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‘One Day at a Time’ and Why Netflix Is Not Your Friend

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

On Thursday, Netflix canceled “One Day at a Time” after three seasons. This was a loss for fans and for TV. It was a sharp, funny sitcom, full of heart, that also represented groups of people who don’t get enough screen time: Latino, working-class, gay, nonbinary, military, recovering addicts, immigrants. It combined a classic TV form — the studio-audience family sitcom — with a sensibility that was utterly of the moment. It was one of TV’s best laughs and best cries.

Well, as the theme song says, “This is life.” And this is TV. Deserving shows have gotten canceled since TV sets had rabbit ears. What was unusual this time was that Netflix put out an announcement on Twitter, explaining and mourning its own decision.

I am not a mind reader. Maybe the sentiment is sincere, maybe it’s spin, maybe a little of each. Either way, Netflix is trying to throw away its cake and get credit for having baked it.

TV outlets cancel shows all the time. But more often than not, they let the news come out quietly. In this case, Netflix, maybe anticipating a backlash, wanted to present itself as the disappointed fan as much as the practical-minded enterprise.

So it frames the cancellation as less Netflix’s decision than something that just happened to it.“Simply not enough people watched.”

You could write a book about all the complications packed into that “not enough.” First of all, neither you nor I nor anyone outside Netflix’s Fort Knox of data knows how many people watched “One Day,” nor any other Netflix show, because Netflix — with the exception of the occasional cherry-picked example like “You” — does not release that information.

We have some objective sense of how many people watch “American Idol” and “The Walking Dead” and all the non-streaming shows measured by Nielsen. With Netflix, we have only its very vague word.

And even if we knew how many people streamed “One Day,” would we know how many people short of “enough” that was? We would not. Possibly Netflix does not. Netflix sells subscriptions, not ads, so it’s not as if X number of viewers translates into Y dollars for a commercial. Instead, Netflix, like HBO, has to perform a calculation that may be more art than science: To what extent does this show yield subscribers?

This is complicated by other unknowns. How much does the show cost to make? (Multicamera sitcoms tend to be cheaper than dramas with ambitious location shoots.) How does the show’s ownership factor in to the calculation? (“One Day” is produced by Sony, not Netflix.)

In the end, though, “enough” means what it always does: A show gets canceled when it’s no longer worth it to the company that makes it.

Netflix, like a lot of companies these days, likes to present itself on social media as having a personality and a playful voice. It doesn’t just want your patronage; it wants a relationship. It wants to be your TV buddy you spend time with. It wants to assure you that it loves the TV that you love, the better for you to transfer some of your affection toward its #brand.

But Netflix isn’t your buddy, any more than ABC or HBO or whoever made your TV set. No corporation is. It is a concern whose purpose is to extract money from you in exchange for entertainment. Hopefully this transaction is worth it! But it remains a transaction.

Yet Netflix’s statement — praising the cast and crew (rightfully) for their great work, saying the show “felt like home” — positions Netflix as a disappointed fan, rather than a business that made a choice.

“Don’t take this as an indication your story is not important,” it says to fans who finally saw themselves represented in the show. That’s … nice. But canceling a show is literally a judgment of importance — you’re deciding what’s more important than the money you’d spend making the program.

“We must continue finding ways to tell these stories,” it says. Hey, I found a way for you! Keep making the great story you already have, using the same money gusher you used to pay $100 million for reruns of “Friends”!

On some level, I know, I’m being unreasonable. I’m not entitled to more seasons of a show just because I love it. TV needs more of the representation that “One Day” delivered, but Netflix is no more at fault for airing a mere three seasons of it than other networks that didn’t air it, or any show like it, at all.

Netflix is not a charitable enterprise. It’s well aware that appealing to diverse audiences is not just good citizenship but key to a future in which it wants to be indispensable to as many people as possible. It tweets about representation for women of color; it’s invested in series like “Dear White People” and diversely cast romantic comedies.

But long-term investment sometimes mean that when you have the high-class problem of creating an acclaimed show that doesn’t have as many viewers as you’d like, you stick with it. Or at least, you don’t cancel it yet try to retain the audience’s good will for the price of a few tweets. Yes, TV is a business. And one of the oldest principles of business is that talk is cheap.

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