There was a time when I'd get excited about Netflix announcing a new series that looked promising. Oh how times have changed. The company is still putting together some great television, but I'm having a harder time getting myself to watch, well, any of it.
Why? Because I know what's going to happen. The show will get off to a promising start, maybe even build up to something great, but before it can pay any of that off, Netflix will either cancel it or announce that its next season will be its last.
The Way Netflix Works
When Netflix premieres a show that people are excited about, it often leads to a jump in subscribers. This makes sense, as people are signing up to watch the show. Not everyone is going to actually follow through on that initial excitement however.
This means that while a show's first few episodes may have great numbers, it's a given that those numbers are going to fall. This looks like customers are leaving a show, even if these customers were likely never going to stick around in the first place.
Obviously Netflix knows this, but the difference in a show's initial numbers and it's later, more stable numbers is going to vary from show to show. This is why even critically acclaimed shows can get canceled early and often.
"If the audience doesn't show up, we think about the reason to continue to invest in something that doesn't do as well as we had hoped," Netflix head of original content said, according to Deadline.
"Obviously, critical acclaim is important too, but we're really about trying to stretch our investment dollars as far as we can and make good on our investors' money—it's theirs, not ours."
Why Netflix Works This Way
We may see Netflix the same way that we'd look at as a TV network, but it's not likely that the company's investors do. Those investors are the same people investing in Silicon Valley tech startups, and those investors have grown to rely on a key metric: growth.
The problem is, TV shows don't often grow the same way a tech company would. Unless you're talking about Game of Thrones or other shows that create an unbelievable wave of hype, you're not going to get more and more viewers season after season. It's not really about whether an audience shows up in the first place, it's whether more of them continue to show up.
As with any other company, Netflix is aiming at growing its customer base, not maintaining it. Unfortunately, that doesn't line up with how a lot of television works.
Limited Runs Are Fine, If They're Planned
If I were creating a show on Netflix right now, I wouldn't plan on making more than three seasons long, even if it became one of the biggest shows on the service. This would ensure that I actually got to tell the story—the whole story—at a proper pace.
I can't say whether any creators are doing this, but I can certainly say that plenty of them aren't. That's why we see so many shows canceled without tying anything up at the end. If these shows aired on a TV network, we could hope that a streaming service might pick them up, as Amazon did with The Expanse, but I assume that most of these shows have zero chance of airing on another streaming service, likely for contract reasons.
Try a Different Metric
Something Netflix doesn't seem to be factoring into its decisions is that this may backfire in the long run. I can't imagine I'm the only one who simply won't start watching a show until it's a few seasons in because I don't want to get myself invested only for it to end up yet another series in the barrel of cancelled series.
"If you're not growing, you're dying" is a common quote in business. What some people seem to forget is that losing long-time customers while drawing in new ones might as well be the same thing. If Netflix doesn't figure out a new way to determine whether its shows are succeeding, it may find that out the hard way.