Short-lived series find a new lease on life

THE TRIO CABLER won praise from TV critics a few years ago by showcasing acclaimed but short-lived series under the banner “Brilliant but Canceled.” In essence, it marked a resourceful way for a channel with a meager budget to make its dollars go further by using every part of the chicken.

Now DirecTV’s 101 Network is doing much the same with a bonus, offering all the episodes of axed programs — including those that never saw the light of day — billed as “The Complete Series.” The satcaster’s digging through TV’s dearly departed began with the 2000 drama “Wonderland” and has expanded to include three recent Warner Bros. programs: “Smith,” which begins this week, with four of its seven episodes never having aired on CBS; “The Nine,” with 13 hours, four not shown by ABC; and “Eyes,” which shot 12 episodes, though ABC aired just five of them.

DirecTV’s “Complete Series” initiative is interesting on several levels, beyond serving as a surrogate for the DVD release of deceased programs, where never-before-seen episodes have become the ultimate extra. Perhaps more than anything, the deal reflects a determination to wring value and attention from TV’s discard pile — assuming that the bond such shows forge even with a smallish audience is worth exploiting.

The announcement also comes as DirecTV and cable operators are feeling a trifle squirmy that cash-strapped viewers might start bypassing them to access programming online. Although there’s no evidence of a wholesale push in that direction, program-delivery services are looking to any method they can find — including inexpensive original (as in “You haven’t seen it before”) programming — to create more points of adhesion to customers.

“You never know what’s going to put people over the edge” in terms of staying with or switching providers, said Eric Shanks, DirecTV’s exec VP of entertainment. “We’re just trying to do clever things that nobody else is doing.”

The final noteworthy element involves the changing nature of the audience itself, inasmuch as my first thought was “Why would anybody want to see four more episodes of a series they liked if there’s no genuine resolution or closure?” (By that measure, belated kudos to the producers of ABC’s “Life on Mars” for cobbling together an actual ending that didn’t leave their leading man trapped forever in limbo as well as bad ’70s clothes.)

But many fans don’t think that way. If they enjoy a franchise, they’re grateful for whatever fresh scraps they can get, and the Web has enabled them to form online communities with like-minded zealots. Hell, there’s still a group collectively pining for HBO’s “John From Cincinnati” (honest, there are emails that prove it) along with “Jericho” and “Moonlight.”

BACK IN THE 1990s, late programming guru Brandon Tartikoff advised development execs that “Every show should be somebody’s favorite show” — a maxim that has evolved now that episodes can be bought and downloaded, creating a relatively new facility to translate cult followings into incremental revenue.

DirecTV harbors no plans to partner with other networks to revive any of these series — as it has with NBC to sustain “Friday Night Lights” — and fans savoring new-to-you episodes won’t be gifted with true endings. (Shanks did say “The Nine’s” audience is “finally going to get to finish off what happened with the people in the bank,” so if that prospect sends chills up your spine, fire up the TiVo.)

Still, DirecTV will augment its commercial-free telecasts by having producers discuss the programs, as Peter Berg did with “Wonderland,” which ABC originally booted after a mere two episodes in 2000. As for studios, whatever income such arrangements generate amounts to the welcome rattle of finding loose change.

“It’s not a lot of money,” Shanks said, “but these are tough times … and it’s money that they wouldn’t have had before.” And who knows, maybe a program will catch on and trigger a sequel or continuation. Stranger things have happened.

So consider DirecTV’s experiment a mantra for a new age of programming liberty: Bring us your tried (and failed), your poor (-ly rated), your canceled masses. Because when you have a channel for nearly everyone, nothing should go to waste.

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