Netflix Chief Defends Diverse TV Slate: "We Are Committed to These Stories"

Originals vp Cindy Holland opens up about the decision to cancel 'One Day at a Time' and how recently renewed and similarly themed comedy 'On My Block' was "orders of magnitude bigger" than the beloved series from Norman Lear.
Courtesy of Netflix; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images; Courtesy of Netflix
From left: 'On My Block,' Netflix originals vp Cindy Holland, 'One Day at a Time'

After backlash over its March 14 decision to cancel One Day at a Time, Netflix is moving forward with another series revolving around Latinx (and black) characters, handing out a third-season renewal to coming-of-age tale On My Block as vp originals Cindy Holland stresses the streamer's commitment to inclusive storytelling.

"The season one to season two growth of On My Block was orders of magnitude bigger in terms of audience size growth than One Day at a Time," Holland tells The Hollywood Reporter of the single-camera comedy from Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft. (Netflix does not release viewership data.) "People have fallen in love with the characters and that cast. It's a great way to provide a window into that world for people who aren't from it, and also a mirror for the people who are from it."

The move comes as the streamer has drawn criticism for canceling originals early in their runs — like One Day at a Time and, more recently, Santa Clarita Diet. To wit: Only three of more than 30 axed live-action scripted series made it to a fourth season. Holland says Netflix will continue to restock with inclusive programming; upcoming series include Ava DuVernay's Central Park Five limited series When They See Us (May 29); Gabriel Iglesias multicam Mr. Iglesias (June 21); a coming-of-age scripted entry about Tejano music legend Selena; America Ferrera-produced Latinx dramedy Gentefied; a revival of LGBT-themed Tales of the City (June 7); and Raising Dion, a drama about a single black mother raising her superhero son, from Michael B. Jordan. Those join new seasons of Atypical, She's Gotta Have It and Dear White People, among others. 

"We look at the long arc, that we are committed to telling these stories — even from our very first slate with Orange Is the New Black — and we're going to keep trying. We are increasingly looking for more voices to find new emerging talent and new worlds to discover. And we're going to keep trying," says Holland, who is gay, adding that PBS' original Tales of the City was the first time she saw herself on television.

As for the One Day at a Time cancellation, Holland notes that Netflix looks at the cost of the season vs. viewership and that it didn't make "economic sense" for Netflix to renew the show, either for season two or three. "We supported three seasons of a show that probably wouldn't have made it past season one any other place — if it had been made at all," she says. "But at some point, we do need to look for other stories to tell that can garner bigger audiences."

Below, Holland talks with THR about the On My Block renewal, Netflix's penchant for early cancellations and the very real possibility that the streamer could lose acquired mega-hits including Friends and The Office as their respective owners, WarnerMedia and Comcast, launch direct-to-consumer platforms of their own. (Note: This interview was completed before Santa Clarita Diet's cancellation.)

On My Block is coming back for a third season. How does this show exemplify the type of inclusive programming you're looking for?

When [creators] Lauren Iungerich, Eddie Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft came to us four years ago, they told us that they wanted to tell the story about where and how Eddie and Jeremy grew up and the neighborhood they grew up in and the kinds of people that they knew growing up, and that they didn't see them on television. We were taken by that vision. It's a special little show. It did pretty well in its first season, but it's actually increased its following quite well in season two, and people have fallen in love with the characters and that cast. It's a great way to provide a window into that world for people who aren't from it, and also a mirror for the people who are from it.

You mentioned the show increased its following in season two. What does that mean?

Viewership grew pretty steadily from the launch of season one, and then we saw a big bump in new viewers coming in and discovering the show in season two, as well as people who loved it before coming back for season two. You could also see it in the social following of some of the cast, who have gotten up to a million or more followers, which is pretty sizable considering they were completely unknown a couple of years ago. 

This renewal comes a month after On My Block's second season. By comparison, One Day at a Time had to have a massive outreach campaign and didn't hear word on its third — and what would be final — season until two months later. How did the decision compare? How much did ownership play a role, given On My Block is yours and One Day at a Time is from Sony?

Ownership doesn't play a factor at all, although the cost of the season vs. the viewership is generally how we look at these things. The reason why the decision was so protracted between seasons two and three and then after season three for One Day at a Time was because it didn't make economic sense for us to renew the show, frankly, at either point. We love the show and we knew it had a passionate audience, and we felt it was important to continue to support it. We supported three seasons of it, but at some point, you have to make the difficult decision to say goodbye and try to look for other stories to tell and invest in that hopefully will garner larger audiences. One Day at a Time had a core, passionate but pretty small audience that didn't materially grow season over season. Frankly, we were looking for reasons to try to continue to say yes, and we just got to the point where it was hard to find them — other than knowing we loved the show and that it had a small core audience.

In a larger sense, how much did the Netflix strategy to cancel shows after two or three seasons in favor of buying new ones to bring in more viewers play a role in One Day at a Time's cancellation? How much are you looking at that larger strategy when considering whether a show like On My Block will get to a fourth season?

From the 30,000-foot level, we're looking to find stories that resonate with audiences, and we're having to make decisions about how to allocate our future investment in content. We are sometimes seeking to draw a new card. But when it comes to supporting storytellers who are telling stories that really haven't been told before in a meaningful way on a larger platform like ours, we're really committed to continuing to try. We look at the long arc, that we are committed to telling these stories — even from our very first slate with Orange Is the New Black — and we're going to keep trying. We are increasingly looking for more voices to find new emerging talent and new worlds to discover. We have Ryan O'Connell's show Special that just launched; we have Mr. Iglesias, the Gabriel Iglesias show, that comes out this summer; we're in production on Gentefied, with America Ferrera and creators Marvin Lemus and Linda Chavez. We have a Selena story in preproduction right now. We have the second season of She's Gotta Have It and the third season of Dear White People coming, and Ava DuVernay's When They See Us coming later this year. We have Raising Dion, which is about black single mother raising her superhero son on her own. And we have shows from Kenya Barris and a whole lineup of things coming.

The way I look at One Day at a Time is, it's a show that I was and am passionate about. I hope people discover the three seasons we have. I prefer to look at it as glass half full — we supported three seasons of a show that probably wouldn't have made it past season one any other place, if it had been made at all. I'm not intending to be self-serving, I'm just trying to explain that is how we view taking the risk in the first place and trying to continue to support shows as long as we can. But at some point, we do need to look for other stories to tell that can garner bigger audiences.

On My Block grew in season two. If you were to compare its audience growth between seasons one and two with the same for One Day at a Time, what does that look like?

The season one to season two growth of On My Block was orders of magnitude bigger in terms of audience size growth than One Day at a Time. But I hate to compare the two shows because they happen to have some similar themes. They deserve to stand on their own. And economically, they were very different — not just because of ownership. But what it costs to make a multicam [like One Day at a Time] vs. what it costs to make a smaller-scale, single-camera practical show are just different. I hate to compare the two so directly, although I know it will be on people's mind. My perspective is I'm thrilled we've been able to support both shows for as long as we have.

When you talk about On My Block and its growth, do you expect this to be a show that could buck that four-season trend and continue to go on for not just a fourth but a fifth?

It certainly could, and we hope that it will. But there are a lot of things that go into the decision, not just whether the audience is big enough to support it. I know we're doing season three of On My Block as a shorter episode order because that's what Lauren, Eddie and Jeremy think the creative wants. That's why it's an eight-episode order [seasons one and two consisted of 10 episodes each]. It's truly their decision. Yes, I am hopeful, but there are lots of things that go into decisions that are beyond audience and economics. 

We've heard CBS All Access was ready to pick up One Day at a Time, but the limitations in the Netflix deal make it impossible for it to move to another streaming platform. And multiple broadcast networks have kicked the tires, too, but there are other limitations there as well. Have you been talking with Sony and Norman Lear about trying to relax those limitations? What kind of work are you doing to help this show find another home?

We invested in three seasons and having a home at Netflix. We negotiated for specific rights in the deal, which we paid for. We paid for the show in its entirety, plus profit to Sony. They have the ability to sell it to broadcast and network, but we don't think that it's appropriate that it show up on a competitive streaming platform.

Looking ahead, there are a lot of inclusive writers who are getting a boost thanks to the #WGAStaffingBoost. As you continue to be a buyer, what's the show you don't have yet that you're looking for?

We know it when we see it. We know we're excited to support all types of storytelling, and I've personally been committed to inclusive storytelling since I've been around, and our whole team is imbued with this spirit. We're excited when you hear something new and you are seeing a fresh story come through the door. That's why we're excited to start production on Gentefied, because we think it will be fantastic. Even in revisiting something like Tales of the City, which comes out in June. The original version I saw on PBS was one of the first times that I saw what I soon would discover was going to be my community. It was a powerful moment in American media at least, and certainly in my life. I'm excited that we can find a new way and bring new audiences to those stories, as well as finding completely new stories to tell.

Special received a fair amount of attention when it launched. O'Connell told me that he wants a second season — with episodes expanding from 15 minutes to 30. Where are you in a renewal decision?

It's too soon to tell whether it's going to come back or not. We're happy with the creative and the reception it's had so far. All options are on the table still.

Deals for Friends and The Office, among other acquired content, are coming up in the next year or three. Those would likely be a crown jewel to a Warner or Comcast streaming platform. What kind of conversations and expectations do you have about the ability to keep those assets?

Those are case-by-case negotiations. I wouldn't want to comment on future negotiations. But we have a large audience here on Netflix; we have a lot of content that they like to watch, and we expect that to continue, regardless of which specific shows are on our platform. 

Anything else you'd like to add?

It was a dream come true to work with Norman Lear, who really pioneered the idea of inclusive storytelling and whose work I've admired for so long, and I know Ted [Sarandos] feels the same. Ted even has a photo of him in his office, and he and Norman speak frequently. Norman, Gloria [Calderon Kellett], Mike [Royce] and the cast did create a really special show that we are proud to feature on Netflix for years to come, and I don't want that to be lost in some of the conversation.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.