Skip to main content

What Happens When Shows Change Channels

In a popular culture marked by sampling and nostalgia, the added challenge to TV networks of finding a path to profit with original programming means we are living in a golden age of reboots. Beloved shows from Gilmore Girls to Twin Peaks to that ever-resourceful MacGyver are getting dusted off for another run as networks mine libraries in order to capture fickle viewers’ attention. But the coming weeks offer a couple examples of a much rarer variation of the TV do-over—veteran shows switching networks without skipping a season. VH1 debuts the 23rd cycle of America’s Next Top Model, formerly of The CW, on Dec. 12, while Viacom sibling CMT welcomes season five of Nashville, which had its first four seasons on ABC, Jan. 5.

Both networks have their reasons for salvaging the scrapped series. While one might debate the degree of taint that clings to a canceled show, both offer proven series to networks seeking to evolve their programming strategy. And while they may not have had enough viewers to keep the run going on broadcast, Nashville and America’s Next Top Model both bring their share of rabid fan bases to the party. “Truly the Nashies are the reason the show got saved,” says Anthony Barton, CMT senior VP of consumer marketing and creative, referring to the online faction of hardcore Nashville fans. “They made our decision an easy one, and we moved very quickly to get it on CMT.”

The Roots of Restlessness

The notion of a show shifting networks mid-run is uncommon, but not unheard of. Most typical is a ratings-starved series leaving broadcast for the lower bar and friendlier economics of cable, as happened with Southland (NBC to TNT in 2010), Cougar Town (ABC to TBS in 2013) and The Game (CW to BET in 2011). Animated shows have traveled that path (Futurama and American Dad both started on Fox but migrated to Comedy Central and TBS, respectively, in 2008 and 2014).

Cable-to-cable network jumps include Project Runway (Bravo to Lifetime in 2009), while broadcaster to broadcaster moves include Scrubs (NBC to ABC in 2009), JAG and Medium (both NBC to CBS).

This fall, Supergirl flew from CBS to The CW, a move within the family with CBS a partner in the junior network. After averaging just over 10 million viewers last season on CBS, Supergirl is averaging 3.4 million viewers now, which The CW boasts is a 247% increase over Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in the same slot last season. Supergirl’s rating among adults 18-49 is 1.1, and the show kicked off a DC Comics crossover week Nov. 28. While the numbers have shrunk markedly since the move, the superhero synergies with The Flash and other properties have created The CW’s most-watched Monday night (2.4 million viewers) in nearly seven years.

David Bianculli, media critic and author of The Platinum Age of Television, says network-shifting shows go back to the advent of the medium, mentioning Ernie Kovacs taking his humor act, and Dutch Masters sponsor, to a litany of networks in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The Danny Thomas Show ran on ABC from 1953 to 1957 and then on CBS from 1957 to 1964. “When a program goes from one network to another, does it change?” says Bianculli. “Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.”

The lane changes for Nashville and Top Model come amid an inflection point in television, as the connection in a viewer’s mind between a beloved show and the network it airs on likely becomes less meaningful, with viewers increasingly catching up on episodes outside of their linear plays. A generation bingeing on Friends repeats, for instance, may never realize the series had a long run on NBC.

Kaling New Heights

One high-profile shift in recent years saw The Mindy Project, canceled after three seasons on Fox, resurface on Hulu, where the series’ repeats enjoyed a dedicated following (Hulu does not share viewer statistics.) Life at Hulu is quite different, says showrunner Matt Warburton, even if the show is more or less the same. Warburton says his writers room can push the boundaries a bit in terms of racy humor, but the goal has always been for viewers to hardly notice the channel change.

“We wanted that to be a little bit invisible to the audience,” he says.

Notes are “extremely streamlined” compared to the Fox days, he says, and budgets are virtually the same. And while streaming services’ viewer figures typically range from opaque to non-existent, Warburton does not miss the overnight ratings from his previous life.

Created by and starring Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project’s established presence on Hulu made the streamer a fairly logical home base for new episodes. “It’s special when someone picks your show because they already like it,” says Warburton, “rather than seeing if it works for them.”

Second Home on Same ‘Street’

On Jan. 7, a new season of Sesame Street starts up on HBO, the second cycle of a landmark deal to premiere new episodes on premium cable before they run on PBS in September. Sesame Workshop insiders note that they retain full creative control of the show, a prerequisite while shopping for partners, and the HBO deal has increased the number of yearly Sesame episodes from 26 to 35.

Steve Youngwood, chief operating officer at Sesame Workshop, says the HBO partnership has helped increase ratings at PBS, where Sesame has aired since the fall of 1969. “Besides more distribution, there’s been more brand awareness and marketing,” he says. According to Bianculli, Sesame Street has had “significant changes, but kept its overall flavor.”

‘Nash’ Bridges

The dilemma for the acquiring networks is, how to retain what makes fans so passionate about the show, while reinventing it to best suit the new digs. With seasoned producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick running Nashville, CMT insiders say they’ll slow down the pacing, scrap some of the soapier elements that turned off fans toward the end of its ABC run, and focus more on an ensemble cast than just core characters.

Founded as Country Music Television, Nashville-based CMT will also play up the singer-songwriter components that make Music City unique. “I don’t think that ABC leaned as much into the music,” says Barton, “because it wasn’t in their wheelhouse the way it’s in ours.”

Nashville is helping CMT jumpstart a fledgling original scripted strategy that debuted with comedy Still the King in June. After CMT sneak peeks the Nashville season premiere Dec. 15, the series leads into the Elvis Presley- Jerry Lee Lewis-Johnny Cash-Carl Perkins limited series Million Dollar Quartet in January. Barton notes how a cable network can be more consistent with scheduling than a broadcaster beholden to specials and sports and other interruptions. “We’re helping create a ritual, making it a habit for the audience,” he says.

Foremost in CMT’s marketing strategy is informing Nashies and Nashville newbies alike to reset their DVRs to reflect the new network, night and timeslot. Barton estimates there may be as many as several hundred thousand Nashies, though he admits that a particularly raucous group can appear larger than it really is.

What’s ‘Next’ for Tyra

America’s Next Top Model is a known quantity at VH1, having averaged a 0.48 rating in adults 18-49 when the network aired the series in syndication, ending in 2008. Network execs mention a “groundswell” of fired up fans who voiced their displeasure on social media when ANTM was canceled by The CW, and they got in touch with exec producers Tyra Banks and Ken Mok immediately. “Creatively, everyone was in sync, and I think we all realized we’d be really good partners,” says Nina Diaz, head of unscripted at MTV and VH1. “We shared the same vision for where the show was headed.”

Research from, analyzing Google Trends, also showed VH1’s honchos that ANTM was one of the top three most popular unscripted shows in 10 states—despite having been off the air for several months.

Kate Keough, senior VP, consumer marketing at VH1 and Logo, speaks of a “reinvented” ANTM, with more flash, a more diverse cast of cat-walking hopefuls, and a greater focus on the model as multipronged business brand, not just clothes horse. Tyra Banks remains an executive producer and will make appearances on screen, but has passed along hosting duties to polymath performer Rita Ora. “It brings together the worlds of fashion and music and pop culture,” Keough says of ANTM’s fit at VH1.

The network borrowed a page from pop music marketing by issuing a cryptic message in its outdoor advertising, billboards reading, simply, “What’s Next?” A few months of teases gradually gave way to a mid-November reveal of what exactly is next—a new ANTM, on a new network, with a new host. “It’s one of the top two or three launches in VH1’s history,” says Keough.

Managing Expectations

Time will tell how the shows perform on their new nets. Looking at comparable broadcast-to-cable cases in TV history, The Game lasted five more seasons on BET, Southland lasted four on TNT and Cougar Town persisted for three more on TBS. Notably, JAG ran for 10 years on CBS after its lone season on NBC, and spun off a fairly successful franchise in NCIS.

The new ratings won’t match what the shows did on a broadcast stage, and even those Nielsens were not enough to win new seasons with the traditional networks. But perhaps a fresh perspective, and jazzed up marketing, can breathe new life into timeworn TV properties—and maybe those superfans will end up watching more on CMT and VH1 than the shows whose demise they so passionately lamented.

“The networks hope a different swath of viewers shows up,” says Bianculli. “They may like what they see when they watch promos for other shows.”  

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.