This is probably the result of NBC not having a lot of hits to begin with, so standards for renewal are lower. But a real case of them coming to the rescue is for shows like Chuck and 30 Rock, which are not ratings giants.
More like "Subway To the Rescue", but nevertheless, NBC heard the fans and renewed Chuck.
Same for Parks and Recreation. Despite the consensus that it grew the beard in Season 2 and escaped the notion of it being a pale knock-off of The Office (US), the viewing audience dipped below 5 million, startlingly low for a show on broadcast TV. Nevertheless, the loads of critical praise Season 2 has received was a key factor in NBC renewing the show despite the declining ratings that show no signs of improved life.
Hill Street Blues did a lot of things that are commonplace in a cop show today, but sure weren't back in 1980 when it was created. Things like the shaky-cam, imperfect heroes, cut-up dialogue, etc. The ratings of its first season weren't good, but Hill Street Blues later won a truckload of Emmys and is generally considered one of the best, if not the best, cop show of all time.
Hill Street Blues is not even the most prominent example of a network coming to the rescue simply because an exec thought a show was quality work and deserved airtime. In its first season, Cheers finished dead last in the ratings. The major network exec at the time kept it on the air until it could find its audience because he thought it was too good to last.
Another big one for NBC is Friday Night Lights. It was a constant ratings disappointment in its first two seasons, but gained enough fans among the network executives that it was saved by an experimental schedule of having the next season be only thirteen episodes, which would first air on DirecTV in the fall and then on NBC itself in the spring. It was such a success that two more similarly constructed seasons were ordered towards the end of it. Notably, those three seasons are essentially being constructed as one long epilogue, with a large part of the focus going toward giving each character a three or four episode arc to send them off the show.
NBC rejected Seinfeld after the pilot bombed in audience testing, but NBC exec Rick Ludwin liked it and took money out of his personal corporate budget to finance more episodes and talked the network into airing it as a summer replacement series. It got good enough ratings that they picked it up full-time in the middle of the next season.
Actually, Star Trek fits this trope. The first pilot for was turned down by both CBS and NBC, but the latter network did something unheard of in the 1960s (and still fairly rare today) and asked Gene Roddenberry to do a second pilot episode.
And later it was more like Network's Biggest Figurehead to the Rescue when Lucille Ball made vague threats to execs that convinced them to bring it back for season 3.
Late Night With Conan O'Brien: The show didn't start off well for the first few years. Early commercials even mocked the fact that no one knew who O'Brien was and that he was obviously uncomfortable in front of the camera. In spite of it all, NBC stuck with it and were rewarded with the highest rated late night lineup along with Jay Leno. Unfortunately, when they gave Conan The Tonight Show, they didn't give him much of a chance.
Going all the way back to 1966, they picked up The Hollywood Squares after CBS turned it down. It ran from 1966 to 1980, an unheard-of lifespan for a game show in that era, and spawned a nighttime syndicated version that lasted from 1971 to 1981. Since then, the show has had four revivals (The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour, also for NBC, in 1983-84; syndie versions from 1986-89 and 1998-2004; and Hip Hop Squares in 2012).
The pinnacle of NBC's balls of steel (at least in the 1980s) is none other than The Cosby Show. When the show's producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner approached ABC with the concept, they balked, claiming audiences wouldn't buy the idea of a wealthy black family. In addition, Bill Cosby was not a big star and stand-up comics didn't get shows that revolved around them at that time. Not to mention, the sitcom was considered a dying genre at the time and ABC did not want to take a risk. NBC, however, took the risk and scored big. The Cosby Show ranked number one in the Nielsen ratings five years in a row, and as a result, many other NBC shows, a lot of them heretofore struggling to win viewership, became hugely popular in the Nielsen ratings as well. All of this gave NBC much needed revenue to avoid going bankrupt. ABC, for their part, saw many of their once mega-successful programs take a tremendous nosedive in the ratings, which in turn, led to a huge decline in revenue, causing the network to be bought out by a company only a tenth of their size, Capital Cities Communications.
When Miami Vice was being cast, Brandon Tartikoff insisted on the show having significant roles for Blacks. Also he allowed Stephen J. Cannell to build The A-Team around Mr. T. None of the other networks were this insistent on handing out parts to non-whites.
CBS managed to get one over on NBC after they dumped JAG after the first season in 1995-1996. CBS picked it up in the middle of 1997 as a midseason replacement and JAG got nine more seasons with good ratings, making it a Long Runner and had an even more successful spin-off. NCIS had a quiet start in 2003, but consistently improved its viewer numbers until it became TV's number one scripted show (and stayed there) and is itself a a Long Runner with 13 seasons so far and no conceivable end in sight. It has its own spin-off withNCIS: Los Angeles, which began in 2009 and quickly became TV's number two scripted show and has consistently stayed there throughout its run (which also has no conceivable end). A third program is joined the NCIS franchise in 2014, NCIS: New Orleans, which has outperformed Los Angeles in the ratings. CBS has been laughing all the way to the bank since 1997.
Similar thing happened with Mash, which was not a hit out of the gate.
Similarly, Fox surprised a lot of people by renewing Dollhouse, despite low ratings in the Friday Night Death Slot. Of course, knowing that they would be crucified in effigy for giving a Joss Whedon show just half a season a second time probably had a lot to do with it.
Fox did something like this for Fringe, as well. In the second season, they moved it to the Friday Night Death Slot, yet they renewed it two more times. During the fourth season, fans had started a Twitter campaign to save the show, and Fox cooperated by replacing the #Fringe hashtag in the corner of the screen with the fans' episode-specific hashtags. Eventually, they decided to renew the series for a final 13-episode fifth season, which ingratiated them with the fans and brought the show up to the 100-episode mark unofficially required for syndication.
The pilot for Lost was the most expensive ever; and none of the actors in it were major stars. In fact, one executive was fired for even giving it the go-ahead. However, ABC stuck with it, since going back would mean a loss of millions. Also ABC head Stephen McPherson thought it had 'some potential'. Lost is now considered one of TV's greatest dramas, if you know what's going on.
Another example: after the show started stalling — and losing viewers — during the second and third seasons, showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse began to bargain with ABC for an unprecedented concept: a set end-date several years down the line. ABC agreed, and starting with the second half of season 3, Lost has been steadily gaining steam in terms of answers. Unfortunately, the show continues to lose viewers, and on a recent edition of the podcast, Lindelof quietly speculated that the show might have been canceled by now if the above agreement hadn't been hammered out.
Doctor Who, back in '63, got a "second pilot" due to the first pilot being riddled with technical errors. Its first broadcast also had poor ratings due to parts of the country being hit with a power outage at the time of its broadcasting; so it was repeat, at a time when this was very rare.
In 1969, Doctor Who was haemorrhaging viewers and the current Doctor, Patrick Troughton, had told the producers he was planning on quitting at the end of the Season. At the same time, the BBC was preparing to Switch To Colour; since colour TV was more expensive to shoot and made special effects more difficult, there was a belief that Doctor Who would be too expensive to keep. It would have been cancelled for good had the producer Derrick Sherwin not fought to keep the show on the air, presenting his plan for a grittier (and much cheaper) Retooled format, and securing a Stunt Cast comic actor as the new lead if the BBC chose to continue making the show. Eventually, they did.
In 2004, the general perception of Doctor Who was that it had run its course and wouldn't fit in to the new TV landscape especially in light of the failure of the TV movie (in America, not the UK, where the movie predictably performed well) produced by... that's right, Fox! But The BBC took a chance and commissioned a new series headed by Russell T Davies. The general perception has swung to the other way since.
In 2009, the BBC was unconvinced that Doctor Who could continue drawing views without the hugely popular David Tennant in the lead (despite the show managing by changing lead actors for its entire history up until then) and plans were made to cancel it. Only when Davies told the BBC "you are not allowed to end it" and insisted on handing the reins to Steven Moffat did the BBC reverse its decision.
North American broadcasts of the 2005-present revival series have been rescued by networks on a couple of occasions. In the US, after initially rejecting the series as being "too British", the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) aired the show for its first few seasons before basically cancelling it; fortunately, BBC America picked it up for the 2009 specials and the popularity of Doctor Who Stateside skyrocketed after that. In Canada, the revival was initially aired by the CBC, which was guilty of Screwed by the Network shenanigans, especially during Seasons 3 and 4 (the CBC never even bothered airing the 2007 Christmas special); the CBC dropped Doctor Who in 2009 but it was immediately picked up by the Space network, where it has thrived ever since.
Attempts to syndicate Doctor Who to American commercial broadcasters in the 1970s were, at most, only moderately successful. It wasn't until PBS broadcasters adopted the show that it truly began to build its cult following in the US.
After 10 seasons on the air (not even counting the KTMA season). As Kevin Murphy said on the Lord Of The RingsRiffTrax, "I'd like to fail like that."
Another, even earlier case came when MST was on the Comedy Channel before it merged with Ha! to form Comedy Central. Ha! wanted to remove MST from the line-up, but Comedy Channel considered it the "flagship of its fleet" and refused to merge unless it remained. Not only did they keep it on, they gave it a contract for three 26-episode seasons.
And now it's set to come back on the Internet thanks to a massively successful Kickstarter campaign.
Scrubs was ditched by NBC after the seventh season and given a proper final season on ABC (which owned the show already; it was produced by Disney's Touchstone TV). Which was successful enough to warrant a ninth (and what would turn out to be final) season.
After several networks passed on it, HBO took a chance on a script about a middle-aged guy, his dysfunctional wife, his dysfunctional business partners, his shrink, and his homicidal mother. Today, it's known as The Sopranos.
Apparently, Idol was originally pitched to UPN, who rejected it. The people who ran the network weren't the best at programming (they killed the Animated Adaptation of Dilbert by scheduling it after a show called Shasta McNasty), and the fact that UPN died unceremoniously in 2006 shows how badly they screwed up.
The BBC was planning to end Blake's 7 with the third season finale, which saw the main villain killed off, the heroes' spacecraft destroyed and them marooned on a distant artificial planetoid. The cast and crew believed the show was over and started looking for other projects. Then, whilst watching the Season 3 finale at home, the head of BBC Drama found he and his family were enjoying it so much he rang up BBC Television Centre and told the continuity announcer to say that the show would be back the following year, which was the first anyone on the show's production team knew about it. Possibly the shortest-notice network to the rescue in history?
Ironically, the far darker and more memorable Season 4 finale wasn't supposed to be the final episode of the show, merely the cliffhanger into a fifth and final season. The BBC decided to call it a day at that point, despite the extremely strong ratings (besting Coronation Street, Britain's biggest soap opera, in the ratings with over 10 million viewers). Gareth Thomas had emphatically declined to reprise his role as Blake except for a one-off appearance in the finale (in which he was thoroughly McLeaned at his own insistence) and there weren't many more places to go with the story arc without turning it into a Franchise Zombie.
Warner Brothers were quietly supportive of Babylon 5 throughout the first four years of its run, repeatedly not canceling it and in fact giving it modest budget increases between seasons simply because a lot of the executives apparently just really liked it, to the extent of not even giving production notes after the start of the second season and just letting the production team get on with it. They were rewarded by moderate ratings increases and a high profile among SF fans, arguably higher than that of rival series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which cost more than twice as much to make. When they were faced with the task of canceling the show due to the PTEN service(what was left of it, anyway) collapsing, they encouraged their cousins at TNT to come on board and save the day, ensuring that the show got to it's planned ending. Warner Brothers eventually reaped a strong reward: international, VHS and DVD sales have seen the show make more than five times its budget back in profit since the show ended.
B5 also had an example of a foreign network coming to the rescue. The first season didn't quite make enough money for Warner Brothers to justify renewing it. Then Channel 4 (pleased with the ratings they were getting) contacted WB to buy first run rights in the UK for any future seasons.
There have been two cases where this has resulted in transforming Dueling Shows into Complementing Shows:
When John Cleese and his gang went together to create their show, they went to the BBC. The interview went basically with the interviewer asking every possible question in the book, and the gang replying with that they didn't quite know ("Will you have any music?" "Oh, we never really thought about that..." "Alright, so what's the name?" "Oh, well, we haven't come to that quite yet...." "Any guest stars?" "Oh, that's a good question..."), John Cleese himself stating that "they must have made the worst impression any group ever made". They still got 13 episodes to prove they were epic, and, well, we all know how that worked out: we got Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Related to this, when studio execs were hesitant to fund Monty Python's Life of Brian, George Harrison stepped in with a few million pounds and carte blanche for the Pythons to do whatever they want, purely because he was a Python fan and wanted to see the movie. In many interviews, Harrison would often state that the formation of the Pythons greatly helped him overcome the shock of the dissolution of The Beatles. Eric Idle later described it as "the most expensive movie ticket ever purchased."
Subverted, however, with Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. When the Pythons pitched the film to Universal, they only gave the studio a poem and a budget, but no screenplay. Amazingly, Universal picked it up right away. What makes this a subversion, however, is that Universal actually had an ulterior motive when they picked up the film. The thinking was that if Universal green lit the film, they could then sign up every major American comedian to work for the studio simply on the grounds that they worked with the Pythons. As then Universal president Thom Mount later told Eric Idle, "It was a sprout to catch a mackerel."
As much flak as Fox gets for Screwed by the Network we must remember that they themselves were one of the premier examples of Network to the Rescue. After all, they backed The X-Files. And this was at a time when if anyone was going to back Science Fiction it had to be the Star Trek mold, which it certainly wasn't. And no one involved was a name, not the creator, not the producers, and least of all the stars.
While CSI and its spin-offs are mainstay hits on TV, there was a time when a forensics-based Police Procedural was considered geeky Science Fiction at best. CBS took the chance on it, only after much hand-wringing and after the other major networks passed.
When networks either turned it down or imposed stupid limits on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the studio decided to make it syndicated, and renew it despite a poor first season. The studio gave the producers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine almost complete freedom to deconstruct a gigantic franchise.
Although Castle started off slow, and it would've been easy for ABC to cancel it, the network stuck with it, and has even renewed it for a third season. In the process the seem to have broken the Fillion Curse.
Disney acquired the rights to Power Rangers as part of a larger buyout, and while they continued the show they never really knew what to do with it. It eventually got to the point where they stopped airing reruns, scheduled the show in a routinely-preempted Death Slot, and gave up on new episodes in favor of Re Cut old ones. Then Saban, the original owner of the franchise, came in and bought the rights back specifically on the grounds that Disney was wasting its potential.
Which it was. This is actually a case of this going incredibly well. Since the move to Nickelodeon, ratings for the show have more than tripled. In fact, Samurai, which aired at noon on Saturday, actually outperformed the prime-time schedules for both Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel during its' run.
When Glee was initially picked up, no one thought it would work simply because there had been so many other musical shows that had failed miserably, but FOX had total faith in it. The show is a ratings giant and had been nominated for 19 EMMYS. Look who's laughing now!
CBS rejected the first pilot of The Big Bang Theory but liked some of the ideas in it enough to ask them to do a second pilot, ultimately leading to a giant hit for the network.
Red Dwarf was rejected by BBC London multiple times, and would never have seen the light of day if BBC Manchester hadn't decided to give it a shot. Hilarity Ensued.
Eight series later, it became another cancelled-at-a-cliffhanger series as the Beeb dropped the series entirely. It wasn't until a decade later that digital channel Dave commissioned new episodes. It was a pretty good partnership for both the channel and the franchise, to put it lightly.
After NBC canceled both daytime and primetime editions of The Price Is Right in 1963, ABC stepped in and picked it up. But due to the network's budget issues and low affiliate numbers, it was canceled after two years. ABC had better success in 1968 nabbing Let's Make a Deal from NBC.
Fred Silverman, who was CBS's then vice president for programming, canceled The $10,000 Pyramid in 1974 after only a year as NBC's Jeopardy! (which NBC programmer Lin Bolen tried to mercy-kill by slotting it against Pyramid and failed) was beating it. Five weeks later, ABC Entertainment president Martin Starger nabbed Pyramid and it not only had a six-year run on ABC but a nighttime version and an Emmy win. The real kicker, however, was that Silverman later replaced Starger in 1975, causing him to now see the cancellation as an awful ink blot on an otherwise distinguished career at CBS. In addition, even before ABC picked up the daytime version, Bud Grant, CBS's then vice president for daytime programming, actually disagreed with the cancellation decision and before he carried it out, he gave series creator and executive producer Bob Stewart the phone number for Viacom, a syndication firm founded by CBS, and suggested to him that he have them help stage the weekly nighttime version in the first place. Pyramid later did a Take That against Silverman during the show's Grand Finale with a mock category named "Hit Shows on NBC-TV", a not so subtle jab at the fact that Silverman, now working as president and CEO of NBC, was green lighting flop after flop on the network.
The CW canceled The Game after three seasons. BET picked it up, and when they premiered the fourth season nearly two years later, it ended up being the biggest sitcom telecast on cable in history, drawing over 7 million viewers.
When Due South premiered in 1994 on CBS, it was continually shifted around on the network's schedule and had episodes pre-empted (this, despite the fact that the show was at one point garnering better ratings than Friends in the U.S., and the fact that, until Flashpoint came along in 2009, South was the highest-rated Canadian-made program on American television). CBS ended up cancelling (then un-cancelling) the show three times before they pulled the plug aat the end of the second season, but the Canadian television station CTV (along with foreign investors) picked up the rights to the show and co-financed it for two more seasons.
FamilyNet put the musical anthology The Venue in the Friday Night Death Slot in January 2011 with the intention to drop its Saturday Night slot the very next month. They apparently listened to the fans and kept the Saturday Night airing due to the popularity. However, they took it off the air altogether in favor of Live at Oak Tree
Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle underwent a mix of rescued/screwedby the BBC. According to Lee, he was summoned by the Beeb to produce a series with no need to do a pilot. He was in two minds, not wanting his manager's studio to make the show, but a BBC in-house studio. By the time he got around to telling the BBC, they now wanted to see a pilot, and eventually cancelled the non-existent series they commissioned in the first place. A couple of years later, the BBC again asked Leeto produce a new comedy series... thankfully this got made.
For Your Love was originally aired on NBC and cancelled after six episodes, it was then picked up by the WB and ran for another four seasons. It's rather surprising that they stuck with a show that so few people seemed to watch, you rarely ever hear FYL mentioned when people are talking about WB shows (not to mention the WB was almost as infamous as Fox for cancelling shows left and right), they even renewed the show after it suffered a 70% ratings decline during the third season. Though it did kinda get screwed during it's last couple of years on the network as it was regularly shifted around the schedule and six episodes of the fifth season (including the series finale) were not aired, though TV One later picked up the series for reruns and aired the missing episodes.
Subverted with Airwolf. USA Network tried to rescue it from CBS' cancellation but had No Budget to do so: they were forced to use stock footage to cover up the fact that they didn't actually have the helicopter. The fact that said footage was painfully obvious and that they couldn't afford any of the show's stars didn't help matters. The show was dead for good at the end of that season.
Happy Endings, in a way. The ratings were so bad that Damon Wayans Jr. was already filming a pilot for a new show. The show managed to get a renewal for a second, much to everyone's surprise. The show was then renewed for a third season but suffered a shuffle to the Friday Night Death Slot. Averted after it was canceled-there was talk of other networks picking it up but this failed to materialize. Damon Wayans Jr. ended up getting back onto New Girl when Happy Endings ended.
Cougar Town was cancelled by ABC while airing the third season, shortly after TBS picked up the rights to the show and aired three more further seasons.
This will not last very long, however as of mid-November 2012 a number of TV ratings-examining websites such as TV By the Numbers have noted that the US networks have been remarkably hesitant to cancel underperforming series during the early weeks of the 2012-13 TV season, with shows such as Last Resort and The Mob Doctor, which in prior years might have been cancelled within a few weeks, being given a chance to run longer. The debate is whether this was due to attempting to recoup costs for the shows, or was indicative of a lack of replacement programming at that particular time. However, whether ultimately successful or not, the longer a show is kept on the air the more chance it might have to gain enough audience momentum to win renewal, so should a program like Last Resort ultimately survive, it will be in part due to a (perhaps unintended) "Network to the Rescue" scenario.
Torchwood likely would not have had a fourth series if the US network Starz hadn't agreed to co-produce it with the BBC (especially given that Fox had rejected plans to produce its own version).
There are far too many to list here, but during the 1950s and 1960s (and less frequently in later decades) there have been many occasions where a series has been cancelled by one network only to be immediately picked up by another. Two random examples of this are Get Smart and The Bionic Woman, both of which were able to continue for another season thanks to a "white knight" network picking them up. Some programs, such as game shows and soap operas, extended their runs for many years thanks to changing networks.
Taxi never got good ratings, but kept being renewed primarily due to critical acclaim and support from ABC, and then to NBC for a final season.
The pilot for The Brady Bunch was rejected by all three networks: ABC wanted to lengthen the pilot into a 2-hour movie, CBS wanted the first few episodes to focus on the courtship, and NBC found the ending with the parents bringing the kids on the honeymoon trip silly and unrealistic. Finally, ABC changed its mind and accepted the pilot as it was.
Walker, Texas Ranger was originally produced by Cannon Television, but after the first four episodes they ran into financial difficulties - CBS, the show's home, then agreed to pick up the tab themselves.
After ABC cancelled Nashville on May 2016 with the finale ending with a Cliffhanger, CMT picked it up and renewed it for a fifth season a month later.