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When Netflix fails: The curse of cancelled shows

Humans are natural puzzle solvers. Our entire existence has hinged on our ability to solve problems and create innovative solutions that placed us at the top of the food chain. After all, without the sharp teeth of a tiger, the claws of a lion, or the brutal, unrelenting strength of the ape, humans had little to fight with.

So we created tools. We began to grow food. We played with fire and found it pleasing. In other words, we solved the puzzle of survival.

But now we live comfortably in the cradle of civilization and those puzzle solving skills have been turned towards a more pressing, more immediate problem: what’s new on Netflix.

Netflix started in 1997 as a mail-in service for DVDs, which were a completely new format at the time. However, it didn’t rise to its current level of popularity — and its prevalence in pop culture — until the streaming service began in 2007. It set a record that year when it delivered its one-billionth DVD (the movie Babel, for those interested).

As of today, Netflix serves more than 74 million subscribers, the bulk of which — 44 million — are in the United States.

What drives the machine?

No one can argue that Netflix has become one of the most popular ways to consume media today, but the question remains as to why. In 2015, CBS asked a simple question: “Is Netflix more popular than TV?” At that time, Netflix stock was approaching almost $900 per share. An analyst from FBR & Co. believed that Americans loved the convenience of Netflix more than television, and it’s easy to see why.

Accessible from mobile devices, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles, streaming devices, and smart TVs, Netflix is more readily available than cable or dish services. At just $8.99 per month for unlimited streaming, it’s far cheaper than cable services, which average around $64.41 per month.

Aside from affordability (which makes it appealing to college students and those unable to afford a full cable subscription), Netflix boasts a massive library of titles to choose from. With around 150 Netflix originals (exclusive content available only on that platform) and an estimated total of nearly 15,000 movies, television episodes, and documentaries, there’s no end to the options. Some estimates state that it would take nearly six and a half years to watch the entire Netflix library, and considering that more titles are added and removed each month, it’s a bit of a futile battle.

That’s the good. What’s the bad?

The idea of binge-watching may have existed in the farthest reaches of the social consciousness before Netflix, but easy access to thousands of television episodes brought it to bear. When a viewer discovers an engaging show, it’s not unusual to put off chores, homework, and even going to work in order to find out how the story ends.

The puzzle-solving aspect of the human brain mentioned earlier comes back into play here. Because we are hardwired to see things through to a conclusion, to find the solution, it can be almost physically painful to pull away from an episode of CSI or True Detective. There is a deep drive to know how the story will resolve.

And absolutely nothing quite matches the frustration of finding out a series was cancelled after finishing a major-edge-of-the-seat cliffhanger episode.

Millions of subscribers eagerly sign on each month to find out what new shows have been added to the Netflix library, while millions more work their way through their queue of titles waiting to be watched. Wailing and gnashing of teeth is inevitable when they finish Firefly and begin the search for the next season. Finishing season four of The Glades and discovering there is no season five, combined with the realization they’ll never know what happened to Jim, can drive them to reach for the bourbon.

Psychologically speaking, the human brain doesn’t enjoy leaving things without a resolution. The same reason we crave a crescendo in music is the same reason we seek to find the ending of our favorite television shows. It’s a relief of tension, a resolution that leaves the story complete and the mind at ease.

However, there is a silver lining. Any show that manages to keep the viewer engaged so thoroughly that a lack of resolution comes as a shock means, usually, that it is good.

The fallen soldiers of Netflix

The cancelled content usually appeals to a niche audience or tries to crowd its way into an already saturated market. Jericho was a dystopian/post-apocalyptic drama; not the most popular genre, despite the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent. The Glades was a show about a renegade, smart-aleck detective. Sad to say, those are all too common and have difficulty competing with major titles like CSI: Miami or Law and Order: SVU.

Netflix allows these titles to develop a cult following, but that often isn’t enough for studios to keep producing them. In many cases, Netflix acquires the rights to a title after it has been cancelled, providing quality content for cheap.

And perhaps that is the driving force behind the cancelled titles’ availability. Netflix dominates the market through smart business practices, and acquiring a title with lower licensing costs, even to the disappointment of the eventual viewer, is a sound decision.

There are no exact numbers on the number of shows Netflix carries that lack a resolution. Perhaps compiling such a list is too painful. Maybe some of the content just isn’t worth watching. Whatever the reason, there’s little we as viewers can do except sigh dramatically, take a deep breath, and accept that Firefly isn’t coming back.

Photo: Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue/Creative Commons

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Patrick Hearn

Patrick is a Columbus-based travel and tech writer and the author of Chasing Memories. Find him at Patrick-Hearn.com or at his travel blog, Voyager's Quill.