Disappearing into the algorithm: Why Netflix has become a graveyard for great shows

Where once Netflix was meant to be the saving grace for creative and experimental television, it's lately become a wasteland of unceremoniously axed series, writes Adam White

Friday 06 March 2020 08:12
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Soundtrack official trailer

At the very end of 2019, when many of us were cramming in our last bits of Christmas shopping, an expensive and inventive musical drama series appeared on Netflix. Soundtrack saw a host of vaguely recognisable faces star as interconnected and heartsick Los Angelenos. Their love lives played out via song, with the cast lip-syncing along to famous pop hits. By February, however, Soundtrack was dead, the latest in a run of short-lived Netflix experiments that drop on the platform with little notice and are axed just as discreetly.

“What if you made a show and no one noticed?” asked Soundtrack creator Joshua Safran, in a refreshingly honest message for an employee of a company famed for its secrecy. “That’s how it felt with Soundtrack. The most incredible team of artists worked tirelessly on it … and felt we’d made something unique, fresh, weird, and, well, great. And yet, it all but disappeared. Barely even got reviewed. I personally feel like it never came out. When people tell me they’ve seen it, I want to ask them how they got a copy. It’s my first instinct.”

Soundtrack came and went as rapidly as Spinning Out, an ice-skating melodrama starring Kaya Scodelario and January Jones, Chambers, a horror thriller with Uma Thurman, and the smart animated comedy Tuca & Bertie, featuring the voice of Tiffany Haddish. All were either well received or at least deemed creatively promising – their early cancellations hinting at the bleak future of a streaming service once envisaged as a televisual utopia. Instead, Netflix has become the space where television goes to die.

Soundtrack was a fascinating series – an unapologetically weird and cheesy blend of Glee, Flirty Dancing and Robert Altman. You could imagine, maybe as little as five years ago, it might have found an audience. That it vanished without a trace could merely be a symptom of television today, the sheer volume of fresh content meaning many series simply fall through the cracks. But it also feels meaningful.

Netflix is a closed book. We know nothing of its viewership numbers unless they tell us, and even then, they’re slightly suspect. We also know little about how they utilise audience data to market their shows, or even how they decide what lives or dies on their service – which has always seemed more specific than merely “no one was watching it”. In Safran’s statement, he appeared to indicate that Netflix didn’t promote Soundtrack through traditional means, and instead via the kind of top-secret, algorithm-driven targeting that treats viewers as if they are robots.

“I have my own thoughts and feelings on trusting an algorithm instead of reaching out to your audience,” Safran wrote. “But I’ll save them for the privacy of offline.” While Safran didn’t go into detail, it likely meant that promotion for Soundtrack was only visible on certain subscribers’ Netflix homepages. Those who presumably hadn’t watched anything equally musical or romantic in recent months likely didn’t know the show existed, and certainly weren’t told it did.

Soundtrack, like Safran said, additionally barely received reviews. The ones that did exist inspire a certain melancholy today – notably The Guardian’s enthusiastic claim that it was “destined to be a massive hit!” The fact that press coverage was minimal wouldn’t ordinarily mean anything, but it has been reported it means a lot to Netflix, who often make decisions about the future of their programming based at least somewhat on reviews. According to a Deadline article from March 2019, positive reviews mean Netflix will be more inclined to give a low-performing series a second season, with awards attention even more beneficial.

Short-lived: Sivan Alyra Rose in Netflix’s ‘Chambers’

Incredibly effusive reviews from critics led to Netflix keeping the sitcom One Day at a Time alive for three seasons, for example. The reboot of the famed Norman Lear family comedy, featuring Rita Moreno among its ensemble, found a small yet devoted audience – but a passionate fandom only went so far. Netflix eventually passed on the opportunity to give the show a fourth year, the show only renewed for more episodes by a separate US content provider late last in 2019.

The report also indicated that the service’s move away from long-running shows has been deliberate. Not, as you might suspect, to curb creative drought, but because long-running shows don’t actually benefit Netflix’s bottom line. In the language of algorithms, additional seasons of a series won’t inspire people to subscribe to Netflix, while shiny new products will.

That also helps explain why the only long-running shows Netflix has ever produced (including House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and Grace & Frankie) were launched at the very beginning of their move into content-creation. Meanwhile, recent hits including 13 Reasons Why, Glow and Mindhunter were all felled after three or four seasons – Mindhunter, it should be said, only speculatively.

For series like Soundtrack or Tuca & Bertie, muted critical notices and a lack of audience response may have led to their early departures – though it remains unclear whether they were granted much in the way of a promotional push in the first place. Compared to series such as The Politician or The Witcher, both of which received significant real-world marketing and press coverage in the run-ups to their debuts on the service, audience awareness for both was minimal.

It suggests that Netflix has a class system, particularly with the coming influx of A-list producers wooed to the platform with million-dollar paychecks. The two biggest showrunners in television, American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy and Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes, are in the midst of launching their wares on Netflix, and it’s unlikely either will produce shows that’ll disappear into the algorithm. Storytellers of mid-tier renown, like Safran, (whose credits include Gossip Girl and the Priyanka Chopra series Quantico) or relative TV newcomers like Tuca & Bertie’s showrunner Lisa Hanawalt (an illustrator who previously worked as a character designer and producer for Netflix’s BoJack Horseman), are therefore far more vulnerable to quick dismissal.

Netflix’s elite: Ben Platt and Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘The Politician’

The raft of scripted series cancellations has also coincided with a boom in Netflix reality shows. In recent months, much of the Netflix content inspiring significant buzz and online chatter has been unscripted – the cheerleading docuseries Cheer, the Lynchian dating show Love Is Blind, and the US remake of Channel 4’s catfishing reality series The Circle. All are far cheaper to produce than scripted series, while many have seemed to benefit from changes in Netflix’s release model. Unlike Soundtrack or Spinning Out, both of which were dumped in their entirety on the service all at once, per Netflix tradition, their reality output has been occasionally staggered. Love Is Blind was unveiled in blocks of episodes, as was Netflix’s recent hip-hop competition series Rhythm + Flow.

It makes sense that, eight years into its existence as an original content factory, Netflix is beginning to experiment with its release strategy, and the kinds of shows that it wants to produce. But it means that much of its output is quietly abandoned, creatives and fans left heartbroken in the process, and Netflix as a brand rendered potentially toxic – a service that is less a vast landscape of choice, and more a graveyard.

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