Why Netflix Keeps Canceling Your Favorite Shows

With COVID-19 still disrupting productions, the streaming giant has started pulling the plug on certain shows.

glow netflix
'GLOW' | Ali Goldstein/Netflix
'GLOW' | Ali Goldstein/Netflix

In the earliest days of the coronavirus, Netflix reasserted its control of the streaming landscape. With Tiger King driving plenty of conversation online back in March and a steady stream of original movies populating the home page just as theater chains closed across the country, the company was uniquely positioned to succeed in the media environment of the quarantine era. It was easy to assume that Netflix simply had a stockpile of binge-worthy dramas, quasi-relatable comedies, wild docuseries, goofy game shows, and would-be blockbusters that would never run out. As emerging competitors like Quibi, HBO Max, and Peacock struggled to achieve liftoff, Netflix presented itself as the slow-and-steady conqueror. 

Months later, that's still largely the case. But there are signs that a subtle shift in the company's programming strategy could be coming as they adjust to the new climate. Earlier this month, Netflix announced the surprise cancelation of GLOW, the acclaimed wrestling dramedy starring Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin. Like The Society and I Am Not Okay with This, two teen-centric series that were canceled back in August, GLOW had already been renewed for an additional season before the production was dashed because of budget concerns and challenges related to COVID-19. GLOW had even shot an episode, with Brie posting on Instagram about being back on set in February. Now, her co-star Marc Maron is asking Netflix to consider producing a two-hour movie to let them wrap up unresolved storylines. 

The Society
'The Society' | Seacia Pavao/Netflix

On some level, Netflix deemed these shows inessential. Obviously, this is not the first time that Netflix has decided to cancel a show with a passionate fanbase. (In her funny, heartfelt eulogy for the show published on Vanity Fair, Gilpin speculated that GLOW mostly appealed to"men in kimonos and women in cat hair, who, as far as I’m concerned, are the beating heart of the arts and the reason to keep waking up.") Much-loved series like Sense8, The OA, Tuca & Bertie, and One Day at a Time, which was subsequently revived by Pop TV, have all suffered similar fates. While the "brilliant-but-canceled" genre has a long history, the lack of available viewership data can make the programming decisions made by streaming companies feel especially opaque. Why do some shows that feel equally unpopular stick around and others, seemingly beloved, get the axe? 

In the specific cases of GLOW, The Society, and I Am Not Okay with This, it's safe to assume that the spread of the coronavirus, which has created countless financial and logistical hurdles for productions, was the biggest factor at play. Netflix isn't the only network that's been driven to make difficult cuts in the wake of the pandemic: Showtime recently pulled the plug on a second season of On Becoming a God in Central Florida, the dark comedy starring Kirsten Dunst, and ABC's Stumptown, a detective series starring Cobie Smulders, was canceled after a second season was previously announced. More cancelations could be made in the coming months as networks look to slash rising budgets and make scheduling decisions for the next year. 

i am not okay with this
'I Am Not Okay With This' | Netflix

It's not that every show is suddenly on the chopping block. Netflix isn't going to suddenly cancel Stranger Things or The Crown, the type of mega-hits that win awards and presumably attract huge audiences. But Netflix's decision to cancel GLOW does match another much-discussed rising trend: the company's desire to end shows after a two or three season run.

As Vulture pointed out in a piece about the GLOW cancelation, "Netflix’s tendency these days to walk away from shows after three or four seasons suggests it believes the best way to recruit and retain subscribers is to constantly offer audiences a huge ever-changing assortment of new programming rather than rely on old faves to keep folks in its universe." New buzzy shows -- like Tiger King or Emily in Paris or whatever monstrosity is currently sitting in the Top 10 -- attract people who have resisted Netflix's appeal for the last few years. According to this thinking, reliable stand-by's, though appreciated by loyal viewers, lack the same drawing power.  

The age of the long-running Netflix show—or at least the era of Hemlock Grove, a not exactly beloved horror series, running for three whole seasons—might be officially over. House of Cards ran for six seasons, continuing on without disgraced star Kevin Spacey in its final year, and Orange is the New Black, which hailed from GLOW executive producer Jenji Kohan, ran for seven seasons. Earlier this year, the company announced that Ozark, one of its buzziest shows, was winding down with an elongated fourth season instead of marching on towards a fifth or sixth like a first-wave Netflix hit might have. Canceling GLOW might look like a strange move on Netflix's part, an abrupt reaction to the chaotic demands of the moment, but, on closer examination, it feels like business as usual.  

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.