More than three months after WGN America officially canceled Underground, executive producer John Legend is still fighting to find a new home for a third season of the series about the underground railroad and the race from the slavery of the South attempted by thousands.
“The cast, producers and our studio Sony Pictures remain committed to a future for Underground because of a belief that this story is important and invaluable,” the Oscar, Tony and Grammy winner wrote in an op-ed he released on social media this morning, “and it remains our hope that not only is there a future for this show, but for many others like it.” (Read Legend’s full op-ed below.)
After two acclaimed seasons, the series created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski was deep-sixed by WGN on May 30. The ax fell less than three weeks after the Season 2 finale of the series starring Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge and Aisha Hinds, and two days after the expanding and frequently hands-on Sinclair Broadcasting Group announced it intended to buy WGN’s parent company Tribune Media for $3.9 billion in cash and stock, plus the assumption of $2.7 billion in debt.
The corporate timeline resonates with Legend, whose Get Lifted Film Co is a producer on the series and who appeared in Underground as Frederick Douglass.
“Sinclair has pursued a strategy of buying up local networks and moving their news coverage to fit their far-right agenda,” Legend asserts in his op-ed. “In addition, they’ve bought Tribune Media, the parent company of WGN America and immediately turned away from high-quality original dramas such as Underground and Outsiders in favor of cheaper unscripted entertainment.”
This isn’t the first time Legend has taken to social media to try to find a perch for a third season of Underground. On May 30, he tweeted: “Feel free to drop some hints to the networks/streaming services you want to pick up #Underground. Show them who will be watching!”
Seen as potential and logical new homes for Underground, both OWN and BET have passed on picking up the series. Underground reportedly has a price tag of around $4.5 million per episode.
As Legend noted today, Underground had a screening at the White House when Barack Obama was President. The show also had a screening at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where it was selected as the inaugural public program.
Here is Legend’s full op-ed:
In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, America has had a conversation about history and memory, monuments and flags, slavery and freedom. We’ve had a debate about the Civil War and how we remember the Confederate leaders who provoked the War in order to perpetuate the evil institution of slavery. How do we tell the stories of this era? Who is celebrated? Who is ignored? Do we give hallowed public space to those who fought to tear the country apart so that millions would remain in shackles? Or do we celebrate those who risked their life in the pursuit of freedom and equality.
As storytellers, producers and creators of content for film and television, we have the power to take control of the narrative. As an executive producer of the critically-acclaimed television series Underground, we’ve been proud to celebrate those like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass who were true American heroes whose legacy we can be proud of. Their words and their actions helped make it possible for my ancestors to be free. I’m honored and humbled by the opportunity to make sure they are not forgotten. Along with the stories of historical luminaries, our series features fictionalized characters and plot lines directly inspired by the courageous real narratives of the first integrated civil rights movement in the United States, the movement to abolish slavery.
In its first two seasons, Underground was undeniably a hit series, setting ratings records for WGN America, receiving rave reviews and sparking conversation in the media. It was screened at the White House and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was acknowledged by the NAACP, NABJ, and many other highly respected institutions, and generated widespread engagement on social media as a trending topic during every new episode… yet here we are, still fighting for a future for the series.
How did we get here? WGN America was bought by media conglomerate Sinclair Communications. Sinclair has pursued a strategy of buying up local networks and moving their news coverage to fit their far-right agenda. In addition, they’ve bought Tribune Media, the parent company of WGN America and immediately turned away from high-quality original dramas such as Underground and Outsiders in favor of cheaper unscripted entertainment.
We know there is still an appetite for high-quality scripted dramas on network and cable tv and streaming services. We also know that, in this particular moment in history, there is an urgent need to tell the powerful story of the Underground Railroad. Even today – in the 21st century – we rely on a sort of underground network of individuals and organizations willing to put themselves at risk to help those who are not yet seen as equals in the eyes of the United States government. When our elected officials tell undocumented individuals who boost our economy, who strengthen our workforce, and who see the U.S. as the only home they have ever known, that they are at risk of deportation, those individuals are forced to live in the shadows. They may be sent to a land they can’t remember, that they fled in fear, or in some instances where they have never even set foot. Who will tell their stories when they are made to feel unsafe when they go to work, drop their kids off at school, seek medical help, or report a crime? Putting a spotlight on these types of stories creates an opportunity for recognition, understanding, discussion and learning, bringing a humanity and context that allows people to experience our past and present in a way that is not possible in other media.
For all of these reasons and more, the cast, producers and our studio Sony Pictures remain committed to a future for Underground because of a belief that this story is important and invaluable… and it remains our hope that not only is there a future for this show, but for many others like it.
Let’s #SaveUnderground so that we can continue to inspire and educate the American people about these true American heroes.