Not even the internet could save ‘Party Down’

A scene from "Party Down." ()
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Meghan Keane

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The internet couldn’t save “Party Down.”

Starz’ mockucomedy may have been a niche product—New York magazine called it “TV's greatest-ever catering comedy”—and it was beloved around the web. But the ratings told a different story.

The second-season finale last Friday brought in only 74,000 viewers. In television ratings terms, that’s a flatline: Nielsen rated the show 0.0 among the 18-49 demographic. Yesterday, Starz announced it was canceling the show.

"Party Down" may go down as the most beloved unwatched series in history. Blessed with a top-rate cast and a Paul Rudd producing credit, “Party Down” was dark, witty, and often plain awesome. (Steve Guttenberg as Steve Guttenberg! Yes, please.)

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But apparently awesome can only get you so far, if the story arc is too inside-baseball to attract an audience that registers on TV.

“Party Down” follows a motley group of has-been and never-was actors as they cater events in and around Hollywood. The writers never ran from the depressing aspects of the conceit. In fact, they seemed to wallow in the characters' failures. A recurring theme on the show was the mocking of lead Adam Scott, who played a former actor only remembered for the beer-commercial catchphrase “ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?!”

"What are you doing working here?" a fellow caterer asks when she realizes he's the famous ex-beer mascot. "Do you remember me from anything else?" he asks.

"Party Down" found an appreciative, niche fanbase online. In its first season, Videogum declared it “Best. New. Show.” Starz noticed, and implemented a forward-thinking (brave, actually) digital strategy tailored to this audience, becoming one of a handful of networks that willingly shares its content with other content providers. There was now nothing standing between online viewers—the future!—and this terrific, free content. But then no one came.

As TV by the Numbers' Bill Gorman told me:

“'Party Down' is really covered in the TV media so far out of proportion to its ratings as to be silly. I’d like to say it has an infinite ratio of hype to ratings.”

It is an understatement to say that the show did not resonate with an appreciable number of viewers. Starz’ second-season ad push didn’t work. Even sending adorable starlet Lizzy Caplan to do P.R. for the show on Jimmy Kimmel (by lamenting the fact that no one was watching) before the finale failed to drum up ratings.

Only 22 million of the 115 American homes that have television sets subscribe to Starz. The network tries to get around that hurdle by sharing its shows for free on On Demand. Also, new episodes from the second season of “Party Down” have been made available for streaming on Netflix the day after they first air. (Viewers who got to the show that way are not included in Nielsen numbers.)

But according to Netflix, the company does not keep content-providers in the dark about the popularity of their shows among subscribers.

In an interview, Netflix vice president of corporate communications Steve Swasey said he couldn’t disclose details, but said: “We have a very good rapport with our studio and network partners. We share a lot of information. When we’re paying for content, there’s got to be value for that. For both Netflix and the seller.”

One thing working in the show’s favor was the strange way that premium cable does business. Unlike with network TV or basic cable, ratings aren’t as important to premium cable channels as their all-important subscription numbers. If a show with mediocre ratings entices more viewers to subscribe, a cable channel might keep it alive for PR purposes. However, as Gorman said, “It’s hard for us to say ‘This is what HBO wants, or this is what Starz wants.’ But you know what? Nobody wants 75,000 viewers.”

By comparison, just to convey an idea of the minuscule scale there, we were all lamenting the demise five years ago of FOX's “Arrested Development,” another ratings-challenged cult series, after it brought in a mere 6 million views in its second season. (Starz' hit show is the Roman fight-club drama "Spartacus," which attracted 1.2 million viewers for its season finale.)

That doesn’t mean people aren’t upset: Witness the ongoing virtual wake. Among the mourners is one of the show’s actors, Martin Starr, who blamed new Starz president (and former HBO exec) Chris Albrecht for cancelling his paycheck. The show originated before Albrecht’s tenure, but he was reportedly a fan.

Starr doesn’t buy it: “This wasn't a STARZ decision. I know them. It was a Chris Albrecht decision. He cares nothing for us. Many pantries.”

“Party Down” had some strikes against it outside of ratings. The show’s stars have been methodically poached for other film and TV programming. Jane Lynch left last season for a role on FOX’s “Glee.” Scott now appears on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Ryan Hansen is heading to NBC for the upcoming “Friends With Benefits.” Caplan is starring in a Danny Boyle film with James Franco next year and just booked a role on the CBS sitcom “True Love.”

Regardless, the stars were committed to making “Party Down” work. Jane Lynch, for example, just resurfaced for the season (now series) finale on Friday.

Maybe if there had been more voices championing the show online, if there had been some breadth to the support to go with the profound depth, it might have come to a different end.

As Caplan responded when Kimmel fans applauded her work on "Party Down": “If you had actually seen it, the number of people in this room would actually double our ratings.”

For Starz, the small but devoted audience of “Party Down” isn’t likely to stick around.

There’s a grassroots Twitter campaign for viewers to dump their subscriptions. (Which, considering the size of that audience, maybe isn't such a big deal to Albrecht and company. But still.)

The stars of “Party Down” will find work elsewhere. And Starz has other shows in the pipeline.

The real significance of the cancellation of “Party Down” may be that it's a blow to economies of content everywhere. Perhaps there are kinks to work out in Starz’ distribution strategy. But if acclaimed content is freely available and nobody watches it, the chances that we’ll get more of it are pretty slim.

As for “Party Down,” there’s always future fan obsessions to be built from two seasons on DVD. As Starr wrote: “I HOPE they put out the second season on DVD. I wonder if that'll get cancelled too.”