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Why are your favorite streaming TV shows canceled after one season?
TV has been fundamentally changed by the advent of streaming. It’s not just that cable providers are scrambling to keep subscribers. The basic structure of shows is changing, and the economic models that once determined if something was a hit or not just aren’t relevant now. A show can start trending in its third season once audiences binge their way through earlier episodes. So why are so many streaming TV shows canceled after one season? And why are streamers so eager to make that call?
One of the latest TV shows canceled early was Y: The Last Man. If you’re like me, you may have been surprised to see Y: The Last Man launch without much fanfare. The comic book adaptation premiered exclusively on Hulu as an “FX on Hulu” original in September 2021. Weeks before its finale, though, showrunner Eliza Clark let fans know that FX had declined to renew it for season two via Twitter.
And just like that, a show more than a decade in the making was gone before it even really got a chance to find its footing. Could it have developed a following over time? Will FX change course if fans complain loudly enough? Or is there another streaming service that might revive it? Read on for a breakdown of how streamers handle canceling or renewing shows early on.
Related: The best streaming services
TV shows canceled after one season
Y: The Last Man isn’t alone. Many shows are canceled after one season. Or, in Y’s case, before even one season is complete.
Ratings for traditional broadcast and cable TV could be absolute killers back in the day. The situation’s even worse with so many people cutting the cord today, though shows can more easily find a second life on streaming services now. In simpler times, a show either worked or didn’t. It could make a little extra cash in syndication, but that usually required that it be a success from the get-go.
TV used to have to make a mark right away, but streaming is a whole other beast.
Some of those shows did manage to thrive in syndication, and Firefly even earned itself a feature film, 2005’s Serenity, where it got to tie up loose ends. But as a whole, what they have in common, aside from cancellation, is that they failed to attract a big enough audience (for numerous reasons).
But shows have more opportunities to grow those audiences over time now, in large part thanks to easy access to earlier seasons to draw you in.
Finding an audience
One of the real gifts of the streaming age is that shows have more room to grow slowly. That’s one of the reasons it’s so frustrating when a show can’t even get through season one.
Did FX really need to pull the plug on Y: The Last Man so fast? Hulu subscribers could have slowly found their way to the show, maybe drawn to the potential to stream the whole first season in one go once it was done airing. Would giving it a few months to find its audience (or properly prove its unpopularity) have made such a difference? This isn’t some lofty hypothetical. It’s how TV functions now, in many cases.
AMC’s Breaking Bad is maybe the most famous example. In its final season in 2013, Breaking Bad more than doubled its own ratings records, and that has largely been attributed to the availability of the show’s earlier seasons on Netflix. People who were too far behind to care about the show could suddenly catch up immediately and then follow along on TV. AMC was effectively double-dipping, collecting licensing fees from Netflix even as the streamer gave its future cable ratings (and revenue) a boost.
Shows like Breaking Bad and Succession grew their audiences between seasons thanks to streaming.
HBO’s Succession is another great example. The show’s viewership grew throughout its first season, but it saw a huge jump between its then-record 997,000 viewers at the end of season one and its 1.2 million viewers for the season two premiere. One can easily surmise that people weren’t tuning into a season two premiere with zero context. Rather, Succession grew its viewership dramatically between seasons as word-of-mouth and best-of lists led folks to HBO’s streaming platforms (now consolidated as HBO Max). October 2021 saw Succession ratings rise to new highs again at 1.4 million.
So, what gives? Why would a streamer (like FX on Hulu) cancel a show (like Y: The Last Man) in season one? Why give up the chance for it to become a hit organically as it gets some good press?
The Netflix two-season model
It’s hard to understand the thinking of a streaming service. They parcel out info as they see fit, and they use metrics that don’t always track with what we’d expect.
Netflix has become virtually infamous for canceling shows after just two seasons. Sense8, The OA, Special, American Vandal, and Altered Carbon are just a few examples. Admittedly, the service has also canceled plenty of shows after one, three, four, and more seasons. These include GLOW, One Day at a Time, Daredevil, The Society, Ozark, and more.
Netflix has revealed some details about its process, which relies on a combination of viewer metrics. It looks at viewership within the first seven days and the first 28 days of episodes dropping on the site. It also differentiates between viewers who start a show and complete it within that timeframe.
We can debate whether those numbers and timelines make sense, but from there, Netflix does exactly what you’d expect. It compares cost and value. In short, if the number of viewers is high enough to justify the cost of production, it orders a new season. Simple enough.
But that doesn’t track with some of our examples. If HBO had decided it needed to crack one million viewers per episode, it would have canceled Succession at the end of season one. That’s despite reaching 1.4 million viewers per episode by season three.
Y: The Last Man may have just been a fluke.
Y: The Last Man may have suffered a different fate, though. According to sources who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter, FX had to make a snap decision because options for actors to return were coming due, and it’d be in a tricky spot, contractually, if it waited any longer. As frustrating as that sounds, it’s actually good news on a broader level. FX would likely have waited under normal circumstances. But because of numerous production delays, it just didn’t have any wiggle room for this one title.
Can the streaming cancellation model change?
One great thing about the streaming age is that things move remarkably quickly.
Many TV revivals have taken quite a lot of time to get off the ground. Fan favorites like The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Roseanne, Veronica Mars, and more were off the air for years before getting a second shot on the airwaves.
But things move a little quicker now. When Y: The Last Man was canceled, showrunner Eliza Clark tweeted her hope and commitment to “finding Y its next home.” While there’s still no sign of another network or streamer picking up the show, Clark’s wish isn’t just a pipe dream. There’s precedent.
Syfy canceled The Expanse in 2018 after three seasons. But only a year later, a fourth season premiered on Amazon Prime Video following a #SaveTheExpanse campaign. The series is now gearing up for its sixth and final season on Amazon and continues to boast a loyal fanbase.
And it’s not alone. Cobra Kai (itself a revival of the Karate Kid film series) launched on YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) in 2018. After two successful seasons, it moved to Netflix in 2021. It wasn’t canceled but did need a new home as YouTube shifted focus to unscripted and documentary originals. Another YouTube Red series, Step Up: High Water, was canceled but also found a new home almost immediately at Starz.
Whether it’s for data collection, subscriber growth, brand recalibration, or some other reason, early cancellations are frustrating in the streaming age. Hopefully, we’ll start seeing some changes in the near future. But it’s nice to know that the streaming wars have given us no shortage of competitors to pick up the slack when one service pulls the plug too hastily.
And on that note, here’s hoping for a second season of Y: the Last Man.