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Netflix is finally acting like a network by canceling shows

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It’s tough, but about time

Netflix

Sense8, one of Netflix’s more popular series that developed a strong community around it from its debut, has been canceled by Netflix. More importantly, Sense8’s cancellation comes at a time when CEO Reed Hastings says it’s time for the network to take more risks — and axe more shows.

Since Netflix started producing original programming, it’s canceled a limited number of series. In that same amount of time, Netflix has nearly quadrupled the number of original series it’s developing; there’s never been more original content on Netflix than at this very moment. Recently, however, it seems like Netflix has been trying to clean up its slate by axing a few series: Sense8, The Get Down and Marco Polo.

These shows have a few things in common: They’re all expensive to make and, we can only assume, didn’t pull in enough viewership for Netflix executives to feel comfortable renewing them. Without official viewing numbers for the series, it’s impossible to know for certain. While the cancellation of any show is a tough move to reconcile with for fans of said series — particularly Sense8, which received critical acclaim and love from fans for its depictions of queer relationships — it’s an important decision that hints at something I’ve been wanting Netflix to do for years.

It’s time for Netflix to act like a real network

The biggest comparison Hastings and Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, like to make when talking about the streaming service is to HBO. In their eyes, that’s the network whose choice of content they most want to match. In 2013, Sarandos told GQ that he believes Netflix needs to make at least five shows a year to compete with networks like HBO, but that wasn’t the only goal.

“The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us,” Sarandos said.

Since then, the network has beat HBO when it comes to quantity, but it never acted like a network. It didn’t cancel shows that needed to be canceled. Flaked, Will Arnett’s Californication-inspired comedy that was panned by critics, got a second season. Fuller House, another universally panned show, also received a second season. The Ranch, a comedy starring Ashton Kutcher that has become the butt of numerous jokes regarding Netflix’s odd selection of shows to renew, is currently in its third season.

Netflix had too much content. It was becoming difficult to curate, shows weren’t getting the proper marketing they needed and subscribers were having difficulty keeping up. Hastings has finally taken note of this and will be pushing his content team to cancel more series.

“Our hit ratio is way too high right now,” Hastings told CNBC on Wednesday. “So, we’ve canceled very few shows … I’m always pushing the content team: We have to take more risk; you have to try more crazy things. Because we should have a higher cancel rate overall.”

Instead of trying to greenlight every show and turn it into a hit, Hastings added they were going to focus on fewer shows — ones that subscribers were interested in watching and shows that became the center of conversation, like the recent teen drama 13 Reasons Why. Based on a book by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why follows a group of teenagers coping with the suicide of their friend and classmate, Hannah Baker. When Hannah leaves behind a series of tapes that are delivered to friends and classmates who affected her life in some way, the details surrounding her death and how it came to pass are revealed.

“You get some winners that are just unbelievable winners, like 13 Reasons Why,” Hastings said.It surprised us. It’s a great show, but we didn’t realize just how it would catch on.”

Reception to 13 Reasons Why from critics varied. Although much of the attention surrounding the series was negative, it became one of the most talked about shows when it debuted. In essence, it became a perfect Netflix series. Not only does the controversy and talk amongst subscribers help generate more hours watched on the service, but it encourages those who haven’t subscribed to Netflix to spend an additional $8 a month.

Netflix currently has more than 100 million worldwide subscribers, and Hastings has made it very clear that he wants that number to grow. He often compares his company to Starbucks — a corporation that has a store on almost every corner in every major city — and recently said the company has no plans to introduce an ad-supported, free option to subscribers anytime soon. Like HBO, he wants to keep Netflix exclusive to paying subscribers, keeping its content alluring.

This all comes back to curation. Hastings and his team are finally ready to curate the content they’re ordering. Less shows means more oversight from executives; Netflix can create a brand instead of just throwing anything and everything out to subscribers to see what sticks. That doesn’t mean there will be thematic uniformity between series, but rather that each show will carry with it something that identifies it as part of the Netflix brand — like HBO. Silicon Valley, Veep, Game of Thrones and Ballers are all different types of programming, but they’re all distinctly HBO.

Hastings wants to do that now. In a conversation with Peter Kafka at CodeCon yesterday, a conference put on by Polygon’s sister site, Recode, Hastings said he wanted to take more risks with their series and cancel those that don’t work. It’s an entirely different approach to the Netflix of five years ago, which simply wanted to build up its library. For the first time, it feels like Netflix is looking to quality over quantity.

“If anything, what I push our content team on is they should have more things that don’t work out,” Hastings said. “You gotta get more aggressive. The drive toward conformity as a company as you grow is very substantial, so as a leader, you’re always trying to get people to take risks, take bets [and] not be safe.”

This has been a longtime coming

Hastings’ decision is one that critics and industry experts have seen coming for some time. During his annual talk about the state of television at a press conference last year, FX chief John Landgraf said the number of shows being produced by streaming services and traditional cable networks was going to decrease. As a result, there will be less mediocre television available to people — an issue that was affecting the average consumer, Landgraf argued.

“While there is more great television [now] than at any time in history, audiences are having more trouble than ever distinguishing the great from the merely competent," Landgraf said. "I also believe that there is so much U.S. television we have lost much of the thread of a coherent, collective conversation about what is good, what is very good and what is great.”

Landgraf added that Netflix simply can’t keep doubling down on the number of series the company was making — both from a financial and timing standpoint — arguing the streaming service would eventually need to slow down production.

“You could give me all the money in the world, and I still couldn't personally supervise 71 shows and give each series the attention it needed," Landgraf said. "Why are they making so many shows and is it efficient? I couldn't tell you."

The question lingering in the air is how many shows Netflix will cancel and what type of series it’ll give the go-ahead to. For now, expensive and groundbreaking series like Sense8 are out, but controversial series like 13 Reasons Why are in. That could change, but one thing is clear about the future of Netflix: It’s finally going to start operating like the network it’s always wanted to be.