A couple weeks ago, I remarked that Netflix now felt like it was “actively stealing time from me.” I can almost not even remember which cancelation I was talking about at the time, given that there have been so many, but I believe it was 1899, the new show from the creators of Dark, which like Dark, was set up as part of 3-season arc.
Naturally, it was cancelled on a cliffhanger after a single season because it didn’t attract enough viewership or have enough people finish all the episodes in some arbitrary stretch of time.
But what’s happened now is that this has happened so often with so many shows, that Netflix has created a self-fulfilling loop with many series that probably could have gone on to become valuable catalogue additions otherwise.
The idea is that since you know that Netflix cancels so many shows after one or two seasons, ending them on cliffhangers and leaving their storylines unfinished, it’s almost not worth investing in a show until it’s already ended, and you know it’s going to have a coherent ending and finished arc.
So you hold off watching new shows, even ones you might otherwise be interested in, because you’re afraid Netflix will cancel them. Enough people do this and surprise, viewership is low! And the show ends up cancelled. The loop is closed, and reinforced, because now there’s yet another example cited, causing even more people to be cautious the next time around. And now we’ve reached a point where unless a series is some sort of record-breaking fluke megahit (Wednesday) or established super franchise (Stranger Things), a second or third season feels like not even a coinflip, but more like 10-20% shot, at best.
Netflix’s cancelation policies have informed its viewers that if you want a show you like renewed, you need to watch it immediately, you need to tell all your friends to watch it immediately, and you need to finish all episodes in a short period of time. Anything less than that will result in likely cancelation, with the problem being, of course, that this runs contrary to the entire promise of a streaming service like Netflix in the first place. The core concept of “on demand” streaming was that ability to watch what you wanted, when you wanted to. But now binging a series in its opening weekend isn’t just an option to have, it feels almost mandatory, lest the negative data reflect poorly on a show you might otherwise like.
Something has broken with this model. It’s now created a system where creators should be afraid to make a series that dares to end on a cliffhanger or save anything for future seasons, lest their story forever be left unfinished. And viewers are afraid to commit to any show that isn’t a completely aired package lest they spend 10-30 hours on something that ends up unresolved, which has happened dozens and dozens of times, creating a vast “show graveyard” within Netflix, full of landmines viewers are going to be discovering for years (I just had a friend send me an angry text once he learned Warrior Nun was cancelled after committing to its first two seasons, which he loved). This will happen countless times to millions of current and future subscribers.
Netflix needs to get ahold of this. I don’t think even they understand what it’s doing to their brand or how they’re conditioning their own viewerbase with constant negative reinforcement like some demented behavioral experiment.
Update (1/17): Have been seeing at least some level of pushback here with some saying that this also describes beloved shows being cancelled in the pre-streaming era, and this is not a new problem.
While sure, everyone can remember some famously good shows that were killed too soon, from Firefly to Freaks and Geeks, it really is different in the streaming era because of the nature of the platform. On cable, when a show was cancelled, it would be mourned, but it would also simply…disappear. You could buy the DVD box set eventually, but it would simply be replaced on that channel by a slate of new shows.
This is not how streaming services work. While yes, they are constantly airing new programs, they are also focused on building up a library of shows as a back catalogue. While new shows will be given top billing when you log into the app, even five seconds of browsing will likely lead you to a number of months/years-old series that may look interesting to you. The problem here is that in Netflix’s case, so many of those shows now lead to complete dead ends and aborted storylines. But browsing FOX in 2005, you weren’t just randomly going to come across them airing an episode of Firefly after a 2002 cancellation, and be sad there wasn’t more of it. It’s a much different situation in the streaming space.
This is also a fairly Netflix-specific problem, compared to other streaming service. They have more shows, and as such, more cancellations. So for every show Amazon or HBO Max may cancel, it feels like Netflix probably has 5-6. Granted, other services are starting to catch up, like the mass cullings HBO has started to make under WB Discovery leadership, but if so, that’s as big a problem for them as it is for Netflix. I worry Netflix’s solution may also be what HBO Max has started to do, pull down entire series that aren’t finished, as they’ve just done with Westworld and Raised by Wolves. So in that case you’re not having content up that’s not finished, you’re just…erasing that content entirely, which I’d argue is an even worse situation. But that may be where we’re heading…