Last week, Netflix managed to poach Game of Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from HBO with a $200 million dollar deal that announced an undisclosed number of TV shows and movies from the pair.
It’s a lot of money, sure, but not the most the streaming service has shelled out for a top-tier creative with a successful track record. Ryan Murphy scored a $300 million handshake with the expectation he’d create ten projects within five years — the first of which is the September slated mini-series, The Politician, about a college-cheating scandal that pre-dates the Lori Loughlin sting. And ABC lost Shonda Rhimes to Netflix in 2017 for a cool $150 million in the hopes that her eight planned series would generate the kind of viewership that her TGIT lineup did on network TV.
In other words, Netflix seems to be banking on established showrunners, those who’ve delivered rating success, garnered awards recognition, and fueled a social conversation in a time when communal TV watching seems to be dying out. Whether Benioff and Weiss can make good on that implied promise without the aid of source material from other artists, it’s hard to tell. Thrones seemed to struggle with its narrative in those final few seasons when the show went off-book, and Benioff and Weiss were solely in the driver’s seat. The final season was divisive at best.
But it’s not the question mark hovering over the duo’s writing capabilities that leaves a sour taste in the mouth after they’ve been given millions of dollars just to play ball. It’s the knowledge that other shows, the work of lesser-known creatives, are being sacrificed to fund the price tag. This year, Netflix has canceled 14 shows and announced the planned endings of a few more. Of those shows, eight were created or co-created by women, and none of them ran longer than the expected three seasons, which used to be the unofficial length an original series would run before Netflix debated its renewal.
Some of these series were cult hits that didn’t move the needle, like Trinkets, a series about teen kleptomaniacs, or Chambers, the Uma Thurman-starring mystery thriller about an organ transplant gone wrong. They gained buzz from those subscribers who stumbled across them while scrolling for new fare, but their cancellation didn’t cause a blip on the radar of most viewers. Then there were the series that sparked outrage from fans, shows like Brit Marling’s The OA, a sci-fi mind-bender that felt like it had more story to tell when it was given the ax; Tuca & Bertie, an animated series about friendship and womanhood told from the perspective of two birds; or One Day At a Time, the Norman Lear revival that modernized a beloved classic. These shows were also made by women, starred women, and sported big names, but they fell victim to the mysterious “algorithm” that rules Netflix’s decision-making these days.
Admittedly, 2019 is a strange year for the streaming giant to weather. There’s competition from fellow behemoths like Disney, from networks wanting to get in on the streaming game, and from established platforms like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, beefing up their content libraries to rival Netflix’s own. There’s a need for more content, the kind that gets people talking, which is why Netflix seems to be betting its future on celebrity showrunners so heavily. In a way, it’s understandable.
When Netflix first emerged as a streaming service offering original content, it wasn’t just a big fish in a little pond, it was the only fish. It could take risks, give multi-season renewals to shows that cost little to make and wouldn’t have survived on network TV. Shows like Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards, dramas about women in prison and narcissistic politicians that may not have played well in primetime. Since then, Netflix has grown and earned the ability to greenlight more exciting projects, works of niche art like Stranger Things or weighted social dramas like Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, but the workings of the company, how deals are made and, more importantly, why deals are made, remain a mystery. And that’s upsetting people.
Not only are fans seeing promising shows like The OA or Tuca and Bertie cast off after one or two seasons, but they’re also left with the more frustrating question of why. Netflix is notorious for refusing to share their viewership numbers unless it benefits them in press releases, so we rarely get an accurate picture of how a show has fared or why it might’ve failed. Even creators and stars are left in the dark, relegated to casualties of the divine algorithm without much explanation. Tuca & Bertie creator Lisa Hanawalt — who also did animation for Netflix’s beloved BoJack Horseman — had a revealing Twitter exchange with fans who questioned how Netflix promoted certain shows and the cost of that selective process.
I… had to search for it too
— Lisa Hanawalt (@lisadraws) July 26, 2019
Brit Marling wrote a heartfelt note to fans after her show’s cancellation, admitting she “had a good cry” when she got the news the show would be ending on the cliffhanger of season two. And One Day At a Time’s creator Gloria Calderón Kellett famously fought alongside fans for a second life for the show after a confusing cancellation notice from Netflix, despite critical love and a fervent fanbase.
This brings us to the troubling trend from the streaming giant. When Netflix began, it championed little-known creatives pitching risky ideas that lent themselves to diverse, representational storytelling. It gave Jenji Kohan’s drama about the trials and triumphs of a bunch of lady criminals a home; it brought The Wachowskis’ imaginative world of Sense8 to life. Some of its biggest payoffs have come at the hands of creators with no inherent value (or waning value) attached to their names and actors who weren’t wielding that much star power, at least not before their shows aired. These deals Netflix is making with established creatives will most likely produce the kind of elevated content and talked-about stories we all love, but does it have to be at the cost of the smaller, more obscure works of art — shows that push boundaries and reach specific audiences, giving fans a creative palate cleanser and introducing them to new talent? Must there be the sacrifice of discovering and supporting new writers, showrunners, and stars for the sake of a glossy multi-million dollar deal that makes headlines and earns some chatter on social media?
Every streaming service right now is trying to figure out how to come out on top and they seem to all be choosing the same model — throwing obscene amounts of money at well-known names so they can harness their celebrity and attract new subscribers. But is that sustainable? Even more importantly, is that a system that promotes diversity and equality in Hollywood, at a time when both are so heavily scrutinized by the media and demanded by fans? Are services letting truly great shows, created by truly great creatives, slip through the cracks because they’re relying so heavily on ratings and algorithms in this time of Peak TV, which often values quality over quantity? Should they champion unique storytelling instead of churning out more crowd-pleasing fare? And when you’re an entertainment powerhouse as influential and successful as Netflix, can’t you find a way to do both?