When Netflix first started airing original series, the platform only had a handful to its name and there was actually a mild running joke about how the streaming giant didn’t cancel things. In fact, aside from Eli Roth’s Hemlock Grove, which still lasted three seasons, the site’s acclaimed shows House of Cards and Orange is the New Black both lasted six and seven seasons, respectively.
Things changed for the company a few years later when the heavily-hyped and massively-produced Marco Polo got an unceremonious axe after two seasons. Then the hammer fell on Bloodline, The Get Down, The OA, and many more – to the point now where, if you aren’t Stranger Things, which is Netflix’s biggest breakout hit of all time, you probably won’t go more than two or three seasons. Four, if you’re very lucky. Sure, the numbers are great for recent entries The Witcher and Umbrella Academy (which still hasn’t gotten a Season 3 renewal, by the way), but once those numbers start to decline or flatten, in the slightest, it could be curtains.
In 2020, Netflix canceled Altered Carbon, I Am Not Ok With This, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, V Wars, Messiah, and many more while also announcing final seasons for Ozark, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (a huge initial hit), Dead to Me, and The Crown.
Obviously, there are a few logical reasons for why Netflix now seems to cut shows’ lives extremely short. One is that they have far more original series than any other studio so it stands to reason they’d have more cancellations. But Netflix – which barely promotes most of its shows as dozens land per month on the site with little to no heralding – also doesn’t seem to be at all invested in giving shows a chance to grow. A recent Wired article, however, digs a bit deeper into why the biggest streaming service in the game is now in the business of pulling the rug out from most of its shows after only a couple of seasons.
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Plainly put, the first reason a Netflix show gets canceled is a traditional one. It’s “based on a viewership versus cost of renewal review process, which determines whether the cost of producing another season of a show is proportionate to the number of viewers that the show receives.” This is like any other streaming service or network, really. But this is also where the audience, no matter how much we love a show, or recognize the fervor of the show’s fandom, have to take Netflix’s word for it because the company doesn’t release ratings numbers.
The second way Netflix decides if a show will continue is based on some viewership data points. Specifically, it “looks at two data points within the first seven days and first 28 days of a show being available on the service. The first is ‘Starters’, or households who watch just one episode of a series. The second data point is ‘Completers’, or subscribers who finish an entire season.”
So the bulk of Netflix’s decision-making is based on data from the first month of the show season’s life. It’s crucial. The final metric is Watchers, which “is the total number of subscribers who watch a show.” Netflix, which employs a “cost-plus model, which means that it pays a show’s entire production costs, plus a 30 percent premium on top” is even more wary when it comes to possibly losing money – despite its reputation for throwing gobs of cash at the likes of Ryan Murphy ($300 million for five years), Adam Sandler (most recently $275 million for four more movies), and Chris Rock ($40 million for two specials).
But, as Tom Harrington, an analyst at Enders Analysis, states, shows on Netflix “are more expensive after season two and even more expensive after season three, with the premiums going up each season.”
“They have to give [a show] more money per series, and if they decide to recommission it, it becomes more expensive for them to make,” he says. “Because of that, so many more shows are cancelled after two series [seasons] because it costs them more.”
Now here’s one more thing to consider, and it’s totally tethered to the subscription streaming model. As Deadline explains, “if a show hasn’t grown significantly in popularity over seasons two or three, then Netflix thinks that it’s unlikely to gain any new viewers.” So when a show stops growing, in viewers and/or pulling in new subscribers — and that doesn’t necessarily mean dropping, it can just mean plateauing — then Netflix doesn’t see a reason to keep it. So a show could be acceptably popular, and hold a large fanbase, but if it’s lost its initial swell, and doesn’t bring in new eyes, it’ll be gone.
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Note: This story has been updated to include a video version.