The OA was a weird TV show. Like, really weird. Weird in ways that I can’t really go into without revealing far too much of the plot, and that probably wouldn’t make sense to you even if I did.
It felt very much like the sort of show that would only get made by Netflix (or perhaps, these days, Amazon). Big budget, absolutely batshit insane storylines, sincere musings on multiple dimensions and the nature of the self, all shaped without the constraints of 30-minute time slots or the need for a guaranteed million eyeballs for each episode to please advertisers.
It was a show seemingly designed to create dedicated fans, not just large, mildly-interested audiences. Loads of people didn’t get it. Lots of people absolutely loved it.
And it was the sort of show that, when it was announced this week it would be cancelled after two seasons, felt like a significant and emotional loss to those fans – myself included. That creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij had a plan for a full five seasons to tell the story added to the disappointment.
It’s of course not the first programme Netflix has cancelled. Only a couple of weeks earlier it was announced that Netflix would not be making a second series of Tuca & Bertie, the animated comedy created by Lisa Hanawalt, the cartoonist behind Netflix’s animated hit Bojack Horseman.
And yet scrapping The OA feels like a significant move. Netflix rarely releases viewing figures for its shows. It isn’t required to let advertisers know how many are around for the ad breaks because there are none, and the relative success of various shows is proprietary data that could help competitors. That means we don’t know how many people were watching The OA, or indeed Tuca and Bertie. But it was critically well-regarded, and while we don’t know how many people watched it, what we can say is that #savetheoa was trending globally on Twitter after the news broke.
Fans of The OA will, of course, get over it. Despite my initial anger, I am not going to go through with my threat to cancel my Netflix subscription. At least not yet. I might reconsider that decision if, as looks likely, cancelling The OA may actually be part of a pattern that will become much more common on Netflix because of the way the company’s business model works.
“Netflix has learned that the first two seasons of a show are key to bringing in subscribers – but the third and later seasons don’t do much to retain or win new subscribers. Ending a show after the second season saves money, because showrunners who oversee production tend to negotiate a boost in pay after two years.”
The rationale for Netflix is pretty clear. Why pay more money for a show that isn’t going to attract significant numbers of new subscribers, when cancelling it won’t lead to many leaving? It wouldn’t even necessarily matter if a show was attracting larger audiences each season, unless it was attracting new subscribers, or those who might be at risk of cancelling. And while those who see a loved show disappear from one service may hope that a rival will revive it (hello, Amazon), it is actually the logic of all paid-for streaming services that this applies to.
For viewers, this means falling in love with a TV show on Netflix or Amazon could be a dangerous game. Even reasonably popular, critically acclaimed programmes face a high likelihood of being cancelled after their second season. Get burned too many times and eventually viewers are going to find it difficult to form too strong an attachment to any show on the service.
Netflix has revolutionised how we watch TV, but also what TV gets made. Without its pioneering business model it’s quite possible that something as audacious as The OA would never have been possible. But it now looks like that model has a very significant downside that could lead to heartbreak for those falling in love with the TV it creates.