Does Netflix Really Have a Cancellation Problem?

If online media publications are to be believed, Netflix has a cancellation problem. That is literally the headline of a Motley Fool article published after the streaming service dropped Santa Clarita Diet. E! News suggested Netflix is on a “cancellation spree.” If you scroll through Twitter you’ll find plenty of people making the same assessment. Clearly, the belief is Netflix cancels more of their shows than any network.

More specifically, Netflix is perceived as being most likely to cancel a show with three or fewer seasons. It is true that Netflix seems to have a financial bias to only produce three seasons of a show. Even with that stipulation, I wasn’t completely convinced Netflix is any worse when it comes to canceling shows than networks and other streaming services. I’ve been watching television for more than a few of Earth’s spins around the Sun and I’ve had my heart broken by cancelations more times than I can count. Cancelations simply seem like a fact of media consumption life, so why are people getting so specifically upset with Netflix? 

Before I could explore that question, I first had to explore whether or not Netflix does, in fact, cancel more shows than any of the networks or other streaming services? Due to media consolidation, that question is significantly more difficult to answer than it might appear on the service. Multiple players own multiple networks. One example, Disney owns ABC, Freeform, FX, and a controlling stake in Hulu.  Another example, AT&T/Warner Media owns Cinemax, CW (with the CBS Corporation), DC Universe, HBO, TBS, and TNT. Typically we put the blame on the network but, arguably, it could also fall on the head of the parent corporation. 

For the purpose of this article, I’m considering both possibilities. How does the independently owned Netflix stack up to networks individually and then how does Netflix stack up against the parent corporations overall? Considering recent mergers it seems worth tracking the fallout. How will the AT&T and TimeWarner merger impact entertainment? And what about Disney merging with 21st Century Fox?

To do that I collected a list of all of the shows canceled after three or fewer seasons going back to the start of 2017. I chose 2017 because that’s when Netflix started canceling content from 2015. 

Netflix has only been producing original content for the streaming service since 2013. In that year they kicked things off with the critically-acclaimed House of Cards. Over the next two years, Netflix would only release roughly half a dozen shows. It wasn’t until 2015, with the launch the flagship Marvel/Netflix show Daredevil, that they really started cooking. 

The first thing I learned is that a helluva lotta television shows are both released and canceled every year. This isn’t something I normally pay attention to so when I started digging into the numbers it was mind-boggling. I’d heard of maybe a third of the shows that could potentially make it to our living rooms. As of June 23, 2019, at least 213 shows with three or fewer season had been canceled. More than half of those shows didn’t make it past freshman year. 

Total breakdown by season:

Total 3 seasons or fewer cancellations: 213

3 seasons: 50 shows

2 seasons: 60 shows

1 season:  103 shows

How did Netflix do?

Netflix cancellations Daredevil

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 29

3 seasons: 7

2 seasons: 10

1 season: 12 

There are some asterisks in these numbers. I included A Series of Unfortunate Events which was always intended to be a three-season show. Also included was Seven Seconds which the showrunners say was never supposed to be more than a single season. 

Looking at these numbers we see that over the last two and a half years of television seasons Netflix has dropped the ax on 13 percent of the shows with three seasons or fewer. The streaming network is most likely to cancel shows after one season and, out of 106 shows canceled after one season, they account for 11 percent. How does this compare to the big networks like ABC, FOX, NBC, and CBS?

How did CBS do?

CBS Cancellations

You’re lucky if you’re a showrunner and end up on CBS. When looking at the biggest providers of television the network canceled the fewest shows. 

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 16

3 seasons: 4

2 seasons: 4

1 season: 8

How did FOX do?

FOX Cancellations

FOX was second place when it came to canceling the fewest number of shows. All of the below numbers are from before the ink was dry on the Disney and 21st Century Fox merger. 

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 20

3 seasons: 3

2 seasons: 6

1 season: 11

How did ABC do?

ABC cancellations

Although ABC, owned by Disney, canceled four fewer shows than Netflix the network is brutal when it comes to canceling seasons after a single season. ABC slashed a total of 17 shows one-season shows.

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 25

3 seasons: 3

2 seasons: 5

1 season: 17

How did NBC do?

NBC Cancellations

NBC doesn’t fare much better when it comes to cutting shows after a single season and comes in second, after Netflix, when it comes to canceling shows with three or fewer seasons.

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 26

3 seasons: 2

2 seasons: 8

1 season: 16

Based on this data, Netflix is a far safer bet than NBC and ABC if you’re a showrunner hoping to make it longer than one season.

Versus Cable and Streaming Services

It seems fair to compare Netflix to similar streaming services and paid cable networks who are starting to function like streaming services. However, it might be too early to fairly stack Netflix up against a service like Amazon Prime or Hulu. Amazon released a handful of original programs between 2013 and 2015 but it didn’t really start cranking out content until 2016. Hulu has been slower than Amazon and Netflix to create original content. 

While HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime have all dabbled in original programming over the years they’ve only recently, in an effort to compete with streaming services, started investing heavily in their original programming departments.

These streaming services and cable networks accounted for 38 of the canceled shows on this list. Amazon, hands down, led the charge ending 15 shows with three seasons or fewer. Eight of those shows met their demise after a single season. 

How did Amazon do?

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 15

3 seasons: 4

2 seasons: 3

1 season: 8

How did Hulu do?

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 7

3 seasons: 3

2 seasons: 3

1 season: 1

How did HBO do?

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 7

3 seasons: 3

2 seasons: 1

1 season: 3

How did Showtime do? 

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 6

3 seasons: 1

2 seasons: 3

1 season: 2

How did Cinemax do?

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 3

3 seasons: 0

2 seasons: 2

1 season: 1

The other networks

There are a lot of smaller networks out there putting out far fewer shows than the big four (ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX). For the purpose of this article, the total show tally includes AMC, Comedy Central, The CW, Freeform, FX, Paramount, Spike, Starz, SyFy, TBS, TNT, USA, VH1, and WGN. I also through in YouTube, because as Google’s video platform attempts to become an original content provider it’ll be interesting to see it’s growth.

All of these providers combined only accounted for 59 of the 213 canceled shows. Of the bunch, SyFy gets the “most likely to cancel” badge. SyFy ended eight shows in the last three years with three seasons or fewer. One of those shows, The Expanse, was picked up by Amazon. It also ended five shows after only a single season.

The numbers by parent company

Disney is launching Disney+ this year and, thanks to the merger with 21st Century Fox, now has a controlling stake in Hulu. NBCUniversal, owned by Comcast, is pulling content off of Netflix with plans to launch a NBCUniversal streaming network in 2020. WarnerMedia recently teased the new streaming service, dubbed HBOMax, will get dropped on our heads in 2020. Of course, CBS was the first network to the streaming game in 2014 when they launched CBS All Access (to my surprise, it existed before Star Trek: Discovery. Prior to writing this article I thought it launched in 2017 with the debut of that show *shrugs*).

Now that all of these networks are bringing their properties into streaming silos shouldn’t we measure cancellations by a parent company? If we do that the numbers suggest Netflix’s “cancelation problem” isn’t terribly unusual.

How does NBCUniversal do?

For the purposes of this article, NBCUniversal is responsible for NBC, SyFy, and USA. They also own networks like Bravo, E!, and Oxygen but they weren’t added to the tabulations. Even without those additional networks, NBC Universal accounts for a whopping 19 percent of the three seasons or fewer cancellations. NBCUniversal canceled 22 shows after only one season – 10 more than Netflix. NBCUniversal ties with Netflix for shows canceled after two seasons and canceled one more show than Netflix after three seasons.

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 40

3 seasons: 8 

2 seasons: 10

1 season: 22

How does Disney do?

Disney is responsible for ABC and Freeform. Starting in Fall of 2019 they’ll be responsible for any cancellations on networks under the 21st Century Fox banner; including Fox, FX, and NatGeo. Disney has an asterisk next to it due to being a part-owner in Hulu. I don’t count Hulu’s seven pre-Summer 2019 cancelations toward Disney but will start counting cancelations starting in Fall of 2019 toward Disney due to Comcast ceding its stake. Still, even without Fox being shoveled on top, Disney isn’t afraid to kill a show. The parent corporation was responsible for 15 percent of the three seasons or fewer cancelations tracked for this article. That’s two more than Netflix if you count all of the Disney/Netflix Defenders shows as separate entities.

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 31

3 seasons: 5

2 seasons: 7

1 season: 19

How does CBS do?

CBS includes the network of the same name and Showtime. There’s also an asterisk for The CW which is a joint venture with AT&T Time Warner. I haven’t included The CW under either network, but if I did there’d be five additional shows canceled after one season. The CW was kinder than most this season by either continuing every show, practically unheard of in television, or allowing shows to come to an end naturally. CBS, overall, is only moderately aggressive when it comes to canceling shows. The parent corporation accounts for only 10 percent of all shows canceled with three seasons or fewer.

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 22

3 seasons: 5

2 seasons: 7

1 season: 10

How does AT&T WarnerMedia do?

AT&T is going through a weird transition. The monolithic entertainment company seems to be struggling with what, exactly, it wants its identity to be. Although it doesn’t have a traditional television network to hang a hat on it does have HBO, Cinemax, TBS, and TNT. Additionally, last year WarnerMedia launched DC Universe, a DC comics-based streaming service carrying critically acclaimed original programming like Doom Patrol and Swamp Thing. Rumors abound that DC Universe will be shuttered and rolled into HBOMax. The decision would make sense but that’s still pure speculation. Although Swamp Thing was tragically canceled the programmer hasn’t shown any signs of canceling the other shows on the streaming service. WarnerMedia is, according to what I’ve observed, the least likely to cancel a show.

On this list, the company accounts for 8 percent of canceled shows with three seasons or fewer. The company is investing heavily in original content, especially for HBO, so it’s fair to assume there could be more cancelations in the parent corporations future.

Total 3 season or fewer cancellations: 16

3 seasons: 6

2 seasons: 4

1 season: 6

Why does a Netflix cancellation feel different?

It’s clear that Netflix cancelations are essentially in line with most of the major networks. The cancellations are definitely consistent when the parent corporations are factored in. So why does it seem like people take it more personally when Netflix cancels a show?

Netflix requires a personal financial investment. We’re paying Netflix a monthly subscription so the company produces content we want to see without serving commercials. It makes us feel like we’re part owners in what gets produced at Netflix. If they cancel a show we’ve fallen in love with it’s a bigger betrayal than if ABC or NBC cancels that show. When it comes to the networks we know we’re pawns for drawing in advertisers. 

Netflix is also incredibly secretive about viewership numbers. If Fox cancels a show we can look at Nielsen numbers and see the performance of the show. Yeah, we might love the show but it’s hard to argue with hard numbers. When it comes to Netflix, all we have is our online community to inform us whether or not a show has high viewership numbers. This is a flawed metric. It’s biased by the people we choose to follow. One Day At A Time fans, as an example, are going to follow One Day At A Time fans. Therefore, without viewership numbers, it feels like everyone in the world is watching the show and talking about it.

The streamer’s model is based on brand loyalty. Before the time of cordcutters, people did have brand loyalty to networks, especially the big four (NBC, ABC, FOX or CBS). You could reliably depend on primetime programming, newscasters you trusted, and your personal flavor of afternoon soap operas. That isn’t the case anymore. Now people want to trust Netflix or Hulu to provide the content they desire. 

There was a time when Fox was in Netflix’s shoes. The network was a risk-taker and would often try programs that were more cultish than you’d find on the other three networks. Fox, for example, gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Files. Unfortunately, it also meant when Fox killed a show, *cough* Firefly, it would feel like a betrayal of the fanbase that helped build the network by watching its wacky content.

Netflix gives us the entire meal at once, so we get hungrier faster. The decision to drop entire seasons at once is a double-edged sword. On one hand, if the show is good enough it can dominate social media for a week at a time and create a fear of missing out. However, once it’s over, it’s over until we get a new season in a year (or sometimes longer). It leaves us hungry, so when we hear about the cancelation a month after finishing the binge we quickly turn hangry because we know we’re never getting another serving.

Mostly every other streamer or network has stuck to the weekly episode drop format. As a result, more often than not, we learn of a shows cancelation before the most recent season has finished. It gives us a chance to mourn while still enjoying the final episodes of our beloved show. We might not get complete closure, but we at least get eased into the coffin.

Netflix does have a cancellation perception problem

Even if Netflix doesn’t cancel more shows than NBCUniversal and Disney that doesn’t mean the perception that it does isn’t a serious marketing problem. If people think Netflix can’t be trusted it’ll erode brand loyalty. That could lead to an unwillingness for emotional investment in Netflix branded programming. This, in turn, will cost the streaming network subscribers, especially when Disney, AT&T/TimeWarner, and NBCUniversal launch their own streaming services.

I was able to compile this data thanks to Rotten Tomatoes and TV Series Finale. Here’s my Google sheet if you’re interested in seeing my data.

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