Through Cancellations and Streaming Glut, Caring About TV Has Become a Heartrending Chore

Can TV recover from its greed-driven audience alienation?

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Through Cancellations and Streaming Glut, Caring About TV Has Become a Heartrending Chore

Rule one of being an executive: never agree to a pay cut. It’s a key truth to understanding why, unless you exclusively watch two or three shows per annum, you probably had to bid a premature goodbye to a TV show you loved, liked, or even half-watched this year. No one is safe, and with networks refusing to disclose streaming ratings despite the best efforts of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, recently bereaved audiences have been more inclined to read into the Wall Street mechanisms that support (or more accurately, supported) the streaming empire.

The bottom line is that the streaming we once knew is dying, quickly, and networks’ first port-of-call seems to be canceling ongoing shows, prematurely ending them, or removing them entirely from streaming services. As Josef Adalian wrote, “it’s about writing down millions in amortization costs these titles would have incurred in coming years.” The even bottomer line is that these choices aren’t strictly necessary, consumers and artists do not need to be adversely affected by the gambling of conglomerates and executives. A fleet of people could agree to make less money.

Obviously, there’s no way this would solve the systemic rot that’s the current backbone of the industry, nor would it magically bring back 1899, Firefly Lane, A League of Their Own, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Winning Time, Shadow and Bone, Lockwood and Co., or poor, sweet Agent Elvis. But it’s the principle that matters—no reshuffling of books (and by extension, destabilization of ordinary people’s jobs) will solve the root cause of the streaming nightmare we’re in—only a full redressing of unregulated capitalist greed. But instead, they cancel.

There are many different factors that go into a show’s cancellation (Has it been mutually agreed upon by creatives and executives? Did the show bomb in ratings and reviews? Were they permitted a wrap-up final season or special?), but they largely fall into two categories: loud and quiet. The loud ones arrive with a shockwave, with an amplified online reaction from fans, and sometimes generate enough ripples to warrant the odd op-ed. Often, there’s a throughline to these canceled shows—look at A League of Their Own, GLOW, Minx (now resurrected at Starz), three female-oriented shows, sometimes with queer storylines and themes.

It’s perhaps naive to expect any differently, but there’s no consideration that the television landscape is better for having (well-received!) shows like this, even if they aren’t setting the TV landscape on fire with each successive season premiere (not that we’ll ever know, because their ratings elude us). If buzzy, mainstream, and star-led shows like these can’t even guarantee a reasonable lifetime, what does that say to diverse storytellers about how valued their voice is beyond the barest and simplest of representation? 

Then there’s the quiet cancellations, when the hiatus between seasons—which has already become outrageously elongated—stretches on for a damning amount of time, and fans start to abandon expectations of hearing positive updates. If you’re lucky, maybe the show creator will confirm what you most feared in the press cycle for their next project. Sometimes actors are as in the dark as us

The extended, ominous wait for confirmation puts audiences into a state of mourning without hearing someone’s dead. It’s become clear that it doesn’t matter if your show made an impact online, or if it got terrific reviews, or if it ended with the most tantalizing, cliffhanger of the year, or even if you were once hailed as “the next Game of Thrones,” if the magic spreadsheets deep in corporation backrooms don’t add up, you can be swiftly extricated from all known reality. Your favorite show of the year may be being canceled at this very moment.

(Sidenote: it’s very hard to cancel brand-affiliated shows because of the role that TV now plays in cinematic universes and the value IPs hold to companies even when audiences aren’t invested. So, unfortunately, there will be Marvel shows until we’re dead and buried—Disney needs these shows to exist more than we do.)

This highlights some novel contradictions with the current life-supported status of Peak TV. Much like the prioritization of blockbusters that cinema saw post-millennium, every show now needs to be able to make it as big as Game of Thrones or Stranger Things. It’s different from the Godzilla-like lifespan of shows like Friends, The Office or Breaking Bad—these shows were made in a semi-normal context (and robust guild contracts!) and owe a lot of their longevity to being rewatched once they hit streaming (The Land That Residuals Forgot). Now, every show needs to guarantee that it can exceed all expectations from the get go, or—as Barry so bittersweetly parodied—it will get the chop.

This would be less perplexing if networks didn’t make all their flops so visible and expensive. Why Prime spent $300 million on a faceless James Bond riff like Citadel, or Netflix on a live-action Cowboy Bebop nobody wanted, truly eludes us all. There’s seemingly a consensus that you can just money-pump a show into popularity by collecting a bunch of market researched indices, rather than giving it the breathing room it needs to become popular. The agency of the audience is always much more insignificant than consumers think, but we’re startling to see how meaningless audience perspectives have become.

Streaming networks would rather commission a second season no one will watch rather than cancel their expensive flops as soon as possible. Mindhunter, Sense8, and The OA seem like they qualify (all Netflix shows, what a coincidence!) but those shows were actually popular, offering something that could be found nowhere else in television—and their cancellation was a sincere loss. What’s more interesting are the big-scale, fantasy or science-fiction shows that wield massive budgets but aren’t actually, well, interesting. Gone too soon, Carnival Row, Raised By Wolves, and Altered Carbon.

Of course, because of their sheer size, these shows make something of a ripple when they first drop, but as their premiere grows smaller in the rearview mirror, it’s clear their audience isn’t perpetually growing. It’s very embarrassing to cancel an expensive show the second after launch, so networks prefer giving a muted follow-up with no intention of continuing beyond the sophomore season. The most noise these bloated properties make is when they announce their cancellation.

Everyone likes to blame shows flopping on marketing, but when was the last time you credited loving a show to marketing, rather than ecstatic word-of-mouth or a pre-established love for an actor, writer, or genre? The truth is that marketing a streaming show nowadays is the same as giving people advice on how to sort through a bargain bucket, and the same executives complaining about the inhospitable landscape for their new content are the ones responsible for it.

The only result for TV-programming-by-economic-necessity is consumer alienation. Audiences may be powerless to shift the capitalist creeds at the heart of the entertainment industry, but we still have something networks want: eyeballs. There may be no way to effectively protest mass cancellations, nor can we appeal to the artistic conscience of executives, but a uniform disengagement will soon materialize amongst even the least-engaged of TV audiences. Why should audiences care about shows that networks are equally uninterested in? 

As we reflect on one of the most important years in modern TV, we reckon with the fact that the TV landscape is not volatile because of writers, actors, or crews—and certainly not because production teams are demanding fair working conditions. It’s because no one with money thinks clearly enough ahead, and are now unwilling to admit fault. But if they don’t compromise, why should anyone else?

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists, and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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