Netflix Is Thinking of Ending Things

Betty Gilpin and Alison Brie in GLOW. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Broadcast networks are fond of bragging about the stability of their prime-time lineups and often do so by touting the number of series that have been on the air for five, eight, or even ten seasons. Netflix, on the other hand, has made it clear it is nowhere near as enamored with longevity: It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that three seasons is now considered a healthy run for a scripted show on the streamer, with only the biggest of hits making it to four years or beyond. The platform’s philosophy was on display again this week — sort of — with the news that GLOW would not get the chance to film its final season.

Officially, GLOW tapping out after season three is more the result of the pandemic than the short attention span of Netflix execs. The series had been renewed for one more go-round and had even started filming that fourth season before the March lockdowns. But the streamer now says the coronavirus “makes shooting this physically intimate show with its large ensemble cast especially challenging,” and because of that, it decided to let season three be GLOW’s swan song.

No doubt these genuinely extenuating circumstances conspired to end GLOW prematurely, but let’s be real: Netflix no longer believed another season of the show made financial sense. A source familiar with the matter tells me the pandemic delays meant GLOW would be unable to return before 2022 and that COVID safety protocols for a show with such a large cast would greatly increase the production budget. As a result, Netflix worried not enough viewers would remain committed to the show to support investing in another batch of episodes, the source said. (Sources told Deadline, which first reported the cancellation, the same thing.) Network execs and producers I’ve spoken to in recent weeks have all told me that making sets safe(-er) from COVID is proving to be incredibly costly, so no doubt continuing on with plans to film season four would have meant spending lots more than originally planned.

Given the nearly two-year delays between seasons of The Crown and Stranger Things — or the five-year gap between seasons four and five of Arrested Development — citing timing as a rationale as well strikes me as … odd. Fans of GLOW aren’t going to suddenly grow disinterested in something because its return is delayed six or nine months.

On the other hand, Netflix’s scheduling needs and budget realities are probably different now than they were in August 2019, when GLOW was initially renewed. Netflix loves it some data, and the numbers which supported one verdict a year ago may be saying something different today. After all, dozens of other shows and movies have debuted on the service over the past 14 months, some of them likely of great appeal to the same taste clusters who love GLOW. If Netflix has something else that can service those viewers, it may have decided it was safe to move on. It’s also possible that the core of viewers who loved GLOW simply was never that big in the first place, something series star Betty Gilpin suggested in a Vanity Fair article post-cancellation. “Apparently numbers-wise GLOW really only appealed to men in kimonos and women in cat hair, who as far as I’m concerned are the beating heart of the arts and the reason to keep waking up,” the actress wrote.

It is not unreasonable to think that last year’s renewal was a bit of a stretch even then and that the new COVID realities changed the equation just enough to make resuming production too much of a reach. Whatever fondness Netflix execs have for the show probably just couldn’t overcome a simple cost-benefit analysis. The same likely goes for the other two series Netflix has recently unrenewed because of the pandemic (I Am Not Okay With This and The Society) as well as ABC’s decision to take back its second-season order of Stumptown and Showtime’s late Wednesday call to claw back its commitment to a second season of On Becoming a God In Central Florida.

That budget concerns would trump making fans or creatives happy is not some profound insight, of course: Network and studio execs are forever balancing risk and reward when making green-light decisions. But it should also be noted that when Netflix started disrupting show business, its execs talked less about budget concerns and more about their intention to make a platform that was more audience and creator friendly than traditional networks. Ted Sarandos, now co-CEO of the company, has said he decided to release all episodes of seasons at once because viewers didn’t want to have to worry about keeping track of schedules and preemptions or waiting to find out what happens next. The company similarly skips the pilot process because it thinks it wastes money and isn’t the best way for producers to realize their creative vision. Going back on previous commitments, as the streaming giant is doing with GLOW, doesn’t fit that early narrative of Netflix as nirvana for fans and creatives, no matter how sound the financial reasons for doing so.

The coronavirus cancellations are just the latest example of Netflix adjusting its thinking on how long shows should run and how much it cares about being seen as talent friendly. Back in the early years of Netflix Originals, circa 2011 to 2016, the streamer was known as a place that stepped up with big, brash commitments to projects. House of Cards was famously given a two-season order before a frame of film had been shot. It revived Arrested Development long after Fox canceled the show and then even paid for a remix of season four’s episodes. And in 2016, Netflix gave GLOW exec producer Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black a massive three-year renewal, even though four seasons had already been produced.

Netflix probably isn’t totally out of the business of scripted shows that stretch on for five or more seasons. If a series is particularly “efficient” (read: cost effective) or serves a very unique niche, I can see the streamer committing to a longer run. The same goes for shows that are global hits, generating huge viewership around the world, like The Crown or Stranger Things. But Netflix’s tendency these days to walk away from shows after three or four seasons suggests it believes the best way to recruit and retain subscribers is to constantly offer audiences a huge ever-changing assortment of new programming rather than rely on old faves to keep folks in its universe. (That’s what reruns of Seinfeld or Grey’s Anatomy are for.)

This is obviously a radical departure from how network TV has done things for a half-century, but why shouldn’t it be? Netflix doesn’t make money the way broadcasters did. The streamer doesn’t need shows it produces to build up a catalogue of 60, 80, or 100 episodes so that it can make hundreds of millions of dollars in selling syndication rights to other platforms because Netflix shows are designed, by and large, to live their entire lives on Netflix. It doesn’t have to keep moderately successful series around for a decade (or even five years) out of fear that it will be hard to get viewers to sample something new, because the Netflix algorithm and home page mean it can get tens of millions of viewers to at least sample almost anything. (Whether they stick around or like the show is another matter.) And while ending shows prematurely potentially pisses off some producers who would very much love to explore the worlds they’ve created for more than just a couple of seasons, well, that’s the beauty of being a global entertainment super-platform: There will always be other producers willing to play by your rules. NBC needs Dick Wolf and Lorne Michaels to be happy. Netflix needs nobody.

This is not to suggest that Netflix has suddenly morphed into some ultra-arrogant evil empire where talent and audience opinion mean nothing. Sure, you can make a case that the streamer is a bit cockier than it was five years ago and much more willing to disappoint its creative partners if it means a better financial outcome. (Kohan, for one, has a right to be annoyed with Netflix brass right now: Not only did they kill GLOW, but the platform also canceled her very fun dramedy Teenage Bounty Hunters this week after one season. We’ll see what happens with her next show, Social Distance, which debuts next week.) But remember: Making fewer seasons of shows also means Netflix can make more shows overall. That, in turn, gives a greater number of ideas a chance to connect with an audience and means more actors and writers and directors get jobs. And while fans may bemoan not having their faves stick around, how many shows get markedly better the longer they’re in production? If Netflix’s strategy results in less filler, it may not be such a bad thing. A similar model has worked quite well for decades in the U.K., where six- or eight-episode seasons of shows that last just two or three cycles are the rule rather than the exception.

The key to this short-and-sweet strategy working over the long-term, though, is for Netflix to be honest with creators about how long they see shows running and to give producers the chance to write to an ending. There’s evidence the streamer is trying to do just that. Young-adult drama Trinkets was renewed for a second season last year, but producers were told at the time of renewal that there would be no third. In recent months, Netflix has given a slew of other “third and final” season orders to shows as diverse as Dead to Me, Ozark, and The Kominsky Method. Not every creator is going to be happy about such short runs, but if Netflix is decisive early on, it can at least allow shows to reach a natural end, something that Sarandos told me long ago increased a show’s value. (Audiences like complete stories, he told me.) Plus, now that Netflix has made it clear it doesn’t believe more is better when it comes to series length, those writers who think their ideas merit longer runs can decide to pitch their projects elsewhere.

While there’s logic in Netflix’s evolving philosophy on series length, I would argue the streamer can and should do an even better job making sure as few shows as possible wrap without any sort of ending. As Sarandos has said repeatedly, Netflix has a responsibility — to subscribers and shareholders — to invest its money wisely. It needs to make tough calls. But I think it is underestimating the potential damage to the Netflix brand when series such as GLOW or Santa Clarita Diet or One Day at a Time are killed before getting a chance to finish things up. Individual cancellations might not matter that much, but the cumulative effect is audiences trust Netflix less, and may even be less willing to sample a show for fear of being left hanging.

There is a middle ground between canceling a show abruptly and spending tens of millions of dollars for another season: Commit to making movie finales of shows that last more than one season. Netflix did just that with Sense8 (after much fan outcry), and GLOW co-star Marc Maron has publicly started lobbying for something similar with his show. Perhaps producers and talent would have to agree to reduced salaries, and maybe the movies would have to be capped at 90 minutes. But given Netflix’s size and how much it spends on content overall, I think shelling out a few million dollars to guarantee stories get a proper conclusion would be a wise investment — and another way to disrupt how things are done in Hollywood.

Netflix Is Thinking of Ending Things