What, Exactly, Does Netflix Want from Us?

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What, Exactly, Does Netflix Want from Us?

There’s a growing trend at Netflix (and, to a larger extent, television) toward shows having shorter and fewer seasons. Narrative plans, actor availability, production costs, and viewer numbers all play into how long a show runs. But following the recent cancellations of shows like The Baby-Sitters Club and Archive 81—both of which appeared to be popular with viewers and/or critics and whose stories weren’t necessarily finished—one has to wonder: What is Netflix doing? And, what, exactly, does it want from us as subscribers?

In an interview with Vulture shortly after news broke of The Baby-Sitters Club’s cancellation, showrunner Rachel Shukert offered insight into what she believed was behind the streaming service’s decision. It’s conjecture based on her own experiences working with Netflix, but it’s still a peek into how the king of streaming operates.

“As far as I can tell, everything Netflix does is based on how it’s driving subscriber growth,” Shukert told Vulture. “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.”

“I think we had the bad luck to come out at about the same time as Squid Game,” she continued. “[It] showed them how crazy numbers could get. Numbers that were totally respectable and successful last year were suddenly seen in a different way.”

Translation: The Baby-Sitters Club might have been successful in the U.S. (and even critically acclaimed), but it did not have the international reach that other shows at Netflix did. Therefore, it did not drive new subscriptions in those areas and was not worth renewing. It’s a blunt and cynical interpretation of what happened—not to mention disheartening to those who value art and creativity and the actual content of television shows—but until Netflix reveals regular viewership numbers and explains the full method to its madness, we’ll never know the full truth behind what drives its decisions to renew or cancel a show.

However, when one considers the list of shows that have been canceled after just one or two seasons over the last several years, a pattern also begins to emerge. From Everything Sucks! and The Society, to Teenage Bounty Hunters and Julie and the Phantoms, there’s a disturbing trend—intentional or not—of Netflix prematurely canceling shows aimed primarily at women or young women. For every Bridgerton or Virgin River, there are a handful of shows that don’t live to see multiple seasons.

Most media is filtered through the male gaze, even though women (and young women, at that) tend to be frequent drivers of popular culture. It’s why society’s constant denigration of what teen girls like is as embarrassing as it is frustrating. A show like The Baby-Sitters Club, with its earnest and good-natured approach to telling the coming-of-age stories of young girls, has the power to reach an audience that is often underserved and/or not treated with respect. The stories it tells can be vital to understanding many of life’s most important but complicated lessons.

For instance, the late Season 2 episode “Claudia and the Sad Goodbye” explores the death of Claudia’s grandmother, explaining grief and how we can grow from it. It’s a somber and tender affair that covers a difficult-to-talk-about topic and makes it easier to comprehend, not just for the show’s characters but viewers at home, too. But it’s not the only instance of the show covering an important topic; other lessons broached include tolerance, finding one’s identity, dealing with changes at home, and fitting in. As I wrote in my review of the show’s second season, none of these lessons are particularly noteworthy or groundbreaking if you’re over a certain age, but the opportunity is there for younger viewers or even teens to learn from them. Plus, sometimes, adults do need to be reminded of them, too.

So to see The Baby-Sitters Club and other shows like it that are aimed at young female audiences be canceled after just one or two seasons to allegedly service Netflix’s expansion and growth in international markets is frustrating, to say the least. Even if there are reasonable explanations for cancellations—The Society, which was initially renewed before being abruptly canceled a little while later, was an early victim of the coronavirus pandemic—it adds to a disturbing pattern with the underlying theme that young women and their stories don’t matter.

Everything Sucks!, a ‘90s-set coming-of-age story that featured a lead character slowly discovering her sexuality, predated the pandemic by a few years and was one of the first shocking one-and-done Netflix cancellations. Julie and the Phantoms, a charming remake of a Brazilian show about a 15-year-old girl who rediscovers her passion for music in the wake of her mother’s death, debuted during the first year of the pandemic. Sure, it had an out-there premise—the titular Julie forms a band with a trio of ghosts and finds solace in their music—but it also featured great original songs and was heartfelt. Like The Baby-Sitters Club, it also transcended demographics. Meanwhile, the sex-positive dramedy Teenage Bounty Hunters, which followed fraternal twins raised in the religious South who become unlikely bounty hunters, had a distinctive story, featured snappy dialogue, and was exceptionally fun. All three shows were canceled after one season.

Of course, these are not the only shows to be canceled prematurely: I Am Not Okay with This, Cowboy Bebop, Dash & Lily, Spinning Out and many more have all been axed after just one season. And if you look at the list of Netflix Originals that have ended, you’ll notice there are a lot more recent shows with only one season under their belt than there were in the first few years of Netflix producing original content. You might think this is an example of Netflix being more discerning about its content and putting a greater focus on producing quality shows. But it doesn’t. This actually coincides with a gradual but noticeable decline in the quality of Netflix’s overall programming slate, suggesting that in its attempt to take over the world, the pioneer of streaming is prioritizing quantity over quality and that the window to achieve success (and thus renewal) is shrinking.

Take, for instance, the supernatural horror drama Archive 81. The series debuted Jan. 14 and appeared on Netflix’s weekly Top 10 list. It even broke into the No. 1 spot before the Emmy-winning crime drama Ozark returned for the first half of its final season. Despite that popularity, the series was canceled two months later. Deadline, which first reported the news, suggested that the show’s viewer numbers “did not meet the threshold Netflix had set for the series based on its budget.” It’s a good point—obviously cost is still a major consideration for renewal, especially during the pandemic. But it seems like Netflix is constantly moving the goalposts.

The company has changed how it measures and reports viewership a few times in as many years. In the wake of the success of South Korea’s Squid Game, Netflix will report total hours viewed within 28 days of release rather than the two-minute view metric it had been using. But that still doesn’t explain, exactly, what Netflix is measuring. The streaming service uses something called an adjusted view share, which considers numerous factors, but reflects not just how many people have watched a title but how valuable Netflix considers those viewers to be. An eye-opening report from Bloomberg last fall revealed that viewers who are new customers or who use Netflix less often are viewed as being more valuable than older subscribers because it suggests that the shows they’re watching are a reason they subscribed/haven’t canceled.

So, what does this all mean? Well, it seems Shukert is likely on to something in that The Baby-Sitters Club not being as popular outside of North America didn’t help the show’s renewal chances. But it also means that until Netflix is more obvious or explicit in what it wants from viewers and what its metrics really mean, we’ll never know whether our viewing habits or a show’s critical reception matter all that much in the decision-making process. Perhaps the most distressing part of this, though, is that Netflix might not even consider the actual content or influence of a show when making renewal decisions. The fact that so many of the programs that have been prematurely canceled are intended for young women and are telling impactful stories might just be a coincidence, but it may also speak to how those viewers are valued (or not valued) by Netflix. No matter the explanation, though, the fact remains that Netflix is canceling too many shows that deserve to be seen.

Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.

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