How NBC Doomed 'Hannibal' 

If you love a little-watched critical darling, pray for a Netflix deal.


During the most recent episode of what appears to be its last season, Hannibal said it was fitting he be brought down in Florence, the place he became a man. “My beginning and my ending,” the titular cannibal mused. It seems increasingly likely the same could be said of NBCUniversal’s decision to give exclusive streaming rights to Amazon Prime.

Amazon paid out huge for the rights to Hannibal in 2013 in a package deal that also got the then barely-watched streaming service NBCUniversal-produced dramas Covert Affairs, Suits, and Defiance. At the time, Variety reported this was as much about depriving Netflix as it was growing Amazon’s own library. But in selling the show to a streaming service for one good payday, NBCUniversal may have inadvertently hamstrung the show’s chances.

As anyone with a DVR groaning under the weight of back recordings can tell you, television is an embarrassment of riches right now: Archer, Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Daily Show, Amy Schumer, John Oliver, Louie, Silicon Valley, Better Call Saul, Broad City, and, until recently, Mad Men — and the list goes on and on and on. Nobody has time to keep up with it all anymore, and quality by itself isn’t enough to guarantee an audience. The choice of streaming service for a show’s backlog has become a crucial part of helping attract new viewers.

Take Vince Gilligan’s word for it. When the Breaking Bad showrunner won the 2013 Emmy for television drama, he thanked Netflix for helping the show find an audience.

“I think Netflix kept us on the air. Not only are we standing up here (with the Emmy), I don’t think our show would have even lasted beyond season two,” Gilligan said. “It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”

Like Breaking Bad, Hannibal is a dark drama with a heavily serialized storyline that can be intimidating to viewers who came in late. Unlike Breaking Bad, Hannibal was consigned to a streaming service almost no one uses, at least when compared to Netflix’s numbers.

That includes Amazon’s own customers. A survey of Amazon Prime by RBG Capital Markers found that a third of subscribers don’t even watch streaming videos with their accounts. Apparently, not even the full run of The Shield is enough to get them to flip on the service.

Now that the show is cancelled, Amazon’s straghtjacket on the rights for the three seasons that have aired is one more hurdle keeping another service from producing new episodes, and Amazon itself doesn’t seem interested.

Maybe a switch to Netflix wouldn’t have saved Hannibal. Airing on the peacock network was always going to set the benchmark for ratings higher than a basic cable show like Breaking Bad. But what I guarantee it would have done is exposed it to a wider audience of viewers willing to at least try the pilot, and who aren’t willing to pay $100 up front for a streaming service. Let that be a lesson to producers for the next low-rated critical darling.

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