It’s been more than a week since WGN America officially canceled its acclaimed drama Underground after two seasons as the cable network is changing its programming direction in preparation for its parent Tribune’s acquisition by Sinclair.
Underground hails from Sony Pictures TV, which probably has more saved shows post-cancellation than any other studio in the past decade, most recently the dramatically un-canceled Timeless by NBC this season. The studio sprung into action when WGNA last week opted not to pick up Underground for a third season. There are no takers yet but I hear the studio is not throwing in the towel yet, taking another shot at a possible deal with BET and Hulu.
Sony actually began exposing Underground to other networks back in April when the writing was already on the wall at WGNA in the wake of the cancellation of Sony-produced drama Outsiders, with BET, OWN and Hulu, which has Underground’s streaming rights, as main targets. I hear back then BET came close to a deal for the drama, about the famous underground railroad network that used to smuggle slaves from the South to the North, before the Viacom cable network pulled out. At around the same time, BET took in hip-hop/cheerleading-themed scripted series The Breaks and Hit the Floor from sibling VH1, which were relocated as part of the program migrations at the realigned Viacom cable group.
I hear Hulu had been willing to stay involved as a streaming partner for Underground, possibly in a shared deal similar to the one it has with CMT for Nashville, but would not step up to take in outright the praised period drama, whose price tag is said to be around or north of $4.5 million an episode.
I hear Sony TV explored other streaming services that can handle high-end series, including Netflix, which passed. That left the studio with the option of finding a cable network that could do the show in tandem with Hulu.
OWN had been interested but topper Oprah Winfrey confirmed earlier this week that the network would not be picking up the series, executive produced by John Legend, Akiva Goldsman and Anthony Hemingway
“I can’t afford Underground,” Winfrey told reporters at a press event, as quoted by Refinary29. “It cost twice as much to make as Queen Sugar. As a matter of fact, my dear friend John Legend called me personally and asked me about it, but we’d already been talking about how we could make it work … It’s like $5 million an episode, so we can’t afford it.”
Legend had been vocal about the cancellation of Underground, vowing to find a new home for the praised series and urging fans to rally behind it.
Winfrey acknowledged that Underground is an important show worth saving. “I wanted to make it work because I think it’s a good show,” she said in the same interview. “I wanted to be able to save that show, but it did not make good business sense for me.”
Underscoring Underground‘s value to the public, the series, which had a screening at the White House last year, was selected as the inaugural public program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture with a screening at the new Oprah Winfrey Theater.
With OWN out, the number of options for Underground has dwindled. I hear BET may be back in the picture, and there may be a last-ditch effort to make a deal there.
BET had been considered the most suitable home because of the network’s strong position in the African American community and its long-standing efforts to shed light on key events and figures in black history, most recently with the miniseries The Book Of Negroes. Additionally, BET is part of Viacom, which already found a business model to afford an equally expensive drama series, ABC’s Nashville, which airs on CMT with a streaming window on Hulu — the type of deal Underground would be seeking too.
The odds are long, but I hear Sony TV plans to push through until it runs out of avenues to pursue. And if there is hope, the studio would extend the actors whose options are coming up at the end of this month while it continues efforts to keep Underground alive.