Memo: The Coming Streaming Content Shortage

The news of the recent cancellation of HBO’s sports drama “Winning Time” was met with palpable disappointment, and rightfully so. For me, it was jarring. A little bit of history, drama, and sports? That’s my happy place but even as a fan, I took it for granted. The series, which portrayed the rise and shine of the LA Lakers in their Showtime era of the 1980s, was a brilliant encapsulation of a period that reshaped professional basketball. Yet, just after two seasons, HBO decided to pull the plug. The questions that arise are why, and what if it had been on a different platform, say, Netflix?

A new Luminate x Variety report suggests that broadcast TV experiences the highest overall cancellation rate (26.6%) in comparison to streaming (12.2%) and cable (7.2%). But streaming’s worst culprit is worse than broadcast. Max cancels 26.9% of original programming, followed by Disney+ (21.1%), Paramount+ (16.9%), and Hulu (15.2%). However, Netflix stands at a modest 10.2%, while Apple TV claims the lowest cancellation rate for original programming at 4.9%. Given this scenario, where does the blame for content cancellation lie?

It’s a misconception that Netflix, with its massive library, has a trigger-happy approach to cancelling shows. On the contrary, the platform’s cancellation rate has consistently dropped between 2020 and 2023. Despite its enormous volume of content, it remains in line with most major streaming services in terms of cancellations. A vast portion of its 2020 cancellations were attributed to pandemic-related factors. If “Winning Time” had found a home on Netflix, it may very well have been met with a different fate. With HBO’s decline in traditional viewership and the ongoing writer and actor strikes causing hitches in promotions and content creation, the series was caught in an unfavorable storm. Netflix’s expansive reach and varied demographics could have offered “Winning Time” the viewership it deserved.

Netflix’s method of releasing content worldwide simultaneously allows for a larger, diverse audience to access shows at the same time, creating a global conversation. HBO’s limited promotional capabilities due to the strikes would not have been an issue for Netflix, which has mastered the art of promoting its originals even amidst external challenges. Moreover, HBO’s business model largely depends on traditional metrics of success. In contrast, Netflix, due to its subscription-based model, can afford to prioritize viewer retention over sheer numbers. For them, a show that cultivates a dedicated, albeit smaller, audience can still be deemed a success. Netflix values viewer engagement, ensuring content gets the breath of air it genuinely deserves.

Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max has been termed a “content butcher”, with its massive content purge last year drastically elevating its cancellation rate. Such an approach contrasts with Netflix’s strategy, which is more about curating content that resonates with different demographics rather than indiscriminate culling. Considering the relatively low cancellation rates for streaming platforms, especially Netflix and Apple, it’s evident that the narrative of streaming giants ruthlessly cancelling shows is misguided. Their focus on global audiences, engagement metrics, and viewer retention ensures that good content doesn’t go unnoticed.

The premature ending of “Winning Time” is emblematic of the broader shifts and misconceptions in the entertainment industry. While traditional networks grapple with content volume and promotion challenges, streaming platforms, especially Netflix, are emerging as sanctuaries where content can genuinely thrive. It’s high time we adjust our perceptions about content cancellations and recognize where the future of quality content truly lies.

The cancellation trends we are witnessing, particularly on streaming platforms like Max, foreshadow an impending content shortage across all streaming platforms. As these platforms, driven by immediate metrics of success (net subscription figures), continue to truncate promising series prematurely, they risk not only alienating dedicated viewers but also stymieing the growth of diverse content. When networks like Max give up on shows such as “Winning Time”, they’re not just ending a series, they’re halting creativity.

Such a content deficit will inevitably lead to a vicious cycle. As platforms fail to retain viewers with a lack of engaging and varied content, subscription numbers will dwindle for some platforms and/or shift towards a greater allegiance to Netflix. Declining viewership and subscription numbers, in turn, can result in reduced funds for content creation, leading to even fewer new series or movies. It’s this very spiral that threatens the survival of under-performing networks.

Furthermore, a content drought can have cascading effects on the larger entertainment industry. Production houses may become wary of investing in new and unique ideas, fearing premature cancellations. Talented writers, actors, and directors might find themselves entangled in projects that never see the light of day or are cut short prematurely, thereby stunting creative growth. In an era where content is king, any shortage or consistent termination of high-potentials series can severely undermine a platform’s value proposition. If unchecked, this trend might just turn streaming platforms into barren wastelands, characterized more by what they could have offered than what they do. In this high-stakes environment, it’s imperative for networks to reevaluate their content strategies, ensuring they nurture and not negate their most valuable asset: compelling narratives and the passionate followings that they collect.

Content, undoubtedly, is king in the realm of entertainment. However, even a king requires territories to establish dominion, and for content, visibility serves as these expansive lands. Without adequate visibility, even the most compelling narratives remain confined, their potential unrealized. Like a king without land, content without a proper platform and audience is devoid of its true worth and influence. For a tale to truly reign, it must be seen, heard, and celebrated. Without its rightful land of visibility, even the mightiest content cannot claim its deserved throne.

Long live Winning Time.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams 

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