Too Soon? Will Abrupt Cancellations of Series Like ‘GLOW’ End up Hurting Netflix’s Brand?

(Image credit: Netflix)

In just a three-year, three-season span, GLOW went from being notorious hit-making producer Jenji Kohan’s latest cheeky Netflix smash to being tossed out of the ring altogether.

With this latest abrupt cancellation of a Netflix fan favorite, before its producers can even craft a coherent ending, and without its loyal audience even having a chance to say goodbye, Vulture’s Josef Adalian posted an interesting question this week: Is Netflix harming its viewer loyalty and hurting its brand?

“I think it is underestimating the potential damage to the Netflix brand when series such as GLOW or Santa Clarita Diet or One Day at a Time are killed before getting a chance to finish things up,” Adalian writes. 

Season four of GLOW (full preamble “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”) had already been ordered—and in fact, shooting had started, before the pandemic interrupted production. As Netflix spins it, reconvening an intimate, ensemble show like GLOW will be too difficult in the current masked-up, socially distanced production environment. And by the time GLOW can resume normal production and debut season four on Netflix, viewers will have moved on, the Los Gatos Calif. media-tech giant further reasons. 

Maybe. But Stranger Things, another Netflix hit series, isn’t going anywhere, and it won’t be back for its fourth season until at least the better part of 2021 because of the same pandemic reasons. And the SVOD service went five years between debuting the seemingly un-killable comedy Arrested Development on its platform in 2013 and bowing a second season in 2018. 

Netflix notoriously hordes viewer data, so it’s hard to tell how much audience slippage, if any, GLOW suffered in season three. The show’s Rotten Tomatoes score, an aggregate figure roughly encapsulating critical reception, did slip from the 90s to 86%. 

TV pundits attributed GLOW’s surprising scuttling to Netflix’s notorious habit of post-season-two-or-three bloodletting. What is now the biggest entertainment programming force in television has a ruthless reputation for cancelling water-cooler shows after only their second or third season. The list of Netflix shows that started out with a bang but didn’t last long includes the Drew Barrymore comedy Santa Clarita Diet, the Washowski-produced sci-fi drama Sense8, the remake of sitcom classic One Day at a Time and the fantasy drama The OA, just to name a few.

The attrition is jarring to viewers who grew up with TV production studios signing loss-leader contracts with broadcast networks that encouraged the latter to sustain hits for at least four or five seasons, so that the former could recoup and profit from their investments via aftermarket syndication and cable licensing sales. 

That model better enabled producers to “wind down” shows with narratively coherent endings. It also allowed viewers who had their fill to emotionally let go of fictional characters and concepts they’d grown attached.

Traditional networks also form lasting partnerships with specific producers and will keep a show on longer to keep their creative partners happy. 

Netflix, of course, as an expressed point of pride, has always done things differently from Hollywood and linear TV. And that starts with its production contracts, which generally involve paying for content upfront and are designed to keep shows from later popping up on rival programming services.

“I hear there is a standard clause in the deals for Netflix series from outside studios that prevents the shows from airing elsewhere for a significant period of time, said to be two to three years, making a continuation on another network/platform virtually impossible,” wrote Deadline Hollywood TV editor Nellie Andreeva last year. 

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, the company’s top entertainment executive, famously told a Produced By Conference of TV creatives in 2017 that his company’s calculus is simply, “Relative to what you spent, are people watching it?”

Shows like GLOW and Santa Clarita Diet maybe hadn’t yet, at the time of their cancellations, jumped the shark—the TV business colloquialism for a show that’s exhausted its creative assets and needs to go.

But perhaps from the limited business insights provided by Sarandos, we can infer that these shows at least had stopped growing their viewership, and had begun to ebb, audience-performance-wise?

“Netflix’s scheduling needs and budget realities are probably different now than they were in August 2019, when GLOW was initially renewed,” writes Vulture’s Adalian, who also noted that Netflix is trying to do a better job managing the expectations of creative partners as to when a show might end. 

And Netflix, he adds, isn’t the only powerful company in the TV business that walks the line between bloodless business concerns and the emotions of its creative partners and viewers. 

Still, it should be asked, what is the long-term impact on Netflix for becoming the programming most known for making, in the words of the company’s other co-CEO, Reed Hastings, “making tough calls”? 

Are viewers going to continue to emotionally invest in Netflix shows, knowing that they’re likely to be driven off a narrative cliff after only a day or two of binging?

“Individual cancellations might not matter that much, but the cumulative effect is audiences trust Netflix less, and may even be less willing to sample a show for fear of being left hanging,” Adalian writes. 

The Vulture writer recommends a “middle ground,” which includes Netflix committing to finale movies that allow producers to wrap up their stories. Netflix did this with Sense8, he notes, GLOW co-star Marc Maron has been publicly lobbying the SVOD service to do the same with his show. 

“Given Netflix’s size and how much it spends on content overall, I think shelling out a few million dollars to guarantee stories get a proper conclusion would be a wise investment—and another way to disrupt how things are done in Hollywood,” Adalian says. 

Daniel Frankel

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!