It is time that we have a discussion about cancel culture.
No, not that kind.
Streaming TV, which once seemed to be infinitely expanding, is experiencing shrinkage. Even before the writers’ and actors’ strikes threatened the pipeline of new series, Max saw a round of cost-cutting cancellations including the “Gossip Girl” reboot, “Minx” (later saved by Starz) and a completed “Batgirl” movie. Amazon Prime Video has thrown the likes of “A League of Their Own” and “The Peripheral” overboard. Disney+ recently precanceled its already-made children’s fantasy adaptation, “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” Hulu’s acclaimed Russian-monarchy comedy “The Great” has been deposed. A string of high-profile Netflix cancellations has become the stuff of protests and memes.
With all this has come a new belief: That TV series are now being canceled at an unprecedented rate, and you can’t count on any show sticking around anymore. Netflix, said a recent piece in Cinemablend, “seems to cancel its original shows with unjustified speed and harshness,” with many series lasting only “one or two seasons.”
I have had my heart broken enough over the years by enough cancellations to sympathize with disappointed fans. But to paraphrase a series that did get a full run: Oh, my sweet summer children, what do you know about premature cancellation?
The streaming era, in truth, has nothing on the blood baths of the regular-old-TV era. There was a period in my lifetime — and unless you are a precocious grade-schooler, your lifetime too — when it was not only not unusual for series to get the ax after Season 1, it was the norm.
Let’s take 2011-12, the last broadcast TV season to begin before Netflix entered the original-series business with “Lilyhammer” in 2012. At the time, only around one-third of new broadcast series made it past their first seasons. Of the rest, many were yanked mid-run, with no warning, before even airing all the episodes they’d shot.
A few series that season would go on for healthy runs: “New Girl,” “Scandal,” “Last Man Standing.” But a scan of the premiere list is a sea of red ink and broken dreams. “Terra Nova,” the expensive dinosaur flop on Fox, was extinct by December. ABC’s “Work It,” about men who dressed as women to land jobs in a bad economy, was fired after two episodes. “Pan Am,” “How to Be a Gentleman,” “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,” dead, dead, dead.
This was not, in retrospect, a great season of network TV (we can thank or blame it for “Smash,” which actually got a second season). But it was not an unusual one either. Networks’ standard procedure was to hurl pilots toward success like sperm toward an egg. Most would not make it. (Some special shows, like Fox’s racy 1999 high-school drama “Manchester Prep,” the first TV series set I ever visited as a critic, were canceled before airing a single episode.)
Cancellation, in those days, was not a disappointed assessment made after seeing the performance of a full season. It was summary execution in the street. One Thursday, you were strutting your stuff opposite “The Office”; the next, nothing was left but a grease spot and a “Big Bang Theory” rerun.
And even if you survived a first season, your eventual end would usually not offer closure. It was just lights out, and not the artsy “Sopranos” kind. Having a show “end on its own terms” was not an expectation; it was a freaking event. “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Lost” — for these series to air planned finales that wrapped up their stories (or tried to) was unusual enough to merit wall-to-wall media coverage.
Nor was a small, intense niche of fans enough to save a show. To love daring, out-of-the-box TV back then was to have loved and lost, to see an innovative show premiere and think, “Yeah, that’s totally getting canceled.” And usually you would be right. “Freaks and Geeks.” “My So-Called Life.” “Firefly.” I have scars, my friend.
Of course, in the broadcast era you got these shows for free — or for “free” if you didn’t count buying your TV set and the time invested in watching unskippable commercials. But that meant that you got the level of certainty that you paid for — and what the advertising revenues didn’t pay for, you didn’t get.
Like cable before it, streaming promised to change the game. Netflix and its competition tended to wait longer to pull the plug in the early days. As with everything in TV, there were business reasons for this. They operated more like tech companies, willing to bleed money to establish first-mover advantage. And because they were building libraries of original programming (to be less dependent on acquisitions), they were motivated to be patient.
Now these platforms have gotten bigger, and there are more of them. Wall Street has become insistent on growth and returns. And that means that the new era of TV has turned to an old TV-business strategy: Cut, cut, cut.
But not only have Netflix, Max and the rest not invented the practice of killing shows, they are still relative amateurs at it. A 2023 study by The Wrap found that Netflix formally canceled a mere 11 percent of its new shows, far below the broadcast rate. (The analysis did note that Netflix airs many single-season “limited series” that might have been, er, less limited had more people watched them.)
Now that we have the old-man-yelling-at-cloud part of this out of the way: Some things are genuinely different today. One is that streaming platforms, and to some extent cable, simply make fewer episodes of everything, including their biggest hits.
Success today is more like a solid four, five, six seasons — even fewer sometimes, and sometimes by the creators’ choice, as with “Reservation Dogs,” which I wanted to run forever and which is closing up shop after three seasons. And those seasons tend to run eight or 10 episodes, not the 22 (or more, in TV’s early years) of a full network order.
Past TV classics built up affection and status through repetition. “M*A*S*H” aired 256 episodes, “Frasier” 264. We spent more time with them, allocated more neurons to their memory, than with even smash hits on Netflix like “Stranger Things” (34 episodes to date). There are still a few of those long-running TV mega-fauna in existence, like “The Simpsons,” “South Park” and “Law and Order: SVU,” but they are increasingly holdovers of a bygone climate.
But maybe the biggest difference today lies in viewers’ expectations. The implicit promise of streaming platforms was to empower viewers. You’d watch what you wanted when you wanted, and you would get the shows broadcast TV wouldn’t make, with the closure it rarely provided.
Today’s “Netflix/Max/Amazon cancels everything!” outrage may be the product of a relatively short historical period of subsidized patience. But you can’t entirely blame subscribers for expecting things to stay that way.
Meanwhile, where streaming once promised an endless video vault, lately canceled series like “Westworld” and “Willow” have been pulled from the services’ libraries altogether. Not being able to watch a canceled show is also nothing new, of course; once the ax fell in the prestreaming era, the reruns were accessible only on VHS or DVD or, more likely, in your memory.
That, again, was assumed to be the deal. Easy come, easy go. Now that TV has won similar status to art forms like film and literature, you’d think it would have a similar permanence, or should.
Yes, it costs real money — in residual and licensing payments, for instance — to keep an old series available on streaming. Viewers may not be aware of the cost. But they are aware that they’re paying $10 a month and up (and up and up …) per service. It’s only reasonable for them to ask what they’re getting.
Streaming platforms like to tout themselves as disrupters and innovators. Cancellations, instead, are one more means by which they are recreating TV’s oldest practices — albeit with a twist. TV has always found ways to break our hearts. The difference now is that it’s found new ways to make us pay for the privilege.