NEW YORK — You didn’t have to watch “America’s Most Wanted” to be grateful it’s there. For 23 years it has resided on Fox, rallying its audience into a nationwide crime watch from which everyone benefited.
The viewership was not insignificant: 5 million viewers, on average, this season.
But other numbers were more impressive. Like the 1,151-and-counting worldwide captures it claimed, a public blessing for which the show, and the community it roused, could take proud credit.
No wonder if the public was shaken by the news on Monday that Fox has canceled “AMW.”
Too expensive, Fox entertainment Kevin Reilly explained when making the announcement. Instead of “AMW,” Fox will air weekly repeats of its prime-time entertainment series. He said there would be just four, two-hour “AMW” specials next season.
John Walsh had gotten the bad news on Sunday.
Walsh, of course, is the host of “AMW” and its driving force, a man who led a crime-busting crusade in the aftermath of the abduction and murder of his 6-year-old son Adam in 1981.
“I was quite surprised,” he said by phone Monday afternoon from backstage at the Fox’s presentation for advertisers in Manhattan. He said he told Reilly. “We performed hard for you and we had a good year. We caught more guys than we’ve ever caught.”
But that wasn’t the metric that mattered to the network.
Set aside for a moment the public good “AMW” has provided. It’s also been a remarkable TV institution. It premiered in April 1988 on the fledgling Fox network during a season when other freshman Fox shows included such long-forgotten fare as “The New Adventures of Beans Baxter” and “Second Chance.”
It was billed as “a weekly nationwide criminal manhunt.” Walsh, a former hotel executive with no TV experience, was its host, with a simple message for the law-abiding public that he deputized to help flush out the bad guys: It’s us or them.
“AMW” caught on, where most of Fox’s lineup failed. (In July 1989, it became the first-ever Fox program to rank first in its time slot.)
It’s been a fixture on the network ever since, and, since 1994, planted at 9 p.m. Eastern on Saturdays. Oh, except for a couple of months in 1996 after Fox canceled it the first time.
“The public went bananas,” Walsh recalled. So did government and police officials, who regarded the show as an invaluable law-enforcement resource. The network swiftly reconsidered, and “AMW” carried on with its good work.
“It’s a show that seems like it was always there,” said Brad Adgate, an analyst for the firm Horizon Media. And innovative: “It harnessed the wisdom of crowds long before social media.”
“AMW” had another thing going for it. No matter how aggressively the show led a fight to drain the nation’s swampland of depravity, there was no danger it would ever run dry. “AMW” has content guaranteed to keep going forever.
Anyone other than Walsh might have received the news that “AMW” was being cut down with a measure of relief. After a quarter-century immersed in the dark side of humanity while keeping up a punishing schedule, he might reasonably welcome a respite now, at age 65.
But he’s not about to slow down.
“We’re getting better at it,” he said of the collective effort he and his show display. “I got better at it, smarter at it, tougher.”
Walsh said there will be a couple more episodes to do for the network.
Meanwhile, he’ll be talking to Twentieth Television, the network’s studio arm, about possible new outlets for the show.
“I think this show could go into syndication big-time,” he said. “And I’ll do those specials, because I love the network. Who else would give the father of a murdered child a chance to host a revolutionary reality show?”
Then he had to get off the phone. He was needed onstage at the presentation.
“Television is a business and I understand that,” Walsh said in parting. “But you never know: We came back once, stronger than ever. ... I’m not ready to throw in the towel.”