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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

The Netflix network

By Richard Middleton 11-07-2017

When Netflix cancelled Baz Luhrmann’s hip-hop drama The Get Down there were raised eyebrows aplenty across Hollywood and beyond.

Not only had the show cost a reported US$120m but it had become one of the rare Netflix originals that failed to make it past the first season.

But it hasn’t been the only show to get axed by the streamer this summer, with the company deciding last month to bring the curtain down on comedy series Girlboss, which had only debuted on Netflix in the US in mid-April.

Such swift curtailment is more normally associated with the US broadcast networks as they slash away at their flailing freshman shows, not the global SVoD giant and its deep, deep pockets that allow it to push forward regardless.

The cancellations got numerous headlines because they remain relatively rare but such decisions by the Netflix hierarchy signal a shift in attitude. It also underlines the fact that the streamer is now very much interested in how well its originals are playing with viewers and, frankly, if they’re worth it.

Ted Sarandos

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said as much at the PGA’s Produced By conference earlier this year, when he questioned whether “relative to what you spent, are people watching it?”

With no viewing figures to hand, one can only assume that for The Get Down, Girlboss and Sense8 – another original to get clipped – the answer was no.

Indeed, Sarandos didn’t mince his words and was clear that “a big, expensive show for a huge audience is great. A big, expensive show for a tiny audience is hard, even in our model, to make that work very long.”

Netflix has reneged on its decision about Sense8 to a degree, but only by granting the series a two-hour special to tie up loose ends after frantic pleas from fans on social media.

Several years ago the streamer was one of the saviours of what could loosely be term ‘niche programming’ and cancelled shows, reviving the likes of Arrested Development, to viewers’ delight. Now Sense8 fans’ online uproar got it just a 120-minute extension, and that was the lot.

Better Call Saul is made available by Netflix weekly

It is indicative of a service that seems to be becoming a lot more at ease with itself and is shifting its behaviour accordingly. Binge-viewing was once the most Netflix of Netflix preserves, allowing you to slob out on the couch while episode after episode washed over without you even having to stir. But this, too, is changing, with an increasing number of shows being released on a weekly basis.

The latest episodes of dramas such as Better Call Saul and Penny Dreadful, both acquisitions of sorts, only emerge from their digital bunkers on a weekly basis, as does Riverdale, which airs on The CW stateside.

Some of this is obviously because of the production schedules and restrictions on deals struck, which tells its own story, but the streamer is also tweaking how it releases its own programming, such as moving the second season of Chelsea Handler’s talkshow Chelsea to a once-a-week schedule.

Taken separately, each of these incidents barely registers as a development, but taken as a whole, it looks like life at Netflix is changing.

Reed Hastings

Reed Hastings

CEO Reed Hastings recently admitted the streamer has not cancelled enough of its shows and said its hit ratio “is way too high right now.” Sarandos later clarified that what Hastings meant was that “Silicon Valley celebrates failure.”

“It’s one of those things that you know you’re pushing the envelope if every once in a while you fall,” Hastings said. “And you go back and start over again. If you have hit after hit after hit, you question yourself – are you trying hard enough? Are you too conventional?”

It’s a fair point. Netflix revolutionised the way people watch TV and left most channels in its wake as it not only dumped season after season of glossy programming for greedy viewers to gorge themselves on but stuck with shows that traditional networks might have ended far earlier.

Now it’s Netflix that’s cancelling its shows while citing poor viewing figures, and lining up more of its offerings to become available on a weekly basis. Add that to its clever algorithms that choose what you should watch and when, and the gulf between the transformational streamer and the channels it seemed set to replace doesn’t perhaps looks so wide after all.