TV Network Presidents Talk Netflix Cancellations

Hulu's Craig Erwich, NBC's Jennifer Salke, HBO's Casey Bloys, FX's Nick Grad and Showtime's Gary Levine appeared together Friday at the sixth annual ATX Television Festival.
Courtesy of Netflix

Although Netflix didn't have a presence at the Presidents of the State of TV panel Friday at the ATX Television Festival, the streaming giant certainly was a topic of conversation.

When asked about the streamer's recent rash of cancellations, notably The Get Down and Sense8, FX's Nick Grad didn't hold back.

"I'm glad they're canceling shows," he said. "I don't know what their ratings are. They obviously have to start making decisions. They can't have 10,000 shows on. I think it brings them back in the ecosystem of where we're all trying to kind of make the best shows and make the best decisions."

Discussing the competition between Netflix and FX, Grad stated, "We have a different business," but pointed again to the streaming giant's staggering volume of shows. "They have a lot more shots," he said. "We just have to be better."

While Netflix has ended shows several times in the past (see: Hemlock Grove, Marco Polo), the decision not to renew The Get Down and Sense8 marked two of the bigger misses for the streamer, and two of the youngest shows at the company to get the ax. Hemlock Grove and the recently ended Bloodline were both in their third seasons, but The Get Down had only run for one season and 11 episodes before Netflix made the decision to cancel the pricey hip-hop drama, which was said to be one of the most expensive shows on television.

Grad was joined on the panel by Hulu's Craig Erwich, NBC's Jennifer Salke, HBO's Casey Bloys and Showtime's Gary Levine for a candid conversation about star power, the development process and vertical integration. Read on for more highlights from the panel:

A New Normal Revival?      

When asked what cancellation she regretted the most, Salke picked The New Normal, the half-hour comedy about a same-sex couple having a baby. "We were kind of in a confused state at NBC," she said, pointing to a change in management as well as the end of long-running single-camera comedies like The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Rec. "If it had hit now, the story would be completely different." Salke also a cited a change in how ratings were measured and the importance of live-plus-same-day ratings versus delayed viewing numbers. "It was rough going that way. We'd kill it for now, and I really regret it and it was a tough, tough emotional one for me."

To Resurrect or Not to Resurrect

Some ATX festival-goers may have noticed an air banner in Austin Friday afternoon that begged for the return of the canceled baseball drama Pitch, which brought up the question of when and how to save a canceled series."If we're going to transfer a show from anther network, there's a very specific set of circumstances," Erwich said, pointing specifically to whether Hulu has the old seasons of a show available to users like with The Mindy Project. "Every time a new season would premiere we would get the old season and we knew that our audience loves that show. … We knew quantifiably there was still a huge audience for it. In a case like that, we knew it made sense to pick up Mindy, the same way with Nashville."

Salke chimed in to discuss the role-reversal on Timeless, which she insisted was not a conspiracy. "We're not that clever," she said with a laugh. "We were busy doing other things." Discussing the initial cancellation of the Sony-produced series, Salke admitted "it was a tough decision to make, and the outcry from fans really did make us not sleep well that night. The next day we came back in the scheduling room and I said, 'This doesn't feel right.'" In the end, Timeless was renewed to premiere sometime in 2018. "That was a fun day," Salke said.

Time-Shifting Continues to, Well, Shift

One of Salke's biggest TV fears? "How low the linear live ratings can go, which I think is very low," she said. In light of the rapidly falling live-plus-same-day numbers, she pointed to the importance of SVOD deals and "to be able to have our shows on Hulu and Netflix and have audiences [find] them a year after they air," she said. Bloys reiterated that fact. "The Sunday ratings, while important for us, it's maybe 30 percent of the total, and that’s just going to continue to go down," he said, pointing to the rise in digital viewers for Game of Thrones. In season one, digital viewers accounted for 2 percent of the total "and now it's about 26 percent of the total viewers. Where people watch, how they watch is shifting."

Big Little Lies Season Two?

Talk eventually turned to limited series, and specifically, the success of HBO's Big Little Lies. All involved have discussed wanting to do a second season despite the fact that the first season covered the entire book of the same name by Liane Moriarty. "She's thinking about it," Bloys said. "It has to be really good. The bar is very high." Joked Levine of a potential title, "Bigger Little Lies."

Although Levine joked about more Lies, he called the trend of limited series "a double-edged sword" in the long run. "We may be hurting ourselves because the brass ring is still the long, ongoing series where networks invest in a show, an audience is invested in the character, and the love flows in all directions for many, many years. Limited series are great, a complement to that, but certainly not a substitute," he said. Plus, he noted, "Everyone who comes in to pitch a limited series says, 'And we know what to do with season two.'"

The Importance of the Development Process

Levine first broached the topic when he was asked what executive order he would make if he could do anything — in a nod to that other president. "Ban series orders off of pitches," he said. "Let's actually develop something and do it right."

While the development process has long been an important part of making TV, the increased competition spawned from the Peak TV era is making straight-to-series orders more and more common. "Straight-to-series orders weirdly became a mark of respect," Bloys said. "But [development] really is a valuable process to get things right." Erwich discussed the intense competition as well. "Every once in a while, you have to do it, but I agree, there's a valuable process to get things right."

Later in the panel, when asked about a specific network note, Levine discussed the changes made to the Carrie Matheson character during the development process of Homeland. Carrie "in the original spec script, had no issues. She simply was a CIA agent who knew a secret," he said of Claire Danes' character, who famously suffers from bipolar disorder.

Smaller Season Orders

While many of the networks represented on the panel are known for handing out shorter season orders as a standard part of the business, Salke said NBC is getting into that business more and more. There's This Is Us, which was picked up last January for two 18-episode seasons, and she also confirmed that two forthcoming series: Jason Katims' Rise and the Sarah Shahi VR drama Reverie, will both have just 10-episode seasons. "Part of it is scheduling, part of it is creative," she said, pointing particularly to the desire to pair Katims' theater drama Rise with The Voice in 2018. "We're starting to get the press to understand. … It's not like, 'Oh, they lost confidence.' There's a smarter strategy afoot."

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