Netflix’s viewership numbers are among the most closely guarded secrets in Hollywood. So when it was announced last week that the streaming giant was cancelling Baz Luhrmann’s sprawling (and wildly expensive) hip-hop opus The Get Down after just two seasons, the reasoning behind the decision was murky at best. After Netflix cancelled Sense8 today, just a day later, even more eyebrows were raised.
For years, ratings have been the traditional benchmark for judging the success of a series. But without access to Netflix’s audience size, we have no way of knowing what constitutes a Netflix hit other than that feeling you get when something grabs hold of the zeitgeist (cough Stanger Things cough).
During a rare appearance on CNBC Wednesday, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings did his best to explain the methodology behind the cancellation, and hinted that more are on the way.
“What really matters is I hope our hit ratio is way too high right now,” Hastings said. “We’ve canceled very few shows.”
Translation: Netflix doesn’t cancel shows because they’re all performing well enough to merit multiple seasons.
Hastings said that his company’s low cancellation rate simply means that when it comes to its original programming, Netflix isn’t pushing the envelope far enough.
“We have to take more risk, you have to try more crazy things,” Hastings said. “Because we should have a higher cancel rate overall.”
That’s probably why Sense8, the bold sci-fi saga from the Wachowskis, got the axe on Thursday after two seasons. While the show developed a cult following, it failed to move the needle in the same way as Netflix’s most recent hit 13 Reasons Why.
For the longest time, Netflix was a creative Wild West, far less discerning than prestige networks like HBO when it came to programming. That glut of content meant that quality programming risked being lost in the shuffle. (Ashton Kutcher’s The Ranch is currently in its third season, which we guarantee you did not know until just now.) As Netflix begins to move towards a traditional network model, it can properly curate and nurture shows that actually deserve our eyeballs.
In 2013, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, told GQ that his company’s goal is “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” But up until now, Netflix has been unable to carve out a brand in the same way that HBO has. And as long as it stuck with the “throw it against a wall and see what sticks” model, that was never going to happen.
Though its new approach means less opportunity for filmmakers to sell their shows, it will eventually mean more quality content for its 100 million subscribers. If we were The Ranch, we’d be sleeping with one eye open.