant to curb online piracy.
This situation is reserved for the most popular series, notably FX’s The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. So there is a clear acknowledgement of the global nature of fan communities now, and of that pressing need within these communities to stay current. But, particularly for Sky, at the heart of this agenda is profit, meaning a profitable show like Game of Thrones gets the star treatment, while others, like Supernatural, fall by the wayside. For all it is galling, at the end of the day TV is a business, and so economics must drive the decision processes. It is the harsh reality of TV that, sometimes, great shows fall foul of business decisions. I was a die-hard fan of Californication when 5* dropped it in August 2012 at the end of the fourth season. I was so upset that when I found the first and second episodes of season five available last summer on a flight to LA, I decided to watch them. I lasted 10 minutes before I was so embarrassed by the content and worried that a passing child – or worse, an angry parent – might see the screen on the way to the washroom that I turned it off. But around the time I got home, season five showed up on Netflix. I’m disappointed that so far there’s no sign of season six, although the DVD is now available with the final season coming out simultaneously with the US in August. So it required a lot of patience, but I will finally get to see the end of Hank Moody’s journey of self-debauchery, which makes me believe that somehow or other Supernatural will return to UK shores.
Perhaps the trouble with cult TV is that, as fans and academics, we think of it as being very important, which of course it most definitely is. It is also important for the industry, but there’s a dividing line between a cult show with a loyal fan base and a style and set of themes worth discussing, and a show that hardly anyone watches. Firefly most famously fell foul of that line, so too did Wonderfalls, but the difference is that they were cancelled. From a British perspective it seems far worse that Supernatural is still on but we can’t see it, while in reality the fact that it is still on means at least that at some point, however distant, there will be new adventures with the Winchesters for us to enjoy. There is an irony in the fact that a show about two powerless blue-collar guys fighting against the monolithic entities of hell, heaven and – worst of all – corporate America, should be shafted by the televisual powers that be, but in a further irony, despite the fact that in the Supernatural universe God is absent and angels are routinely described as ‘dicks’, I nevertheless have faith that somehow or other we UK fans will get to see Sam and Dean’s continuing adventures. We are on the ropes right now, bruised and defeated, seemingly without hope, but that’s traditionally when Sam and Dean come out fighting. So let’s make some noise, and keep hunting.
Simon Brown is Director of Studies for Film, TV and Media and Cultural Studies at Kingston University. His main research areas are early cinema, British cinema and contemporary American television, and he has published pieces on shows as diverse as Dexter, Alias, Supernatural and The X-Files.