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Netflix has a problem, and it is not subscriber numbers

The self-fulfilling cycle of Netflix cancellations

11 Oct 2023

By Gregory Ellis

The problem

Netflix has a problem. The competition in the streaming sphere is fierce, particularly in America, and with the relatively recent crackdown on password sharing (from a company that previously tweeted “love is sharing a password”), one could expect that the problem it has would be losing back catalogue content it doesn’t own to rival services or perhaps it would be subscriber number growth.

However, for me Netflix’s problem is that they keep cancelling shows that their subscribers want to watch. It seems that any show that is not an immediate global hit (Stranger Things, Squid Game, Tiger King, Wednesday) gets cancelled and is therefore never completed.

Slow burners with cult or significant followings such as ‘Mindhunter’; shows that were 2nd in their Top 10 and had excellent reviews on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes such as ‘1899’; and a comedy show produced by Sex and the City and Modern Family alums and starring Neil Patrick Harris, ‘Uncoupled’ have all been cancelled and not renewed.

‘1899’ was set up as part of a 3-season story arc and finished its single season on a cliffhanger, as shows tend to do, but because the viewership did not meet some undefined metric it was cancelled. For a service that has lost the back catalogues of other content creators that used to fill their library to those content creators’ own streaming service (think – Paramount, ABC etc), Netflix has cancelled a great many series that probably could have gone on to become valuable additions to their library of content.

The cycle

This has created a self-fulfilling cycle in the eyes of Netflix customers.

  • You know Netflix cancels so many shows after one or two seasons.
  • Those shows have storylines unfinished and are left on cliffhangers.
  • So you don’t watch the show until it’s ended and you know the storyline is finished unless everyone is talking about it
  • The show suffers from a lack of viewership as it’s not a runaway success.
  • Netflix cancels the show

And thus, the cycle continues…

Subscriber perspective

Customers only have limited time, and they want to invest their time in a way that will satisfy them. The self-fulfilling cycle of Netflix cancellations has the effect of a new show coming out that might interest you, but you don’t watch it because you’re afraid that Netflix will cancel it and leave you unfulfilled by it.

If lots of people do this, then the viewership numbers are low and the show ends up being cancelled. Creating another example of a cancelled show, making more people worried that the next new show will get cancelled, and thus the cycle is closed and fulfilled.

If Netflix is full of series that they have made but the stories are not finished, then what is the appeal of their content library? Why would viewers invest 12 or 40 hours of their time into something that is never being finished and with no satisfying conclusion?

They are teaching their subscribers that if they want a show to be renewed, they need to watch it immediately, which goes against the entire premise of “on demand” streaming. The idea of Netflix as a service was that we could watch what we want, when we wanted to.

That is the subscriber perspective but let’s look at it from a creator perspective.

Creator perspective

You’re a big actor/producer/director/writer with a new idea for a show. You’ve got offers from multiple streaming services and have your choice of who to go with. Unless you can negotiate a guaranteed multiple seasons to tell the story you want to tell, why would you choose Netflix?

They might throw more money at you for the first season but what if you get less money but more guaranteed seasons from another streaming service? Or mainstream TV?

Creators often plan their shows with multiple seasons in mind, setting up story arcs and character development that will unfold over time. When a show is cancelled prematurely, these plans are left unfulfilled, and the creators are left with unfinished stories.

Moreover, the cycle can create a sense of uncertainty and insecurity. Since Netflix often cancels shows after one or two seasons, creators might feel hesitant to invest their time and creative energy into a new project, fearing that it might not last long. At the same time it can affect relationships or reputations that a creator has with their audience and make it harder to build a loyal fanbase for their future projects.

In conclusion

However, it is important to note that these decisions are often driven by business considerations and Netflix will be basing its cancellation decisions on a balance between viewership and budget. If a show is not attracting a large enough audience or it is too expensive to product for the audience it has got, it will be more likely to be cancelled.

Without being privy to the financials I do wonder if it would not be more economical and cost effective to keep shows running or allow them to reach a satisfactory conclusion, even if shorter than the creator’s original plan, than it would be to buy in the rights to other content Netflix does not own, which needs to be renewed and paid over and over.

That would leave viewers of those shows satisfied and with a conclusion, and then the show exists and in a completed state in the archive of content that Netflix has waiting for new viewers and new subscribers to find it or be recommended it.

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