Should domestic television shows live and die with domestic numbers?
Last night, the streets of Hollywood ran red with the blood of cancelled television shows. The biggest body count belong to ABC with a whopping eleven cancellations; this included fan favorites like Agent Carter and Galavant, past hits like Nashville and Castle, and shows with a glint of promise that never quite found their stride (we’re looking at you, The Muppets). While some of these cancellations may reflect the change in leadership at the network – new ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey was installed in February of this year – it also speaks to the challenges television producers face in the current media landscape. A lot of these cancelled shows might actually have been pretty good. Now? We’ll never know.
And while fans of each cancelled show will be mourning their losses today, it is the death of Agent Carter that sent me scurrying to my thinking place. Agent Carter, a superhero show seemingly devoid of superhero storylines, might be the most interesting show I never got around to watching. Even from a distance, I could recognize that Hayley Atwell is the action hero we all deserve. She wasn’t alone: Enver Gjokaj was my favorite actor on Joss Whedon’s otherwise-mixed Dollhouse series and Agent Carter irregulars Shea Whigham and Dominic Cooper are reason enough to watch any show all by themselves. When I missed the first few episodes of the first season, I decided to wait until the show was available on a streaming platform and circle back before season two. As part of the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe – on the big screen or the small one – Agent Carter seemed like a sure bet to still be around in a year’s time.
Only that streaming platform never materialized. Agent Carter remained as an a la carte option on VOD services like Amazon and iTunes, but was never available to stream on any of the (multiple) services I frequent. Now, one could argue that I only have myself to blame, that I should have ordered the first season on Blu-Ray if the show was really that interesting to me. But that’s not really the way we operate in the current media landscape, is it? There’s a veritable ocean of content available at our fingertips, and with a half-dozen streaming channels to choose from – including Netflix, Hulu, HBOGo, Showtime Anytime, and Amazon Prime – the act of spending money to buy a television show feels like an unnecessarily finicky thing to do. It is hard to justify paying extra for a show when countless other movies and shows – just as critically well-received – are available at my fingertips. There’s no need to emphasize Agent Carter just because it’s the most recent one on my list.
And that highlights one of the show’s major failings: it backed the wrong horse on the streaming platform without any of the benefits of exclusivity. It’s becoming a fairly common mistake. A few weeks ago, I highlighted an article in the International Business Times that blamed convoluted streaming rights for the poor numbers put up by The Americans. The author compared this to a show like Breaking Bad, which also struggled to find an audience despite rave reviews before breaking out near the end of its run. This is attributed to the show’s streaming deal with Netflix; people were able to catch up on episodes that they’d missed between seasons, allowing Breaking Bad to finally earn an audience befitting of its reputation as the best show on television. The Americans might be an important part of the exclusive catalogue that Amazon Prime is trying to build, but from the producers’ perspective, the reach of Amazon Prime just doesn’t compare to that of Netflix.
This doesn’t even touch on the international aspect of streaming services. While a show like The Americans might bank on an understanding of a very specific time period in American history, the post-war excitement and international cast of Agent Carter would suggest a show capable of succeeding in more than just the domestic market. That’s a hard thing to do when you’re not on Netflix. Although Amazon Prime’s domestic subscription numbers are inflated by the people who enroll just for the free shipping, it is undeniably a second-tier service, currently only available a handful of countries (compared to over 190 countries for Netflix). And Hulu has it even worse; while the platform may hold exclusive next-day streaming rights to the majority of network television shows, it is also only available in the United States, making it (legally) impossible for international audiences to jump onto a show that is already in-progress. While film pundits are pretty quick to acknowledge the influence of international audiences on business decisions – remember, over 72% of Hollywood’s ticket sales came from outside the United States and Canada in 2014 – the role of international audiences in the success of television shows is a much trickier number to unpack.
International television presents a great opportunity for studios looking to build on the success of their flagship programming, but it can be tough to translate long-form writing to other languages. In March, The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece suggesting that cultural differences – specifically those of race – might be responsible for the struggles of specific shows in foreign markets, but woven into the article is the same kind of first-run assumptions that play into the arguments about domestic television. Agent Carter is (was) the product of a company that is notorious in its global thinking for releases, the same company who can take a World War II story about a man named Captain America and lead it to a bigger box office return in the international market than in the United States. It may be simplistic to say the lack of a straight-forward streaming alternative could have solved this entire thing, but if an Amazon Prime contract is enough to cripple one period espionage drama, who’s to say it can’t be blamed for Agent Carter, too?
At the end of the day, the cancellations of struggling shows is just business as usual for entertainment companies, but I will be curious to see how future programming decisions better leverage streaming platforms for both domestic and international audiences. A show like Agent Carter seemed like a solid bet to cross over to new markets, but without an easily accessible backlog of old episodes, it might have been too tough a sell for Marvel fans already bogged down in questions of continuity. One thing is for sure: without a Netflix deal – or any kind of a subscription-based distribution in foreign markets – the powers-that-be at ABC made life needlessly difficult for Agent Carter. Here’s hoping they’ve learned their lesson the next time out.
Related Topics: Marvel