exit interview

The Baby-Sitters Club Wasn’t Enough for Netflix Anymore

“I was excited about telling a story that would see them into high school — not wrap everything up but honor what we made.” Photo: LIANE HENTSCHER/NETFLIX

“I don’t know what they wanted that they didn’t get.” Rachel Shukert is talking about her series The Baby-Sitters Club, which Netflix canceled last week after two widely critically acclaimed seasons, a handful of industry awards, and, according to Shukert, viewership that exceeded the streamer’s expectations. The end of the show continues a pattern for Netflix, which often cancels popular series after two seasons. Increasingly, Shukert says, the streamer is prioritizing shows whose viewers binge — and complete — new seasons upon release, making it more difficult for quietly beloved shows like The Baby-Sitters ClubTeenage Bounty Hunters, or Everything Sucks! to succeed on the platform, especially in the face of global megahits such as Narcos or Money Heist. For fans, the end of The Baby-Sitters Club is disappointing because so few series fill its specific niche: stories about preteen girls that don’t oversexualize or infantilize them. “It seems like girls are expected to go straight from Doc McStuffins to Euphoria,” Shukert says. The Baby-Sitters Club was the rare TV series not about how the world sees girlhood but rather how girls see themselves. We spoke to Shukert about the demise of her show, why she thinks it wasn’t enough for Netflix anymore, and what it all means for niche streaming content going forward.

How long have you known Netflix wasn’t ordering a third season of The Baby-Sitters Club?
It was the very beginning of February. It took them a long time to make the call, which is unusual. Netflix can be very quick about pulling the plug on things they’re not going to continue.

I want to be very careful because it’s a lot of conjecture, but I feel like Netflix’s internal metrics can change month to month. Something that was fine three months ago is suddenly not what they need.

When you say “metrics,” are you talking about actual numbers or a sense of creative direction? 
I think it’s the numbers, like what territories they feel they need to see things performing in. As far as I can tell, everything Netflix does is based on how it’s driving subscriber growth.

The truth is that when your show does very well in North America, as ours does, as far as Netflix is concerned, pretty much everybody who’s going to have Netflix [in North America] has it. They’re looking to drive subscriber growth in other parts of the world where this IP doesn’t have much recognition.

It was odd. You have a call and they give you numbers seven days in and then 28 days in. Our numbers seemed fine. It was what they expected. It was pretty close to what we did last season, so I wasn’t too worried. Then, as the decision to renew the show kept dragging on, I started to get concerned. At the same time, the show has been so critically well received. We’ve been nominated for and won so many awards. People love it.

For this show that has a fine viewership but is not a monster hit, but it’s beloved by fans … does that matter? I don’t know. I think we had the bad luck to come out at about the same time as Squid Game, which showed them how crazy numbers could get. Numbers that were totally respectable and successful last year were suddenly seen in a different way. I don’t have access to a lot of this data, and in general creators don’t have access to this data at Netflix, so it’s what you put together on your own.

Do you ever wish you had the data? I imagine it could feel enlightening but it could also mess with your head.
The data is not that useful unless you have everybody else’s data too. I know our numbers at Netflix would’ve been the biggest hit in many other places. Our audience compared to HBO shows that are seen as massive hits, Succession-like juggernauts — we do way bigger numbers.

When you only have your numbers in a vacuum and you don’t know the numbers of anything else, you don’t know what you’re trying to hit. You don’t know what numbers other comparable shows are hitting. Netflix will give you context in terms of what your numbers were last season or what they were hoping for, but even that is very vague. You’re flying a little blind.

So many of us on the outside are trying to figure out what Netflix is doing — to understand the deeper strategy behind the decisions that get made.
Completion rates are a big deal, and our show takes longer to complete because it’s for a younger audience. Parents don’t necessarily let kids sit and watch six hours of television at a time — probably rightly! Or they want to save it so they can all watch together. Our executives were certainly aware of this and tried to make the case for us. But at Netflix, it’s more about if your show works on the platform than if the platform is working for your show. They want people to watch it a certain way, and they want shows that people will watch that way — not shows that people want to watch in their own way.

It’s frustrating but also so funny to imagine treating Squid Game and The Baby-Sitters Club with the same general approach.
I’ve worked for Netflix on a lot of shows for a lot of years now. I started working on GLOW in 2016, so a lot of different philosophies and priorities have come and gone. Initially at Netflix, it was okay to have a smaller audience and be quirkier or more particular. The idea was that there was something for everyone, not that everything has to be for everybody: We really want to give creators space to create the show they want to make and trust it will find its audience. As they’ve grown, I think that philosophy has changed somewhat. I don’t know exactly how they figure out what’s worth it.

Did you feel like Netflix gave you that creative freedom as you were making The Baby-Sitters Club?
Netflix was extremely supportive of a lot of things I wanted to do that other places might not have been. It was important to me to tell certain kinds of stories that weren’t necessarily in the books, and they were supportive of those decisions. I appreciate that.

But they would sometimes have notes that felt like they were based on data. They’re open about that! Like, in shows where this sort of thing doesn’t happen within the first five minutes, people don’t make it past that hump. They have so much data; it can be helpful, and it can also be tricky to integrate.

Netflix also doesn’t do a ton of marketing, and I think in season one, we were bizarrely helped by the pandemic — not because people were home in front of the TV but because our original release date got delayed. There were some dubbing issues in other countries; we were supposed to come out in May, and we wound up coming out in the first week of July, so there was a lot of press set up that had longer lead times, and people actually knew about the show before it came out.

A lot of times, Netflix things come out and for whatever reason, if the algorithm doesn’t put it in front of you, no one knows it’s on. I heard from so many people who loved season one that they didn’t even know season two had come out. How is that possible? How does the algorithm not know that you watched and loved the entire first season and then immediately show season two to you? Why is this not getting in front of people that want to watch it?

Do you wonder if it’s easier to dismiss shows about young girls? I’ve been watching conversations about the Pixar movie Turning Red and realizing there’s a lot of discomfort related to stories about girls who aren’t little children but are also not adults.  
People are extremely uncomfortable with this period in girls’ lives. It seems to be the time of life that girls lose faith in themselves, and I think it’s because they don’t see representation of where they’re actually at. Girls are expected to go straight from Doc McStuffins to Euphoria. They’re not ready for TV about having sex, but they don’t want to be little girls. So who are they? It’s a really easy time for girls to define themselves solely by how they’re seen by other people and then you don’t get your sense of self back until you’re 35. What if you weren’t missing those 20 years?

What if you always got to be yourself and see yourself represented in a real way? And not have to be all about who thinks you’re pretty or who thinks you have the right clothes? Or how old they think you are or how old they think you look? The Baby-Sitters Club speaks to so many girls because it meets them where they are. It’s not about adults telling them who they are. It’s not really about boys, although they have crushes, which is a realistic part of life at that age.

There’s something about stories geared to this age that always felt like hindsight from adults, as opposed to what it actually feels like to be that age. What we could do with The Baby-Sitters Club was make the girls as smart and interesting and mature as girls are without making it all about how other people see them. It’s about how they see themselves.

I can imagine it coming back to this problem: The adults who make the hindsight-warped media are also the kinds of people who have to market this different version of a story about being a middle-school girl.
I think that’s a product of depending on algorithmic data and not a lot of willingness to see what the show could become or figure out a way to put it forward. A show like this has tremendous nostalgic potential. People who grew up reading the books, people who have kids that age … But if you’re 35 and you loved the books and you don’t watch a lot of YA stuff or any of Netflix’s kids and family stuff, Netflix is not going to show The Baby-Sitters Club to you.

We would talk, and they’d be like, Well, we hoped it would get more traction with adult audiences. It’s not going to if they don’t know it’s there! Just knowing what our numbers were, the audience is there. It’s not like no one watched it. For whatever reason, the right people didn’t watch it at the right time for Netflix right now.

Is this the end of the show, in your mind? Are you hoping you can sell it somewhere else or make a movie to wrap things up?
I mean, I would love that. I think it will be complicated. The girls are getting older quickly, and we never expected this to go more than probably three seasons because we knew the girls were going to age out of those characters. Scholastic and Ann [M. Martin, creator of the Baby-Sitters Club books] have always been very clear that they don’t want the characters to age. They’re trapped in amber — she wrote the books for 16 years, and they never got older.

There’s been talk of trying to do a movie, but we didn’t make the show with Netflix. We made the show with an outside studio, Walden Media, who is so wonderful. Even if another streamer wanted to do it, I don’t know that they could have the first two seasons on their platform. It might be difficult. Even if that could be resolved — and potentially it could — the question is can you get everybody’s new contracts done, all of these new scripts and deals …

… before the girls are all 20 years old.
Exactly. So I don’t know. I’ve heard from so many people who are very sad about it and angry. That’s gratifying in some ways, I guess.

I can’t help but point out that it feels like the cast of Stranger Things is now, like, 35 years old. [Note: This is an exaggeration. They are closer to 20.]
It reminds me of when people would talk about models being too thin. Blame the fashion industry, who blames the magazines, who blame the designers, and the designers blame the bookers. It’s somebody else’s fault. In media, you’ll speak to female executives who say, “I wish it wasn’t this way.” If only you were in a position to do something about this!

I think female audiences are trained to not take their own stories as seriously. Stuff men were obsessed with when they were 9 is treated like Hamlet. How many Spider-Man movies are there? How many Star Wars? They tell it over and over again from different perspectives. That’s all fine, obviously. But what if someone treated something for girls that seriously? Even with a fraction of the money.

What was your vision for the third season? 
I really wanted to do a Super Special. I was trying to figure out, Should they go to New York? Should they get snowed in? It depended on where they would let us shoot, and I was excited about telling a story that would see them into high school — not wrap everything up but honor what we made. Season two ends on a pretty good note. It’s emotionally satisfying. But we had more stories to tell, and I miss the girls. I loved working with them. They’re extraordinary actresses and people.

Was it hard to tell them the show would be ending? 
I wasn’t the one that told them. I couldn’t … I couldn’t do it.

They’ve all been great sports about it, but they’re sad. They’re so close with each other. It really bums me out that the cancellation made them say good-bye to each other before they were ready. They’re not adults playing kids, and we were very mindful of that — to always make the environment very safe, supportive, and as positive as possible. I think we succeeded in that, and I think it’s borne out by their friendship with each other — how close they are and what a good time they all had.

I hope they’ll be able to look back on the show in a few years and see it for how great it was.
I think they will. I’m so proud of the show. I’m trying not to let the pride be colored by this sense of disappointment because as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great success: creatively, artistically, and honestly, even in terms of viewers. It’s the best-reviewed show Netflix ever made.

What more could you want it to be? 
I don’t know. I don’t know what they wanted that they didn’t get. I guess that’s just what you have to know: that you did an amazing thing and circumstances were beyond your control.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Season one received an achievement-in-casting award, Daytime Emmys for design and performance, a TCA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming, and a GLAAD nomination. Squid Game premiered on September 17, 2021, and became Netflix’s most-watched series ever. Season two of The Baby-Sitters Club premiered on October 11. GLOW, another acclaimed Netflix series, had already begun production on its fourth and final season in 2020 when Netflix announced the series would not be moving forward, pointing to delays and challenges related to COVID.
The Baby-Sitters Club Wasn’t Enough for Netflix Anymore