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Why Netflix Will Keep Breaking Hearts and Canceling Shows

Netflix vice president of product Todd Yellin borrowed a line from one of the company’s newest stars this week to describe what makes its service special: “How do we measure success? Three letters: joy,” Yellin said to pictures from “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” during a press event in Los Angeles. “If people enjoy our content, if they’re loving to come to Netflix, then we succeed,” he said.

But as avid viewers of Kondo’s hit Netflix show know, there is another side to the KonMari art of tidying up: If something doesn’t spark joy, then it’s time to let it go.

And Netflix has been letting go of many things lately: Just last week, the video service announced that it would cancel the show “One Day at a Time” after three seasons. Last month, it gave “Friends From College” the ax. And over the past several months, Netflix has pulled the plug on all of its Marvel superhero shows, including “Jessica Jones,” “The Punisher,” “Luke Cage” and “Daredevil.”

Fans have been in uproar about many of these cancellations. Particularly the cancellation of “One Day at a Time” has caused a public outcry, with critics lamenting that Netflix was betraying its own commitment to diversity.

Popular on Variety

Speaking at the same two-day press event as Yellin, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made it clear that he wasn’t taking pleasure in canceling shows either. “We try to avoid it,” he said. “But sometimes it’s no longer a good use of the customer’s money.”

Netflix has traditionally bucked the trend of sharing the kind of overnight ratings that have long been a staple of the television world, with executives arguing that these numbers didn’t matter to the company in the same way as they did to ad-supported TV networks. Recently, Netflix has shared an increasing amount of carefully cherry-picked data about some of its success stories. For instance, on a recent earnings call, Netflix executives highlighted that the movie “Bird Box” was expected to attract 80 million viewers within four weeks of release.

Netflix hasn’t shared any similar numbers about canceled shows. For “One Day at a Time,” the company instead tweeted that “simply not enough people watched to justify another season.”

Hastings echoed those remarks more generally this week when asked by Variety about Netflix’s approach to cancellations, saying some shows were simply too expensive to keep them running on the service without a sizable audience. “We can have small shows that do very well, we can have expensive shows that do very well,” he said. The trouble was if shows, especially the ones costing more, fell below that mark. “The only case where we end up canceling is where it’s pretty expensive and not so much viewing,” Hastings said.

In other words: it’s more or less business as usual for Netflix when it comes to canceling shows. Still, that in itself is notable, simply because Netflix has so many times defied the rules of the business, be it by eschewing ratings or with the introduction of binge watching.

And then there was the case of “Arrested Development,” a show that struggled on Fox, but that was picked up by Netflix after the streamer saw a growing audience for previous seasons on its service. That reversal of fortune led some to believe that quality TV shows that were doomed to be canceled on network TV had a better chance to find an audience on Netflix, with good shows making the cut as fans congregate around them.

In reality, “Arrested Development” may have been the exception to prove the rule. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos suggested as much in a conversation with Variety Monday. “Some shows grow year on year, but not that many,” he said. “It’s happened, but it’s not that common.”

That’s in part due to the ever-growing content catalog of the service. With Netflix debuting 600 new shows a year, it becomes that much harder for struggling shows to grow their audience, said Sarandos. So if something doesn’t click right away, it’s a lot less likely that it will become a success story over time.

This means that Netflix will keep breaking the hearts of avid fans, and letting go of shows that don’t spark enough joy for the rest of its audience — even if the company won’t tell us how many viewers a show had before it got axed.

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