Why NBC Saved ‘Magnum P.I.,’ and Why CBS Canceled It in the First Place

·4 min read

Forty-nine days after CBS surprisingly axed “Magnum P.I.,” NBC signed a lease agreement for Thomas Magnum’s shiny, red Ferrari. OK, so, the Comcast-owned broadcast network is actually getting the whole show under a two-year, 20-episode deal — but it’s a pretty cool car.

NBC’s iteration of “Magnum P.I.” is expected to begin production this fall and air in 2023, a person with knowledge of the plans told IndieWire. If that feels like a fast turnaround, it’s got nothing on the Le Mans-like speed with which the salvation talks began. Discussions about NBC picking up the show began “immediately” after CBS’ cancellation, the person told us, citing the “pretty loud” fan outcry and subsequent media coverage of the grass roots campaigning as two material reasons the show was saved.

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“Magnum P.I.” is a reboot of “Magnum, P.I.,” which starred Tom Selleck, his mustache, and a 1984 Ferrari 308 GTS Quattrovalvole. The remake — sans comma — stars Jay Hernandez, a tightly trimmed goatee, and a Robin Masters Ferrari 488 Spider.

Viewers of this “Magnum” weren’t just revved up about the cancellation, they also showed up beforehand. With an average of 7.338 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen, “Magnum P.I.” ranked 30th out of 151 Big 4 broadcast shows over the recently-wrapped September-to-May season — and eight of the series ahead of it were NFL football. It outperformed notable broadcast shows “American Idol,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” and “The Good Doctor.”

“Magnum” was tied for 56th in the adults 18-49 demo (a 0.7 rating) with shows like “Shark Tank,” “The Resident,” and “Law & Order.” While that’s still perfectly respectable, CBS doesn’t even care about that demo. In recent years, the oldest-skewing broadcaster has even shied away from talking about the 25-54 demographic.

While “Magnum P.I.” may have not performed like a Ferrari, it didn’t run like a Fiero either. So why did CBS scrap the show, among the few on television with a Latino lead, for parts?

Critics didn’t laud the series, but they didn’t think it was a (high-end, Italian) car crash either. In 2018, Season 1 (the only one many critics even reviewed) got a 57 percent rating, which is rotten, on Rotten Tomatoes. (All told, the CBS run has a 78 percent rating with its audience.) Metacritic’s critical roundup was a bit harsher, giving the show a 48.

What was much higher (but equally as tough to swallow as that Metacritic score) with “Magnum P.I.” was its licensing fee, two people with knowledge of the situation independently told IndieWire. That was the “biggest sticking point,” the second of the individuals told us. While CBS was (and will continue to be) the lead production studio on the procedural, it is NBCUniversal’s Universal Television that owns the I.P. Accounting departments tend to eyeball things a little closer when it’s a coproduction, and that is exactly what CBS did, the first person told us.

“You have some tough decisions to make and you have lots of factors — and I’m not going to rule [the licensing fee] out as one of them,” CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl told TV Line about one week after canceling “Magnum P.I.” “It was a great team to work with, and one of the tougher decisions we had to make.”

Additionally, “Magnum,” which films on-location in Hawaii, is not an inexpensive show to make. Those costs are hard to justify without the benefit of ownership. In other words, the main reason CBS axed the show is the same reason NBC saved it.

“Magnum P.I.” follows Thomas Magnum (Hernandez), a private investigator and former Navy SEAL. Magnum, who served in Afghanistan, has repurposed those skills to solve crimes in Hawaii. This version was co-created by Eric Guggenheim and Peter M. Lenkov. In addition to Hernandez, the series stars Perdita Weeks and Zachary Knight. The series regulars are all set to return for NBC’s continuation, a source told Indiewire.

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