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Help save Project Blue Book as scripted television migrates away from basic cable

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Aidan Gillen as Dr. J. Allen Hynek on Project Blue Book. Pic credit: History

If you watched Season 2 of Project Blue Book in its entirety, you were left guessing what Dr. J. Allen Hynek (Aiden Gillen) was going to do to find Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey) after his one-man mission under the sea.

You may be wondering how the portrayal of Mimi Hynek (Laura Mennell) would inch closer to the real thing in Season 3 and what Generals Harding (Neal McDonough) and Valentine (Michael Harney) would do with the intel they extracted from Russian spy Susie (Ksenia Solo). Well, if it happens, it won’t be on the History Channel.

History cancelled its scripted series including Project Blue Book and Knightfall, with only Vikings’ last half season still to air later this year. The network will instead re-focus its strategy on mini-series and docu-dramas — like the upcoming three-day Grant mini-series airing this holiday weekend — alongside their healthy roster of unscripted shows.

When Project Blue Book was paired with Ancient Aliens and Secret of Skinwalker Ranch, History looked poised to be the hub for UFO enthusiasts, but instead, as of May 7, the historically-based investigative drama is in limbo.

Now, one could just hold their breath, but who else is tired of just sitting around? The alternative is being proactive, to be a part of the #SAVEBLUEBOOK movement, by signing this petition and being passionate (and let’s face it, relentless) with your social networking influence, and ultimately get others to follow suit.

We spoke with Project Blue Book creator David O’Leary and showrunner Sean Jablonski about what happened, the trend of where scripted television on basic cable is headed, and what fans can do to save their show. But before we get to the plan, they were asked what their initial reaction was.

“We were definitely surprised but we saw that there was a movement away from linear styled programming,” O’Leary told Monsters and Critics. “We’ve seen the trends of what was happening on basic cable. It’s getting harder and harder to sustain scripted TV.”

History is moving away from it, USA Network is too (having just cancelled The Purge and Treadstone). There are more event mini-series and they’re basically filling up their slots with unscripted programming.”

Alarming trends in basic cable

In a February article in the Hollywood Reporter, scripted shows were observed to be vanishing from basic and premium cable amidst underperforming numbers and high costs, while those still-successful scripted series were finding their audience migrate to streamers such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

Project Blue Book and Vikings were called out amongst the handful of outliers, and yet still, History has chosen to pivot, but it’s not just them, everyone is shifting.

Even the golden goose of scripted television on basic cable, FX, saw a 25 percent drop from 2018 to 2019 in their Live+7 day averages, which is why they have been slowly  shifting their streaming catalog to Hulu since Disney purchased Fox (The Americans is still on Amazon Prime!) and why they launched Mrs. America there as opposed to FX.

Only a handful of scripted shows outperformed Project Blue Book in total same-day numbers this past year: The Walking Dead (AMC), Fear the Walking Dead (AMC), American Horror Story (FX), Dirty John (BRAVO), Barry (HBO), and Yellowstone (Paramount), all of which were renewed.

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Michael Malarkey as Cpt. Michael Quinn in Project Blue Book. Pic credit: History

“We’d gotten such an early pickup [for Season 2] in the first year and our numbers had stayed pretty consistent in the second year,” Jablonski said. “So the longer it took to find out, the more time we had to prepare ourselves because it felt like whatever decision was being made, it wasn’t based solely on our performance.

“The studio, network, everybody felt we’d improved in Season 2. In spite of the down market, you could argue we even gained numbers since we had aired. Still, there was a sinking feeling of would we get caught up in what is the trend of basic cable going away, and then the coronavirus hit and it was like, my gosh.

“Every single studio network is taking a moment to re-adjust and re-assess everything. We’re not pointing any fingers at corona, but it’s playing a big part.”

Making the case for Project Blue Book Season 3

It’s worth noting that in Season 1, Project Blue Book started out fast and averaged 1.67 million L+SD (live plus same day) viewers and averaged 3.1 mil total viewers in L+7. In Season 2, the numbers were 1.3mil viewers L+SD and 2.5mil viewers in L+7. The drop is slight, but the number is slightly skewed as weekly numbers slipped and then stabilized.

Comparing the season finales of the two seasons, O’Leary said that they retained 91.6% of their Live Total Audience and 87.5% of their L+7 total audience. This isn’t the typical series that should be considered a “cap casualty,” Project Blue Book is a true performer.

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From L to R: Aidan Gillen (Dr. J. Allen Hynek), Michael Malarkey (Capt. Quinn), Laura Mennell (Mimi Hynek), Neal McDonough (Gen. Harding), creator David O’Leary, and showrunner Sean Jablonski at Comic Con International 2019. Pic credit: Ernie Estrella

“About two and a half million Americans watched the show every week, either live or through recording it within seven days,” O’Leary shared. “That’s a big number. That makes it all the harder [to swallow] but it does provide us knowing we have this amazing loyal fanbase that enjoys the show.”

“That speaks to, again the fanbase, to be able to find us and stick with us,” Jablonski added. “We love History and the support that they’ve shown us has been great; they showed us a lot of faith, but the truth is that we weren’t surrounded by a lot of scripted television and a network like History is not necessarily built for a scripted audience.

“Despite that, people still came to us. It’s a case of everyone doing their damnedest and you can’t sail into the wind sometimes.”

Project Blue Book’s unique blend of blurring historical events and science-fiction makes it stand out amongst its competition. It took the baton from the X-Files and improved the narrative of alien conspiracies and the relationship we as a society had and currently have with UFOs, given our actual grounded history with them. After watching stories unfold about US Air Force investigations into UFOs, based on cases from 1950-1970, viewers couldn’t help but google on the real case files.

Each fast-paced episode stands on its own, and builds when watched in succession, and writing, acting, and production are first rate. Plus, UFO sightings are on the rise again with the government acknowledging they have no idea what’s in the sky at times and an air of mistrust of authority at every level, the time for Project Blue Book to thrive is now.

Aidan Gillen and Mike Malarkey as Dr. J. Allen Hynek and Captain Quinn in Project Blue Book Season 2. Pic credit: History

Prospective buyers would be investing in a two-season series that has already broken down the scripts for Season 3 with a dedicated fanbase. Jablonski and O’Leary assure fans that in the wake of cancellation, preliminary conversations have not been about re-developing a formula that’s already working. Notes are welcomed, but there’s no re-inventing the wheel here. It’s about sharing a finished product in a collaborative sense.

The Season 2 finale, Operation Mainbrace, left viewers on a cliffhanger after Quinn investigated the ocean floor in his one-man submarine. After witnessing a great light, depth charges detonated all around him.

Unconvinced that his partner and friend perished, we’re left with Hynek having a hunch about Quinn’s whereabouts. So what would Season 3 entail? Everything leveling up.

“Because our  show is a period piece, we don’t have to adjust all of our stories for social distancing, so god bless us for that!” Jablonski said laughing. “1954 worldwide, was the most sightings reported of any year, so I’ll just say we’re really leaning into that and taking advantage of the fact that the UFO conspiracy is not uniquely an American one.

“Even at the end of that writers’ room session, we started talking about Season 4. It’s great characters with endless cases and conspiracies… everything, at this point, is enough to figure out where Quinn is.”

“We’ll find Quinn, I know that,” O’Leary said confidently. “We have some clear ideas of what we want to do. We’re all so excited about what we’ve come up with and the cases we want to explore. Now we just hope we find that outlet to tell that story.”

Life on hold

The global pandemic has put a lot of things on pause, and even though screens have kept folks quarantined sane, those series (and films) currently in production or awaiting renewal are stuck.

In between seasons, any television show must endure turnover and is why pressure is applied for early pickups to maintain the assembly of a seasoned crew. Often times, crews can retain 80-90 percent, as long as people know.

But the pandemic has put many returning productions in a delay. Those stakes are multiplied when there’s no network attached and the need to provide in these times grows increasingly dire as more communities and industries reopen.

“We had to immediately make those phone calls and say, look we’re not going back to History,” Jablonski said. “They’re actively shopping it around, we want everybody back, and in a best case scenario, there’s going to be a delay.

“We heard from every department head that ‘We’ll do whatever we can to come back’ because it was that much fun. Everybody enjoyed doing the show and the material and the challenge of doing a period piece with the message that it had. But at the end of the day they’ve got to work.”

Aidan Gillen as Dr. J. Allen Hynek and Laura Mennell as Mimi Hynek in Project Blue Book Season 2 Episode 4, Hopkinsville. Pic credit: History

Sign the petition and keep momentum going

Campaigns to save shows in the science-fiction genre are increasingly common, with the most recent examples being The Expanse and Lucifer. The latter accumulated over 300,000 signatures during its limbo status, although it was still several months before Netflix saw it as a worthy investment.

“Timeless was another show that came back from the brink, they were at 16,000 signatures,” Jablonski recollected. “The Expanse was at 100,000. We’re [a few weeks in and already] at 12,000 and climbing and in this day and age, that’s a success. I also know that through following certain social media accounts, press, that we’ll reach far greater numbers, if the word gets out.

“If we can get the kinds of numbers that go up into the 50,000-60,000 plus signatures, it becomes undeniable.” The biggest thing that all successful resurrections had was one thing —momentum.

O’Leary said that it’s the continuation of the fans voicing their support, with the numbers of signatures growing, to see that there is a movement.

“There’s a real, robust drive by the fans to continue the show and an appetite and encouraging love,” he said. “Especially with all the problems that are going on in the world, that fans are spending time out of their day to lobby their support is huge!”

“People are clearly fickle and have many more options, which is part of the story why basic cable is dropping by double digits every year,” Jablonski added. “Actively adding to the momentum, and putting your name on something, shows a commitment — one that networks, advertisers, everyone is looking for.

“How you maintain an audience is always a mystery to some degree, because otherwise there would be nothing but hit TV shows everywhere because people would know what they’re doing.”

Both O’Leary and Jablonski remains extremely hopeful given the situation. The downward spiral of basic cable will ultimately benefit streamers and premium cable networks that don’t have to contend with commercials and set running times. Additionally, for fans vested, the connection they have with a show and its crew is undeniable and is exciting for all parties involved.

O’Leary urged fans to continue hoping and keep the flame burning. “Our studio head is aware of where we’re at with this and [executive producer] Bob Zemeckis is aware, everyone tracks this stuff on social media. It’s not just going into the void in any kind of way,” he said.

“All of our partners across the board, the actors, everyone, gets excited when they see that. We’re all grateful and just ask that they keep it going because we’re definitely going to do everything we can on our end to make Season 3 happen.”

Head here add your name to the petition and use the hashtag #SAVEBLUEBOOK whenever talking about it on Twitter or Instagram.

Ernie Estrella is a TV and film critic. He is also a contributing editor at SyfyWire (formerly Blastr) and has also written for USA Today.
Ernie Estrella

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