What Netflix’s executive decisions mean for their creative future.
To be honest, I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. I knew that, statistically speaking, there had to be a bunch of other people whose hearts also broke a little when Netflix announced their decision to cancel The Get Down after its first season and that, having a bigger following, the Sense8 fans would be disappointed after learning there was no renewal for a third run. But as far as I knew, it wouldn’t raise much fuzz since they were not part of the heavy weights of Netflix’s original content, those as universally loved and praised as House of Cards or Stranger Things.
Crap Man https://t.co/6v36hSlseL
— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) May 25, 2017
Boy, was I wrong. Fans are angry. Twitter keeps a steady flow of #RenewTheGetDown, #BringBackSense8 and other related hashtags. There are two Change.org petitions to save the shows, and posts on Tumblr urge people to call and message Netflix and even to cancel their subscriptions in protest on June 8th. There’s also Operation Flip Flop: an effort to flood Netflix’s offices with beach sandals along with the message: “Sense8 needs closure like Lito needs his flip flop,” referencing an inside joke from the show.
But it seems that the writing is on the wall. Despite the outrage, The Get Down’s creator and unintended showrunner Baz Luhrmann penned an honest thank you note/farewell on his Facebook page which pretty much discards the possibility of a new season, while Sense8’s final notice sounded pretty, well, final. Meanwhile, during the week between each announcement, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings suggested that it might be time to axe more of the company’s original programming.
Although Netflix had been previously known for its reluctance to cancel its own shows, it has a small and somewhat exclusive graveyard of high-profile series that include Hemlock Grove, Bloodline, and the streaming service’s first big flop, Marco Polo. But The Get Down and Sense8’s early retirements enter a different territory.
First of all, the cancellation announcements were vague at best, especially regarding the reasons why they pulled the shows’ plugs so early on. However, the best guess is budgets and viewership. Both shows were among Netflix’s most expensive projects, surpassing Orange is the New Black and Daredevil. Estimates place Sense8’s budget per episode at $9M, while The Get Down cost approximately $120M. The latter, a period piece, also went through a rough road during production, dealing with delays, the departure of its first showrunner, and union complaints. Although its development wasn’t as conflictive, the Wachowski’s sci-fi tale coordinated shootings in 16 different cities across four continents while paying talent-holding fees for at least eight main roles.
On the other hand, Netflix doesn’t release its viewership statistics, so it’s difficult to know exactly how a show is performing with audiences, but Hastings has implied that cancellations can be considered an indicator of low viewership numbers. Writing off costly productions if they are not justifying their price tags would be, financially, a reasonable move. Yet, the elephant is still in the room.
The content Netflix is axing happens to be the shows portraying the life experiences and culture of POC and the LGBT community and championing messages of plurality and acceptance. Their exit has been anything but smooth or dignified. There is a certain tone deafness in cancelling Sense8 not only a month after the release of the second season but on the first day of Pride month, and it seems slightly incoherent to renew 13 Reasons Why after using up the source material and leave loose ends in your most ambitious production.
Cultural diversity doesn’t grant a free pass to avoid cancellation or automatically make shows worthwhile. Nor does it exempt them from the challenges of working with large scale productions with huge budgets. But it is a topic that Netflix should contemplate as it approaches a turning point in its creative future.
After spending generously (and borderline aggressively) on original productions, it is possible that they have realized they may be biting more than they can chew: there are currently 41 original productions on the platform — not including children shows, foreign language productions, pickups, co-productions, films, and standup comedy — and it is a sensible measure to weed out the content that is not working.
However, Netflix also needs to figure out its priorities beyond its economic goals, to think of itself not only as a stream service provider but as content creator. They need to rethink what is the point of producing such a wide variety of shows that ultimately are going to be so short-lived.
While in October they declared that they would spend $6B on content in 2017 (most of it original programming), Hastings also claimed last week that he is interested in axing more shows because the company needs “to take more risks, try more crazy things” because then you end up with unexpected hits. The irony is that shows like The Get Down and Sense8, which have helped pave the way for more inclusive stories and POC and LGBT representation in mainstream media, are the kind of risks he is talking about. As Netflix takes the first steps into the future of its programming, it is important that they understand the cultural relevance of the content they create.
All things considered, we have to accept that keeping Sense8 and The Get Down implies an immense effort and investment, and that bringing them back is a long shot. But at the same time, I hope that Netflix finds a way to reconcile the relationship with their fanbases and comprehends the rare privileges that its platform offers when it comes to being bold with original content.
At the very least, I hope that they’ll be consistent with the creative goals — and limits — they’ve set for themselves for the future. For their own good. Our trust in something that cuts shows short in the name of quality and in the same breath gives us four new Adam Sandler movies can wear thin.