As the public conversation around art has become increasingly political, the entertainment news cycle has acquired a regular feature. A star says something offensive or behaves in a way that could potentially invite criminal charges, and the calls to fire the person or cancel the program in which he or she stars quickly follow. Charlie Sheen, whose meltdowns and violence against women have — justifiably — eclipsed the talent he seems determined to squander; “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, who found himself in trouble when his views about homosexuality traveled beyond the core audience for his A&E show; Paula Deen, whose brand of Southern conviviality was endangered by a lawsuit that suggested she was nostalgic for more than classic regional cooking; and Donald Trump, who has strategically courted NBC’s wrath for years are just the examples that spring immediately to mind.
But while these calls for cancellations sometimes produce the desired results — the Food Network let Deen’s contract lapse and Sheen taunted CBS into firing him from “Two and a Half Men,” though FX hired him quickly after — it’s not uncommon for networks to opt for something more moderate, like a suspension. A story in today’s edition of the Hollywood Reporter offers a window into why executives might want to try to ride out the storm: There’s a lot of money on the line.
Now, that might seem obvious. If you cut a show off at its height, you stand to lose advertising revenue, potential syndication fees from future episodes you might produce, and the money that comes from licensing a series overseas.
But, as Georg Szalai’s report on what happened at Discovery after the network canceled “19 Kids and Counting” reveals, the costs can be even higher than that. Discovery axed the show about a family living by the principles of the Christian Quiverfull movement, which emphasizes very large families. “19 Kids and Counting” had always been somewhat controversial for its depiction of a family where the father had absolute authority and women in particular lived by extremely conservative sexual norms. But the show become unsustainable after it was revealed that Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the family and then a lobbyist for the Family Research Council, had allegedly sexually abused young girls, including his sisters, when he was himself a teenager and that he had been counseled by a family friend in law enforcement.
As Szalai explains, canceling the show cost Discovery enough that company executives had to discuss it during an earnings call:
Discovery Communications has taken charges of $24 million primarily for the cancellation of TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting. The cable networks group in its second-quarter earnings report on Tuesday cited “restructuring and other charges” in that amount without detailing all the items they covered, compared with $5 million for the year-ago period, an increase of $19 million. Analysts said the figure was likely to account for ending the show amid the Josh Duggar scandal, with CFO Andy Warren later confirming that on an earnings conference call. In his prepared remarks, he cited “higher restructuring and other charges this year of $19 million primarily due to content impairment charges from cancelling TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting.”
None of this is to suggest that Discovery made the wrong decision. As programming, it would have been impossible for the network to continue to air “19 Kids and Counting” as a cheery, quasi-aspirational reality show, and it would have been exceptionally difficult — not least for Josh Duggar’s sisters — to completely switch formats, turning the series into a more piercing look at a family recovering from alleged sexual abuse. From an ethical perspective, there was no good way forward. And certainly, no advertisers would have wanted to be affiliated with the program, given the possibility that further ugly revelations about the family might follow.
But numbers like these are a valuable reminder to advocates of just what they’re asking for when they call for a show to be canceled or an actor to be fired. Just because the optics seem obvious doesn’t mean that the financial penalties are negligible. Once a network is in the Duggar, or Robertson, or Trump business, it becomes much more complicated and costly to get out of it.