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Is Netflix recreating the old broadcast TV network?

Good morning Data Sheet readers. We’re starting on our new schedule. I’ll write the entire newsletter on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from now on. Robert Hackett will switch to Tuesday and our West Coast colleague Danielle Abril will take over on Thursday. Enjoy!

If you reach page 1,168 of Harlot’s Ghost, the very last page of Norman Mailer’s rollicking faux history of the CIA, the story doesn’t quite finish. “TO BE CONTINUED,” it says. That was 1991 and Mailer, who died in 2007, never published the sequel, leaving readers frustrated.

But what if the author, or the auteur as we say in the case of TV and movies, does have an ending, but the publisher or the network has other plans?

Lately, Netflix has made news over early cancellations, in some cases drawing protest from the auteurs and actors involved. “No more GLOW. Sorry. Stinks,” actor Marc Maron tweeted the other day when Netflix dropped the award-winning show about 1980s female wrestlers. Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have said they had “hundreds of ideas” for continuing the story. In the past year or so, Netflix also axed The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Altered Carbon, and many more—two dozen in all. That’s sparked fan protests, calls for moves to other networks, and concern over loss of representation, given many of the lost shows featured women, LGBTQ+ people, or people of color in the lead.

It’s an age-old drama in Hollywood. The age of streaming has put a new twist on finishing unfinished stories, however. When Comcast’s Syfy network cancelled The Expanse a few years ago, Amazon swooped up the still-running space opera for more seasons. Arrested Development, Lucifer, and Designated Survivor are among shows that Netflix has saved from another network’s trash bin.

Now Netflix’s cancellations are a sign of changes at the streaming leader.

Seven years ago, when Netflix had only 30 million subscribers worldwide, its then-head of content Ted Sarandos famously crystalized the company’s goal: “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” That meant taking chances on risky fare and giving the auteurs freedom—and big budgets. HBO rarely cancelled anything after one or two seasons and, for years, Netflix followed suit. Sarandos let one of his early hits, House of Cards, finish its sixth and final season even after its star Kevin Spacey got fired.

Sarandos’s quippy strategy turned out absolutely correct. Netflix caught up to HBO and now, with almost 200 million subscribers, has far surpassed it.

Sarandos is co-CEO now, and his emphasis has clearly changed. It’s one thing to attract tens of millions of viewers with niche-y shows. But now Netflix is aiming for an audience of hundreds of millions. And it’s looking more and more like one of the big networks from the pre-cable TV landscape, when shows needed big names and broad appeal and those that didn’t rate well could get axed at any time. Even after airing just one episode. (AT&T seems to have similar goals for broadening HBO itself, with the streaming version rebranded as HBO Max and now rerunning Friends and The Office.)

That may be a shame for fans. But so many smaller services are picking up the mantle. It’s a good bet that Apple TV+ or another rival can become the new “old Netflix.” And that would be a very good thing.


Fortune has been upping its podcast game and the latest can’t-miss episode is from my colleagues Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe exploring how tech companies are trying to bring innovation to the fight against California wildfires.

Aaron Pressman


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