Making Sense of TV's Wave of "Un-Renewals"

GLOW_Season 3-Publicity Still 1-H 2019
Netflix

Netflix's 'GLOW.'

Welcome to the age of the "un-renewals."

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage balance sheets across the entertainment industry, a rapidly rising number of scripted originals are having their previously announced renewals reversed.

This week, Netflix retreated on a planned fourth and final season of Jenji Kohan-produced comedy GLOW and Showtime bailed on a second season of its Kirsten Dunst dark comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Both shows joined the ranks of the "un-renewed" that also include Netflix's The Society and I Am Not Okay With This as well as TruTV's I'm Sorry, USA Network's Evel and ABC's Stumptown as scripted originals who met a premature demise.

So what's behind the unfortunate trend? While each show is different, increased costs is one factor that they all have in common. Filming during the pandemic requires each production to adhere to a set of safety protocols put in place and agreed upon by various guilds and studios.

"It really depends on the show itself but I'm going to give you a rough number and say it's between $300,000 and $500,000 additional per episode for PPE," prolific producer Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek: Discovery, Clarice) told The Hollywood Reporter's TV's Top 5 podcast in an interview this week. "It's just in keeping people safe — and that's not a number you can skimp on."

Even on the low end, that means a 22-episode broadcast drama would be adding $6.6 million to its budget. And that number, as Kurtzman noted, does not include additional expenses that are incurred from the additional time it takes to film — things like paying the cast and crew, locations fees, etc. And if the program isn't owned in-house — like On Becoming a God, which was produced by Sony TV for Showtime — those costs come on top of an already steep licensing fee. "Costs have spiraled, and when you put COVID-19 on top of that, it makes shows not make sense," one top literary agent tells THR of the unfortunate trend.

The agent notes that budgets on scripted originals have continued to soar in the past three years as an increasing number of streaming platforms battle for top showrunners, stars and IP. He notes that a premium cable drama that launched only six years ago was the highest-priced show in TV history at $5.5 million per episode and now there are broadcast shows that are produced regularly at that level.

Other factors included in the wave of "un-renewals" include things like scheduling. When film and TV production across the globe was halted in March, that threw schedules into disarray. This Is Us favorite Milo Ventimiglia, for example, planned to film USA Network's Evel during his hiatus from the NBC family drama. The Evel Knievel limited series was on the cusp of beginning production on location in New Mexico when the pandemic changed the world. USA Network became the first to scrap a show because of the pandemic in July when the window in which Ventimiglia would have filmed Evel closed. The Emmy-nominated actor is now back at work on the upcoming season of NBC's This Is Us. Scheduling issues were also largely to blame for the cancellations of The Society and On Becoming a God.

Network scheduling, too, has also been a factor. ABC dropped Cobie Smulders vehicle Stumptown — which was planned to be on the network's fall schedule — because episodes would not have been ready until at least April. The time frame meant the show, which underwent a creative change amid a showrunner change, would have aired in the typically lower-rated summer window. That wasn't a good fit for a show with a sizable price tag and ABC bailed (even though Stumptown was produced in-house).

The major executive shake-ups have also played a role in at least some of the "un-renewals." Andrea Savage was still searching for answers after WarnerMedia-owned TruTV axed her critical darling I'm Sorry after previously ordering a third season of the comedy. TruTV lost its dedicated network topper last year and parent company WarnerMedia this summer sent shockwaves through the industry when senior creatives Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly were pushed out. HBO programming president Casey Bloys now oversees a swelling portfolio that includes streamer HBO Max as well as basic cable networks TNT, TBS and, yes, TruTV. Netflix also made perhaps the most surprising exec change of the year when the streamer pushed out head of originals Cindy Holland as part of a restructuring that saw former Universal TV president Bela Bajaria given a larger role at the company. With revenues trending downward and movie theaters in key parts of the country remaining closed, the pressure is on for new regimes to clean house and make a mark of their own.

When it comes to wrestling comedy GLOW, Netflix said COVID-19 made filming the "physically intimate show with its large ensemble cast especially challenging." While safety is always a top concern and filming wrestling — or even crowd scenes as in The Society — played a role in GLOW's untimely cancellation, sources note costs on the series had also spiraled, reaching between $8 million-$12 million an episode — before factoring in budgets for PPE.

As for how many more scripted series may have their good fortunes overturned as much of the country awaits a vaccine and a return to normalcy that may never come, the agent is quick to respond: "Plenty."