As I wrote in 2012—and expanded on here at the blog—when Netflix was reportedly in talks to resurrect The Killing after it was canceled by AMC, there is reason to be skeptical of reporting that refers to “conversations” or “talks” surrounding a series potentially being resurrected.
It turns out that, in the case of The Killing, those talks were productive – AMC picked up a third season with help from Netflix chipping in for an exclusive streaming window, and Netflix would return once more to pick up a short fourth and final season of the series when AMC chose to end the series. However, for every The Killing there is a Pan Am, or a Terra Nova, which were reported in a similar fashion but amounted to nothing.
There is plenty of logic behind the idea of Hulu having “conversations” with Sony Pictures TV regarding picking up a sixth season of Community. As Joe Adalian outlines at Vulture, Hulu is in need of a big original content splash to compete with Amazon’s money and Netflix’s prestige, and Community has been a strong performer on the service. It’s also the only logical place it could go, given that Hulu purchased exclusive streaming rights, meaning that neither Amazon nor Netflix would be likely to chip in given they would only have access to new episodes. It has long been presumed, since the day NBC chose to cancel the series, that Hulu was its only option.
However, it’s also an option that seems infeasible for a platform that doesn’t have Amazon or Netflix’s deep pockets, and an option that seems particularly infeasible given the contract burden of a sixth-season broadcast sitcom. The value proposition of Community to Hulu sounds great in the abstract, but when translated to dollars and cents behind the scenes it seems likely that the risk may be greater than the reward.
Truth be told, we knew this much about the situation before Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva reported that Hulu was in conversations regarding Community. That’s not really news: one presumed that Sony, who is always looking for series that push beyond the syndication mark, would be in touch with Hulu as soon as NBC got the first syllable of “canceled” out of their mouths on the phone call. It seems unlikely they even bothered to wait to see if Dan Harmon would be willing to return, given that there’s literally no harm in “conversations.” As I wrote with The Killing, as far as we know a conversation is simply a pleasant phone call, or two people running into each other on the street and tossing the idea out there. We have no idea if we’re any closer to Community returning than we were a week ago.
What we likely know, however, is that Sony wants us to know that they’re looking to make a sixth season of Community on Hulu. Although Adalian notes that he’s been working on a story about potential talks between the two sides for some time, there was no official confirmation until Deadline’s report, which one presumes is based on something more definitive based on its labeling as an “Exclusive.” Put in simple terms, we would not have learned this information if Sony did not want it released: there is copious evidence to support Deadline and Andreeva being used as a conduit for strategic information releases from Sony Pictures Television, including the aforementioned case of Amazon being in talks to pick up Pan Am and the site’s indefatigable efforts to resurrect Sony’s Breaking In after its cancellation. This therefore registers—and, even if not intended as such, absolutely functions—as a negotiating tactic, an effort to float the potential of Community’s return in hopes of demonstrating or changing the value proposition on the table.
I’ll admit to being somewhat cynical about the news as a result, understanding that this is a strategic maneuver more than a sign that negotiations have reached a meaningful point than the preliminary negotiations we presumed were happening anyways. However, at the same time, I’m intensely curious how exactly Hulu may be monitoring the response. Are they monitoring social media buzz regarding Hulu that could contribute to their brand? Are they charting Hulu Plus subscriptions to see if the service sees a meaningful bump, or performing surveys of Hulu users to determine whether Community is a part of how they use the service? Would more people watching the show on Hulu in the days ahead help convince them the show has value to their users and thus to the advertisers who want to appeal to those users?
We have no answer to these questions, just as we have no clear sense of the dollars and cents of any deal to save the series—it’s possible that Sony has chosen to play the Deadline card knowing that the value proposition is out of reach, and hoping this can change Hulu’s price ceiling or convince the cast and crew to take a bigger hit in order to bring the show in at the budget Hulu can afford. But we are in a moment where there are many more metrics that sites like Hulu have access to regarding a series’ potential value: while broadcast networks or cable channels remain beholden to Nielsen ratings as the most reliable and thus valuable metric, a site like Hulu has to be somewhat more open to engaging with other metrics that have emerged in recent years. If this news has gotten Hulu’s attention—neither Hulu or Sony are commenting on the record—then there are many spaces where online response could be measured, and potentially play a role in Hulu’s next move.
At the same time, it is equally as likely that Hulu will decide this isn’t feasible, and the hope of Community’s return will be dashed again. I say this not to be pessimistic, but rather to acknowledge that there is not nearly enough evidence to make a definitive claim that Community is more likely to return now than it was when we all just presumed they were talking to Hulu to begin with. It may be more visible, but I’m not convinced it’s any more realistic—all we can say for sure is that there will be more evidence for Hulu to consider or ignore in the weeks ahead as the Internet crowds together to discuss the possibility on the table.