Wednesday, 4 January 2023

Cancel Culture: How Netflix Has Killed Off Its Core Audience


Netflix has dropped the cancellation hammer once again, axing one of its high-profile titles from the last couple of months. And it's a pattern of behaviour that will ultimately push audiences away and into the arms of rival streamers.

Not even two months ago, Netflix premiered 1899, a German period science-fiction series from the creators of Dark, one of the streamer's sleeper success stories. Mixing elements of mystery and supernatural horror, the show scratched the same itch as similar high-concept, taut and twisty shows, like Lost, Manifest, Sense8 or The OA

The marketing push was hefty too; I feel like I saw ads for it and online chatter about its layered plotting all over the place. The ratings were, at the time, good too; on November 22, Variety reported that the show sat in second place in Netflix's top 10 shows of the week, alongside heavy-hitters like The Crown, Dead to Me, Manifest and Warrior Nun

But only a few weeks later, we've learned that the show's initial success wasn't enough to trigger a second season, with Netflix bosses choosing instead to toss it onto the scrapheap alongside a raft of other shows; among them, the aforementioned Warrior Nun, Steve Carell's Space Force and Mike Flanagan's The Midnight Club from the past 12 months, and The OA, Spinning Out, Altered Carbon, Glow, Jupiter's LegacyCowboy Bebop and many more beyond that. 

Sitting down to binge a series like 1899 is not a small investment; 10 episodes, each roughly an hour long, is asking (imploring, even) the viewer to dedicate lots of their free time to this show. We all lead busy lives; time is precious, and in the competitive streaming marketplace, picking something to watch means picking something you want to stick with, get invested in and see through to the end.

I can't speak for everyone, but I'm sure as shit not not sitting down to watch something that I know won't lead anywhere, not if it takes 10 hours – 10 hours that could be better spent on something that, y'know, isn't getting cannoned into the aether after only a month on the airwaves. The millions of people who fired up 1899 and zoomed through its first (and now only) season have lost that time; it's been taken, nay stolen!, from them by Netflix. 

Now, there must be a reason for Netflix's cruel and swift cancellation here; most likely, 1899 didn't meet specific metrics or viewership targets (whatever they be), and rather than fork out for another season, they chose to funnel those funds somewhere else, to something that will (they hope) draw more eyeballs. And as we've seen reported in the past, it's Netflix's belief that interest in a show will (sometimes dramatically) decrease over time – we're all restless and greedy magpies it seems, enticed by the new shiny thing instead of the second season of something we've already seen.

Which is why we're seeing this more and more; shows cut down after one or two seasons, pruned like a dying branch on the sprawling Netflix tree before the rot can set in. And for a time, it's a strategy that worked, I guess – after all, streaming offers plenty of data on how much and how long people viewed a certain thing. A data-driven, Moneyball approach to commissioning content seemed like a smart approach.

And it's not like Netflix's content is struggling across the board; their list of big hitters continues to grow, with recent winners like Wednesday, Dahmer, Stranger Things, Bridgerton and The Watcher all spending weeks and weeks in the Top 10. You couldn't step within two feet of Instagram without being served one of those damn Wednesday dance Reels. That show, and a handful of others, are as big if not bigger than any of HBO, Amazon or Apple's biggest shows from 2022. 

But this continued cancellation culture is starting to irk audiences; why bother getting invested in something if there's no guarantee it'll go anywhere? Why take a chance on that shiny new thing if it's about to get killed anyway? You're better off waiting a month or two to see if it gets renewed – which, ironically, is leading to it getting cancelled. 

If everyone sits back to see what happens, it won't notch up those all-important metrics and before you know it – boom, cancelled. Talk about a catch-22. It seems like there's less and less middle ground; either a show is the biggest thing since sliced bread (a la Wednesday) or it gets shipped off to a farm upstate to die with the rest. 

There's two sides to this coin too; audiences may be annoyed, but spare a thought for the poor creatives who spend all that time on a show, only for it to die on its arse (by Netflix standards) and get the rug pulled from beneath their feet. Sooner or later, those creatives are going to look elsewhere – at Amazon, at Apple, at HBO and so on. 

So where does it leave us? Well, Netflix certainly isn't the only streamer who gets a little trigger happy when it comes to cancelling stuff – but it is the biggest culprit, by far. Over and over, people are tuning into new shows and being rewarded with a swift slap across the chops soon after. 

Those same people are starting to sit up and take notice. Netflix's subscriber figures are starting to suffer; in April last year, the company reported its first dip in subscriber numbers in a decade. More recently, The Guardian reported that Netflix is thought to be the only streamer in the UK to lose subscribers during 2022. And if these painful cancellations continue, at some point, the audience that has stuck with it are going to serve up a cancellation of their own – and choose to spend those precious subscription dollars elsewhere.

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