Netflix Has A Cancelling Problem

Cancellations have become more like the breakup of a relationship in the streaming age.

Netflix One Day At A Time

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When a television show gets cancelled it’s rare for a network to offer a lengthy apology. A cancellation is normally announced and then it’s over to the cast and crew for their reaction while will figure out how to pick up the pieces of our lives and move on.

Fans of the sitcom, One Day at a Time, found out recently that Netflix axed the series when they went out of their way to justify the cancellation in a series of tweets.

The reason Netflix made a big statement about the cancellation of One Day at a Time is because fans had been campaigning for the show to stay alive since it became clear it had not yet been renewed.

The series’ showrunner, Gloria Calderón Kellett, put out a plea in February earlier this year saying she was trying to make it work with Netflix but despite positive reviews and a passionate fanbase, the show needed more viewers.

Cancellations have become more like the breakup of a relationship in the streaming age.

Television Is Stressful Now

Services like Netflix want to be your BFF so badly because they want to be embedded in your life. But despite whatever emotional attachment you have to these companies it’s always going to end in heartbreak because they are not our buds.

Streaming services are a data driven business designed to lure in subscribers and keep them happy. Unlike commercial television, it’s not a business designed around bringing in an audience to sell to advertisers.

Terrible shows can stay on commercial TV for decades if they can keep ad breaks full. With streaming services your investment in the shows you adore is huge.

On average, you’re spending over 10 hours per season submerged in a story, you may be in the company with fictional characters more than your family (sorry, dad).

Yet, just watching television is no longer enough, and this extends beyond streaming.

You can no longer just mildly enjoy show, it must be life changing, unmissable, worth tweeting about, worth saving! We’re no longer expected to be viewers, we must be preachers, soldiers and campaign strategists.

Sometimes the system works, and fans can rise to overcome the doubts of a network but it’s no longer good enough to just watch.

Television is stressful now and Netflix know it.

Letters, lightbulbs and sandwiches

Fans have been on the frontline for a long time fighting for their favourite shows to live for another season.

In 1968, Star Trek fans set a standard that would go on to define their fanbase when they staged a mass letter writing campaign to NBC to get the show a third season after it faced the phasers.

The letters flooded NBC headquarters and a protest took place in the streets. A sign read: “It Is Totally Illogical to Cancel Star Trek.”

The campaign worked and Star Trek returned for a third season that would be its final.

Friday Night Lights was a show with glowing reviews and fans with clear eyes and clear hearts, but it struggled in the ratings.

The show was always at risk of being cancelled until fans began sending lightbulbs to NBC with the note ‘keep to lights on’.

The campaign is credited with keep the show going for five seasons until it was cancelled in 2010.

Other mail campaigns that worked include fans of Jericho sending mountains nuts to CBS and Roswell acolytes posting hot sauce to Warner Brothers.

The wildest saviour of a series is Subway.

The spy series Chuck was on the out when NBC struck a special sponsorship deal with Subway to integrate sandwiches into the show. Yes, characters on Chuck began to make big deal whenever they were eating Subway.

Chuck fans then vowed to eat at Subway to show their support in one of the most insane displays of capitalism on television ever.

Most shows will now turn to social media when they get bad news about cancellation. But with so many series vying for our attention it’s hard for these campaigns to get traction.

Recent social media saves have been Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Lucifer and The Expanse, which all found new homes after huge outpourings of support.

A lot of the time, ironically, it’s Netflix or Amazon swooping in to save these shows while they cleave their own original series because they are essentially buying an audience who they can see are engaged on social media; they want to turn those tweet campaigns into subscribers.

You can also get cynical and view these campaigns as a way for networks to give a bump to a show they were going to renew anyway or are keen to offload for a price.

Are Fans The Future?

It’s way too early to tell but the people who decide the fate of your favourite shows have their ear to the ground more than ever.

The future of television, and what lives and dies, will be bundled up in data that tracks viewing numbers, social media sentiment and the speed you finish a series.

Netflix are already experimenting with different episode orders for different users based on personal preferences, which was recently called out, and clarified, when a user noticed he was watching Love, Death + Robots in a different order to a friend.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch empowered fans to choose their own adventure.

You bet Netflix are going to analyse the most popular choices and use it to influence the shows they have in development or seek out material with similar themes.

Even minor characters in shows get elevated when a cult builds around them on social media, like Barb from Stranger Things; there’s no doubt The Duffer Brothers kept the love of Barb in mind when writing the second series of their hit series.

When Amazon launched their streaming service, they offered a ‘pilot season’ where single episodes were put online and users were encouraged to provide feedback, which would then influence what got a full season.

Amazon halted pilot season in 2018 but the head of Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke, said: “We use our own testing barometers and some user data but the public voting process has been set aside for now.”

Fan groups can shape television now because there are more ways to let networks and creators know what you think; it’s not limited to protests and the post. You can be an armchair activist and the networks are more than happy to take the feedback, and while you’re at it, your personal information, too.

Some of this is bad news if you’re a passive viewer because if a show you like gets cancelled the trend is to ask fans: did you like this show enough?

Your Show Needs YOU

I worry about the shows that are just fine; they won’t feed your soul, help you reconnect with old friends or clear your acne.

Watching shows that fit into this category induces panic because it’s easy to wonder if you’re the only one and it’s going to get cancelled. But then you can’t be arsed to mount a campaign to save the show cause:

  1. a) I’ve got things to do
  2. b) there are 400 other shows waiting
  3. c) my acne is flaring up again.

If watching an episode gives it a tick on a spreadsheet at Netflix that should be enough. If there aren’t enough ticks, so be it, but there’s more to television than numbers.

The days of being a coach potato are over.

Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.