What really killed “The Expanse,” one of the best-reviewed sci-fi series on TV

Image: Kurt Iswarienko/Syfy
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The Expanse is the rare sci-fi series that succeeds in telling a complex story of interplanetary relations with stunning special effects on a TV-sized budget. So, naturally, it was dropped by its US cable-TV home, Syfy, this week.

Fans are pleading with streaming services like Amazon Studios and Netflix to revive the series. Diehards hired an airplane reading “Save The Expanse” to fly outside the Amazon Studios headquarters in California. There’s also a petition to save the show with more than 87,000 signatures.

The Expanse, produced by Alcon Entertainment, was picked up by Syfy in 2014 when it was renewing its focus on science-fiction and fantasy programming. The current third season of The Expanse earned 100% positive reviews from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. And the full series averaged 90% positive reviews. There’s plenty of story left to tell, too. The show is based off a book series by James S. A. Corey, the pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which is expected have nine installments when its done.

The series seemingly got the axe because of a complicated rights deal that put an inordinate amount of pressure on the show’s live-TV ratings to make it worth it for Syfy. Deadline reported:

The cancellation decision by Syfy is said to be linked to the nature of its agreement for the series, which only gives the cable network first-run linear rights in the U.S. That puts an extraordinary amount of emphasis on live, linear viewing, which is inherently challenging for sci-fi/genre series that tend to draw the lion’s share of their audiences from digital/streaming.

The show airs first on Syfy in the US; viewers can watch live on the cable TV channel or through its app with most pay-TV subscriptions. Past seasons are streamed on Amazon Prime in the US. Internationally, Legendary Global Television Distribution reportedly handles the TV and digital rights deals. It airs on TV networks Space in Canada and Sky in New Zealand, and is streamed as a Netflix original nearly everywhere else.

Live- and same-day viewership for The Expanse fell 20% on average between the first and second seasons. The first five episodes of season three averaged 570,000 viewers, about 9% less than the comparable episodes from the previous season. It’s Syfy’s fourth highest-rated series in the 18-49-year-old demographic coveted by advertisers, and only the eighth most-watched show when you look at viewership overall.

Alcon Entertainment is reportedly shopping the show to other networks and platforms. In the meantime, the creators promise an end to the current season that will both satisfy fans and leave the door open for more.