Fishing in TV’s Dead Pool: Yahoo!’s Risk-Averse Community Revival

From left: Danny Pudi as Abed, Gillian Jacobs as Britta, and Joel McHale as Jeff in Community Photograph by Chris Haston/NBC Universal, Inc.

Yet another popular television show has been plucked from the scrapheap by a fledgling online-video platform. This time it’s Yahoo Screen buying an all-new season of Community, a Sony sitcom that NBC canceled in May after a five-season run.

Such matchups between a castoff and an underdog platform are becoming an increasingly common twist in the entertainment industry’s script. And if the price is right, the arrangement works nicely for all involved: The cast and creators of the spiked show get to carry on, the upstart video platform buys itself an instant fan base, and the fans get to watch more episodes of a show they already love.

Perhaps the most notable such deal was Netflix’s 2013 decision to produce and stream an all-new season of Arrested Development, almost seven years after the show was canceled by Fox. More recently, Netflix bought a new season of The Killing, an AMC crime drama imported from abroad and axed after three rounds. The six-episode revival will be available in August.

The biggest coup won from a spurned TV show predated the online-video gold rush. Futurama, an animated series from the co-creator of The Simpsons, was dropped from Fox in 2003 after a three-and-a-half-year run. But reruns on the Cartoon Network proved so popular that Comedy Central purchased a seventh season, which aired in 2012-13. The show went from a major network to a cable niche and earned a new life on another cable channel.

There are only two alternatives to buying new versions of defunct shows: airing reruns or bankrolling original shows. But it’s hard to win attention with reruns, and creating new shows can be a fraught path, particularly for a media company such as Yahoo! that has no record of success in scripted programming. It’s a classic build-it-or-buy-it conundrum, only in this case the “it” is a TV show.

Of course, another batch of Community episodes probably won’t catch fire like Orange Is the New Black, the Netflix original series that’s created an ardent fan base of its own. But bringing back Community also isn’t likely to result in a flop. The return on investment should be easy for Yahoo to model: Take the loyal audience, assume three out of four will find the new episodes online, and Yahoo arrives at a decent worst-case scenario. The demand is certainly there. Community fans have been lobbying Netflix and Hulu to invest via a social media campaign tagged #sixseasonsandamovie.

So how big is Community’s community? At the end, the show was drawing about 1 million viewers per episode, somewhere between 1 percent and 2 percent of the people watching TV while it was on. That’s not great for a Thursday night on NBC, but it’s probably pretty stellar at Yahoo Screen.

Yahoo’s current catalog is a little thin, and Screen has only been around since late 2011. The fodder it was pitching heavily today in the “must watch” category included old Saturday Night Live episodes, a stream of viral animal videos, and short installments from Vogue. The platform’s biggest original hit to date is Burning Love, a spoof of reality dating shows produced by Ben Stiller.

The strategy of rescuing castoffs also comes with a bit of a long tail, at least if upstarts like Yahoo Screen play it correctly and lock up rights to previous seasons. Community superfans have likely seen the earlier shows already, but viewers new to the series may work their way back through the older episodes. There can be a lot of life left in these left-for-dead shows.

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