Netflix is an entertainment conglomerate that’s also, at its heart, a tech company. As it transitioned from a mail-order DVD rental service to producer of its own streaming content, it kept preaching the Silicon Valley motto of disruption. Netflix, said Netflix, wouldn’t be beholden to the old Hollywood way of doing things: Seasons would be released all at once, rather than forcing viewers to wait a week at a time for each episode! Creative people would be given creative freedom to make the kinds of shows they couldn’t anywhere else! Series that couldn’t survive in the traditional TV space could find a home on Netflix! Viewers could invest in new favorites without fear of abrupt cancellation!
But you can only be an unconventional outsider for so long. Netflix’s journey from plucky underdog to the dominant force in the medium has forced disruption to take a back seat to business realities the service once positioned itself against. And lately, Netflix has been making decisions that are indistinguishable from the networks to which it was supposed to present a glorious alternative.
Rolling Stone contributor Sean T. Collins recently wrote a column for Deadspin about how so much of Netflix’s new vision for television is really the old vision in shinier packaging. “The site’s creative modus operandi,” Collins suggested, “is ‘If you like this kind of thing, here’s the kind of thing you’ll like.’” That tends to be truer with Netflix’s dramas, which often feel reverse-engineered from better series that originated elsewhere and now live in Netflix’s library(*). With half-hour shows like BoJack Horseman, Master of None and Russian Doll (the early front-runner for best show of 2019 honors), Netflix has been more able, or simply willing, to innovate.
(*) A library that keeps dwindling in size, as the rest of the entertainment industry resumes streaming rights to their content in a bid to establish their own Netflixes. This will eventually lead to a new iteration of the cable bundle everyone is so desperate to escape, but that’s an existential crisis for another day.
But the problem isn’t just that so many Netflix originals feel similar to what’s available across the rest of the Peak TV landscape. That’s a superficial symptom of the more systemic issue: Netflix, for all its noise about a new way of making television, is really just whistling a minor variation of a very old Hollywood tune.
After developing a reputation, for instance, for being a safe and reassuring spot for weird, niche-y shows that would be lucky to last a season elsewhere, Netflix began cancelling shows en masse last year. Some reports have suggested that this is actually part of Netflix’s newfangled business model — that subscribers constantly want new and shiny things, and that two or three seasons of most shows is all Netflix really needs in its library. But try telling that to fans of American Vandal, Lady Dynamite, Daredevil or, as of March 14th, One Day at a Time. The shows they loved are still gone, much sooner than expected, sometimes without any real sense of closure. And fundamentally, the motivation is the same as it is when CBS or NBC cancels a show. As Netflix’s Twitter account put it bluntly at the time of the One Day cancellation, “In the end, simply not enough people watched to justify another season.”
(This is also where Netflix’s famous secrecy about viewership numbers comes back to bite it. With no advertisers, Netflix has no responsibility to make this data public, but a side effect is that a statement like “simply not enough people watched” becomes utterly meaningless. We don’t know how many people watched One Day, nor how many watch most of the shows that got to stick around. Whereas when, say, Fox canceled Arrested Development back in the day, we could easily compare its performance to the rest of Fox’s lineup.)
And Netflix’s alleged desire for churn only applies to the apparently less popular shows, and/or the ones Netflix doesn’t own outright. House of Cards hung around long past its creative shelf life (which expired well before the Kevin Spacey unpleasantness). Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why seem likely to stick around forever, too, even though there’s no creative justification for continuing 13 Reasons past the events of its first season. For that matter, many of the creative problems with Netflix’s dramas come from having them produce more episodes than their creative teams have story to tell, which was long a complaint about the broadcast network model.
Now, I’m sure you’re all shocked — shocked! — to learn that there is business going on at this streaming establishment. The shows that (we assume) are highly-rated keep being renewed, whether or not there’s creative justification, and the ones that (we assume) are lower-rated have a shorter leash. This is how companies function, and how TV has operated since the days of Milton Berle and Phil Silvers. But it’s not the utopian ideal that Netflix projected in its early days — or, perhaps, that we projected upon Netflix. To paraphrase Battlestar Galactica (another former Netflix library titles that’s moved elsewhere), all of this has happened before, but we didn’t expect it to happen again here.
Long inscrutably cool, Netflix execs seem to have suddenly recognized that the audience is growing restless with this push towards TV business as usual. Programming chief Ted Sarandos put out a statement, which he never does, about the One Day at a Time cancellation. Acknowledging that the sitcom appealed to many underserved communities — the family is Cuban-American, the main character is a single mom with PTSD from her time in the Army, her daughter is gay — the corporate Twitter account followed with this disingenuous bit of garment-rending:
And to anyone who felt seen or represented — possibly for the first time — by ODAAT, please don’t take this as an indication your story is not important. The outpouring of love for this show is a firm reminder to us that we must continue finding ways to tell these stories.
— Netflix US (@netflix) March 14, 2019
If One Day (which, like many of Netflix’s recent cancellations, was produced by an outside studio, Sony) wasn’t making enough money, then of course Netflix can cancel it. But just stick to the cold “not enough people watched” line rather than pretending this was some agonizing choice. Netflix is spending ridiculous money buying shows and luring producers to development deals. If the company felt One Day‘s value to the brand went beyond viewership numbers, it could have kept it at a loss. It didn’t.
Now, in an ironic twist that also feels like something a traditional network might do, Netflix may be making it hard for One Day to find a home elsewhere. There have been reports that both traditional networks and other streaming outlets like CBS All Access have shown interest in picking up the show for a fourth season. But according to One Day showrunner Mike Royce, Netflix’s contract with Sony (which is fairly standard for their series, per reports in the Hollywood trades) prohibits new episodes from appearing on another streaming platform for three years, essentially rendering a save by another service impossible. (A broadcast or cable channel would only have to wait 120 days from cancellation, which is barely a penalty at all, given how much time it would take to produce another season.)
Netflix is still in the business of saving shows canceled elsewhere, having rescued both Lucifer and Designated Survivor this season. To keep doing that while at the same time preventing a show they don’t want anymore from moving to a willing new home seems petty and small-time, rather than the actions of the biggest name in television.
Freeing One Day at a Time or any of its other recent cancellations from restrictive contracts won’t solve some of the service’s other issues. But it would be effectively symbolic of the kind of benevolent corporate ethos Netflix tries to present to the world. There will always be decisions that are better for the bottom line than they are for the audience. But Netflix can be a lot smarter and outwardly empathetic in how those decisions appear to its more frustrated subscribers.