When Netflix decided to cancel the mind-bending maritime thriller 1899 after just one series last week, it was doubtless just another day at the office for the streaming giant. Television series come and go and cancellation comes to all, eventually. But the howl that went up on social media, accompanied by the #cancelnetflix hashtag, revealed how the decisions made in the company’s boardrooms don’t always sit well with subscribers.
The creation of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, the showrunners behind cult hit Dark, 1899 is set on a migrant steamship on its way to New York and concerns another vessel that has mysteriously gone missing in the Atlantic along with its 1,400 passengers. Full of ghostly portent and characters with dark secrets, the multilingual series landed comfortably in Netflix’s top 10 on its release in November. Its cancellation a mere six weeks later certainly seemed to catch Odar and Friese by surprise, as they noted on Instagram: “We would have loved to finish this incredible journey with a second and third season . . . Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you planned.”
1899 isn’t the only series to have exposed Netflix’s commitment issues. Tuca & Bertie, Teenage Bounty Hunters, Everything Sucks!, Girlboss and, more recently, The Midnight Club, Archive 81 and Resident Evil are among the series to have been terminated after one season, leaving viewers hanging. Not all were deserving of the chop: the slow-building chiller Archive 81, about an archivist hired to restore some burnt documentary footage, received glowing reviews, while the scrapping of Tuca & Bertie, the charming animated series voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, provoked such a backlash that it was picked up by a cable network for a second outing.
It is no secret that times have been trying for Netflix as it navigates company lay-offs, fluctuating subscriber numbers and stiff competition from its rivals. While cancellations occur across all platforms, they are higher-profile at Netflix, which accounts for a quarter of original content spending worldwide (its projected budget for 2023 is $17bn to Disney’s $10.5bn). Even so, the raw number of cancellations on Netflix isn’t a good look for a service that increasingly seems like a mausoleum for abandoned projects.
It also points to a deeper problem where over-commissioning leads to series being cast aside before they’ve had time to establish themselves. Such a short-sighted approach benefits no one, least of all the viewer who is left wondering whether spending 10-plus hours on a new show is a worthy investment when there’s a chance it will be junked.
It has long been a benefit of television that series have the time and space to find their feet. Where a film has one shot at winning over viewers, TV can be more flexible, drawing them in over time. Multi-season shows can evolve, add new characters, change tack if necessary. From Blackadder to Seinfeld and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, many are the shows that promised little in early series only to achieve greatness later on.
The decisions that lead to Netflix cancellations remain murky. Co-chief executive Ted Sarandos once said it was based on “70 per cent gut and 30 per cent data. Most of it is informed hunches and intuition.” Netflix has historically been cagey about viewer data, although it recently agreed to make figures available to the UK ratings measurement body, Barb. The top 10 rankings were introduced in 2020 for greater transparency, although the fate of 1899 shows that landing there brings no guarantee of renewal.
According to a recent article in Forbes, the crucial metric is what Netflix calls “completion rate”, meaning the percentage of the audience that goes on to finish a show, with those series scoring less than 50 per cent deemed duds. This might seem reasonable until you consider the speed at which shows are being consigned to the scrapheap. Certainly, a six-week window leaves precious little time for word-of-mouth to work its magic.
It is understandable that, at a time of economic turbulence, Netflix is looking for ways to trim the fat. Gone are the days when it would wave a cheque at any chump with a script. But there are better ways of cutting back than greenlighting new projects with the aim of dumping early under-achievers. How about making fewer series to start with? In a saturated market, a carefully curated, less-is-more strategy could work wonders, ensuring better-quality programming and an audience not left wondering, months later, what the hell happened on that ship.
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