Why was Alcatraz cancelled (and moved)?

Last updated 09:04 17/01/2013

As of last night's episode of Alcatraz - the last episode TV One will play on Wednesdays, as the show is being moved to 11.35pm on Thursdays to make way for a new season of Winners & Losers - we're over half way through the 13 episodes of the show that were made before it was cancelled by its American network.

20130117And though it might be folly to question that decision now, eight months after the decision was made, my only thought as I watch Alcatraz is this: why was it even cancelled in the first place?

I mean, I know why Fox - the US network who took a punt on the sci-fi/procedural from producer JJ Abrams, starring Jorge Garcia, Sarah Jones and Kiwi actor Sam Neill - have said they cancelled it. According to them, the show performed badly in the ratings, starting off strong when it premiered in America last January, but dropping to less than half that audience by the end of the season.

The reasoning doesn't really make sense, though. While Alcatraz performed badly in its demographic, its 5+ number sat at around the same level as the third season of Fringe, another JJ Abrams show on Fox, which was renewed for a further two seasons after that. In fact, no episode of Fringe's fourth or fifth seasons rated higher than any episode of Alcatraz did - and with Fringe dropping off the air this season, there was room for Alcatraz to grow. It was also incredibly close to the numbers for Grimm, which is considered a breakout hit for NBC.

Alcatraz has also done fine for TV One, especially considering it was on the air during the difficult Christmas/New Year period - of the six episodes we have numbers for (thanks to our friends at Throng), three have placed among the five most watched shows of the evening (7.30pm-11pm), and the first five episodes have been adding around 30,000-40,000 time-shifted viewers. You can check all the local ratings here.

If the ratings aren't necessarily bad enough to justify cancelling Alcatraz (or dumping it into late night, as is the case here at home), then is the problem that led to its cancellation more to do with quality?

Personally, I've been enjoying the series, and I'm baffled as to why it wasn't at least given a limited order for a second season, just to see what happens. The first seven episodes have established an interesting episodic structure - a former prisoner (or guard) reappears in the present day and starts causing havoc, while flashbacks tell us about their time on the rock - operating within an intriguing mythology around who took the prisoners and why.

I've also enjoyed the cast; it's always a pleasure to see Garcia and Neill (a Kiwi national treasure) on screen, both of whom do a good job with the kind of one-note characters you'd expect to find on a procedural like this one. Sarah Jones is the weak link, forced to play Rebecca Madsen with the same cookie-cutter characterisation (misplaced intensity, tortured past) you'd probably find in a Writing Procedurals For Dummies guide book.

So, if the ratings were bad but not bad enough to justify cancellation, and if the quality of the show is good enough to keep people, even if these people are just a limited number of fans, entertained, then why was the show cancelled? Was there just too much JJ Abrams on the television? Was Alcatraz just too similar to other shows on the air? Or maybe I'm kidding myself, and the show is actually really, really bad?

What do you think: why was Alcatraz cancelled? Was it ratings, or was it something else?

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