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The Life Span of Streaming TV Series Is Shrinking

The average show now lasts between three and four seasons, a development that’s changing television as a whole

Hulu/Ringer illustration

With so much bad news in the world, Hulu’s cancellation of its High Fidelity reboot last week flew somewhat under the radar. But the adaptation of the John Cusack film, itself adapted from a ’90s Nick Hornby novel, still had its mourners: critics charmed by the thought experiment of swapping a white dude record snob out for a biracial woman in gentrified Brooklyn; Zoë Kravitz fans excited by the chance to see her step out from under the twin shadows of Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon; Zoë Kravitz herself. In 10 episodes, the season covered each of the protagonist’s famed “top five heartbreaks,” though the creators indicated they’d happily expand the story even further if given the chance. Alas, they weren’t.

But as tragic as High Fidelity’s cancellation may be, it’s increasingly par for the course in the streaming space. Platforms like Netflix earned early attention by picking up shows cut short on more conventional TV, from Arrested Development to Longmire. The practice continues with shows like Lucifer and Designated Survivor, but over the past few years, Netflix’s reputation has drifted from correcting premature cancellations to racking up a slew of its own. 2019, in particular, felt like a tipping point. After three seasons and a successful, fan-driven renewal campaign, progressive sitcom One Day at a Time got a pass from its one-time sponsor, eventually landing at the ViacomCBS-owned Pop TV. Months later, Netflix axed Tuca & Bertie, the loopy animated series from BoJack Horseman artist Lisa Hanawalt. Along with stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, the bird-centered show has since migrated to Adult Swim. Analog channels have started to save shows from the same streaming services that once were saviors themselves.

The One Day at a Time cancellation in particular set off a wave of reporting about the logic behind programming decisions at television’s new centers of power. Netflix understandably became the focus, but the philosophy outlined is on display at other outlets, including Hulu. The bottom line is that shows don’t get as many chances to succeed as they used to—and even when they do, the definition of “success” isn’t necessarily longevity. With a catchy premise, IP tie-in, and a glamorous lead, High Fidelity is the kind of project that would’ve seemingly been guaranteed a renewal even just a few years ago. In 2020, it’s not the first show to fall victim to streaming’s harsh new standards, nor will it be the last.

For a subscription-based service, the goal of any given series isn’t quite to attract the highest number of viewers. That’s a holdover from the advertiser-driven model, where sponsors are willing to pay a premium for a larger audience. On streaming, the aim is to maximize subscriptions—a metric that can certainly be related to a specific show’s popularity, but as only one factor among many. How many of a show’s viewers are new subscribers lured in by its availability? How does a show’s allure to new subscribers diminish over time? How many existing subscribers would be so upset by a show’s cancellation they would leave the platform in protest?

Streamers are famously protective of their viewership data, but in the past half-decade, the consensus has settled on three seasons as an approximate sweet spot for a series. There are exceptions at each major service, many of them either early tentpoles, awards stand-bys, or both: on Netflix, Orange Is the New Black, BoJack, and House of Cards; on Amazon, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Bosch, and Transparent; on Hulu, The Mindy Project and The Handmaid’s Tale. Newcomers like Apple, still eager to establish their bona fides, hand out renewals freely and fast. But at established hubs, four-plus-season shows are far outnumbered by more abbreviated runs.

Even without detailed statistical breakdowns, the logic is easy enough to parse. If a show’s audience is relatively fixed, the cost of a fourth season to satisfy an existing fan base is likely better spent on a brand-new show catering to a different niche. At an “everything store” like Amazon or omnibus like Netflix, diversity is paramount, allowing a service to market itself to as many mini-demographics as possible. (Even Hulu’s niche is the expansive concept of “stuff for adults,” a complement to its sibling Disney+’s “stuff for adults with kids.”) And in a setup without live streaming or time slots, a show can be just as useful as a permanent fixture in an archive as when it’s airing new material once or twice a year. When everything is accessible with just a handful of keystrokes, timeliness is less important than a broad array of options.

The long-term effects of this shift are less obvious, though they’re starting to emerge over time. A central irony of streaming’s pivot to shorter shows is that the medium’s appeal was built on the kind of massive, bingeable catalogs it’s no longer even trying to produce. It’s unlikely there will ever be a Hulu-native equivalent to Seinfeld (nine seasons), or Netflix equivalent to Frasier (11), or Peacock equivalent to The Office (nine), or HBO Max equivalent to Friends (10). This is despite all four services leaning on these shows at some point in their tenures, as evidenced by the massive bidding wars that brought Friends and The Office back into their parent companies’ distribution. That means the supply of monoculture holdovers with dozens of hours of entertainment is likely to remain finite, even after Netflix’s recent efforts to expand the pool by adding a wave of Black-led sitcoms.

On the talent side, the creative freedom and bottomless demand of streaming platforms always has been balanced out by the impossibility of syndication fees. When a network show passes a certain threshold, typically about 100 episodes, it becomes eligible to be leased out to secondary outlets at extravagant rates. Hulu and Amazon, on the other hand, have little interest in renting out an original series to a cable channel like TBS; exclusivity is the entire value proposition of a walled garden open only to paying subscribers. (BoJack’s circulation on Comedy Central is a curious exception that proves the rule.) But it’s increasingly apparent that this lower-risk, lower-reward dynamic is compounded by the unlikelihood of reaching half a dozen or so seasons in the first place. Netflix’s contracts with outside studios are often structured to include massive payouts after a third season to offset the loss of syndication fees. In practice, however, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, disincentivizing Netflix—and likely other streamers—from getting that far in the first place.

Finally, what about the work itself? Are short runs like High Fidelity’s depriving fans of a show’s full potential, or are brevity and efficiency what the moment calls for? Some of the greatest shows ever made are three-season wonders that were lucky to reach even that milestone: Deadwood, The Leftovers, even new Netflix acquisition Hannibal. It’s a length considerable enough for a show to build its world and explore its themes, yet not so much as to overstay its welcome or jump the shark, especially now that our attention spans are eroded by hours a day on the internet. Still, just as length for length’s sake can encourage bloat or filler, forced brevity has its own potential pitfalls, cutting off promising stories and capping TV’s unique ability to follow characters over time.

So many TV tropes are shaped by an instinct to prolong a show indefinitely: cliffhangers; will they/won’t theys; reversion to a status quo. What will TV start to look like as marathons become so rare they’re barely worth pursuing? Form follows function, but on streaming, it can also follow format.