Photo: ‘Anne with an E’ and ‘Sense8’/Netflix
Cancelled Shows: On October 5th, it was announced that the fourth and final season of the Netflix female wrestling dramedy GLOW has been cancelled. The show’s creators said in a follow-up statement, “COVID has killed actual humans. It’s a national tragedy and should be our focus. COVID also apparently took down our show”. To be fair, GLOW is far from the only show affected by the pandemic. And the show’s large ensemble cast and need for close physical contact would’ve made production more difficult and expensive nowadays.
News of the cancellation was devastating to the show’s cast and crew and loyal fans, who took to social media to mourn the show’s loss. Actress Betty Gilpin, who scored three Emmy nominations for her work as Debbie Eagan on the show, wrote a sweet eulogy for Vanity Fair of how much the show meant to her. And Marc Maron, who co-stars as Sam Sylvia on the show, urged Netflix to at least allow for a movie to wrap things up.
And yet it’s not alone. If this list is any indication, as of this writing Netflix has already cancelled 23 shows this year alone, most of which have only lasted one season. It used to be a time that Netflix was something of a risk-taker, taking chances on shows that might not fit on other networks. But lately, it looks like things are changing: with few exceptions, your favorite show is always in danger of cancellation regardless of critical acclaim or loyal fanbase.
So what happened? And why?
New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
“The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us”: that’s according to Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos back in 2013. It was a simpler time when Netflix was just starting out and set five new shows per year as their goal. In their first year producing original content, Netflix debuted House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, and Orange is the New Black, as well as bringing back Arrested Development for a fourth season. Looking at the last two, the latter is a much-beloved Fox comedy cancelled due to perpetual low ratings; and the former is a show that champions diverse female voices and stories, as well as tackling themes of incarceration, race, and sexuality.
It’s their power move, saying: Traditional networks may not appreciate these shows. We do.
Those aforementioned shows helped to cement Netflix’s reputation as a hub for more niche shows that might not get their due—or fit—on other networks. Think genre-defying sci-fi shows like Sense8 or The OA; darker Marvel-based dramas like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and teen shows like 13 Reasons Why or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina; or comedies with specific points of view and weightier themes like Grace and Frankie, Dear White People, Sex Education, and Never Have I Ever. And let’s not forget the breakout show on the service: Stranger Things.
Netflix’s rescue of Arrested Development also cemented the reputation of the service as a potential savior of cancelled shows. Fox’s Lucifer got a second chance, as did Lifetime’s You, and more recently Youtube Red’s Cobra Kai. It’s something of a mild running joke that if a beloved show gets cancelled, fans turn to social media urging streaming services (usually Netflix) to save them. Lastly, there was something of an expectation that if nothing else, even if a show only lasts three seasons, Netflix would give creatives notice: letting them know in advance that a season will be the last and give them time to craft actual endings for their shows.
The Many Cancelled Shows
Things arguably started to change in 2016 when the expensive and heavily-hyped Marco Polo was cancelled after just two seasons. Other shows soon followed: the aforementioned OA and Sense8, Bloodline, Lady Dynamite, and American Vandal just to name a few that left fans hanging. Even Marvel shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist weren’t safe. More recently, Netflix has cancelled Altered Carbon, The Society, Sabrina, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Messiah, One Day at a Time, Tuca & Bertie, Anne with an E, Messiah, and many others. Like GLOW, news of these shows’ cancellations hit fans hard: for example, OA fans rallied to try and save the show, with one fan even staging a hunger strike protesting the decision; and a petition was circulated to save Anne, reaching one million signatures. And yet, unless your show is a massive hit like Stranger Things, The Witcher, or Umbrella Academy nothing’s certain. And Sense8 only got its two-hour series finale after strong fan demand.
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In a bit of irony, both One Day at a Time and Tuca & Bertie found new homes at different outlets: Pop TV and Adult Swim, respectively. And considering how Netflix has been getting into game, competition, and reality shows, one can argue Netflix hasn’t so much become HBO but rather a traditional broadcast network. Just like broadcast TV, with more and more original content added each year it stands to reason that Netflix has more things it’s willing to cut loose if they think it’s not up to snuff. But how do they come to that decision?
It’s All About the Numbers
Last month, Wired published a story that might provide some insight as to Netflix’s decision-making process. According to the article, there are several things they take into account.
One is that the decision to renew or cancel is based on a viewership-versus-cost-of-renewal review process. Basically they take into account the number of viewers and weigh that against the cost of producing another season. According to Netflix’s then-VP of Original Programming Cindy Holland in 2018, “The biggest thing we look at is, are we getting enough viewership to justify the cost of the series”. So that’s not much different from other networks, broadcast or basic cable. The issue is that Netflix doesn’t release ratings’ numbers the same way most other networks do; we’d have to take Netflix’s word for it whenever they issue press releases touting their viewership numbers. Netflix also looks at three other metrics: “Starters”, the number of subscribers who watch one episode of a show; “Completers”, subscribers who watch an entire season; and “Watchers”, the number of subscribers who watch a show in general. They specifically observe the first two metrics within both the first week and the first month of a show being made available. This means that viewership in that first month is critical as it factors into the decision-making process.
Another thing is that Netflix uses a cost-plus model to entice producers: meaning they pay a show’s entire production costs, plus a 30 percent premium (in exchange, a Netflix original series typically stays on Netflix). As a show progresses, producers are offered bonuses and pay bumps. The issue is that the premiums go up each season, and combined with the also gradually increasing bonuses and pay bumps, this adds up such that according to analyst Tom Harrington of Enders Analysis, “…so many more shows are cancelled after two series because they cost more”. The longer a show runs, the more expensive it gets for Netflix.
One can see the logic: it’d be better financially to just start over rather than to keep putting money into a show that’s increasingly expensive but with disappointing viewer numbers. Tying into that latter point, according to Deadline Hollywood, if a show doesn’t significantly break out in its first couple of seasons and its viewership numbers plateau, Netflix assumes that it’s unlikely to draw new viewers or subscribers even if it has a loyal fanbase. As far as they’re concerned, it’s gone as far as it can go.
So Could the Bubble Burst?
It must sting for a creator to see the show they worked hard on culled before it got a chance to grow or build an audience. And yet Netflix isn’t doing itself any favors with the vast amounts of content it adds each month. For example this past August, Netflix released a show called Teenage Bounty Hunters; it was cancelled after just two months despite good reviews, and I didn’t know it existed until I read reviews of it. And there are many others: numerous original shows that fly under the radar until there’s news of its cancellation. Unless it’s high-profile enough—or comes from writer-producers with multi-million dollar Netflix deals like Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, or Game of Thrones creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff—a show might not fare as well in terms of getting the word out.
So smaller shows risk falling by the wayside, and the result is something of a catch-22: the more shows get cancelled, the less likely it is viewers will commit to a new show for fear of disappointment. In choosing not to watch—or waiting for a hypothetical second season, or confirmation that there’s an ending—the show risks cancellation. And the cycle repeats.
Might this affect Netflix’s bottom line? It’s hard to tell, since they have a wider global subscriber base than any other US-based streaming service: more than Prime Video, Apple TV+, and Disney+, the only other services also available globally. But the risk is ever-present if Netflix keeps going down this path, even post-COVID: of burning their subscribers (and possibly their talent) by not committing to, at the very least, giving their shows a natural ending.
Keep disappointing your customers, and sooner or later you will hurt your business.
By Mario Yuwono
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