Now that Netflix is canceling shows, rival executives are more than happy to welcome them back down to earth.
Netflix made waves recently when CEO Reed Hastings admitted that the streaming service needed to strike a balance with its lineup and start trimming some underperforming shows from its roster. Soon after, it cut “Sense8” and “The Get Down.”
“I’m glad they’re canceling shows,” FX original programming president Nick Grad said Friday at the ATX Television Festival. “They have to start making decisions. They can’t have 10,000 shows on! It brings them back into the ecosystem, where we’re all trying to make the best shows and best decision.”
Added Hulu head of content/senior VP Craig Erwich, “they are capitalists, so I assume at any time they’re making the best decisions. If canceling shows is at the phase they are where it makes sense.”
Grad, Erwich, NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, HBO entertainment president Casey Bloys, Showtime programming president Gary Levine were all part of the network presidents panel at the ATX Television Festival that featured a wide-ranging talk about the state of the TV industry.
The execs agreed that ratings don’t matter as much any more, which means the science of determining what’s a hit has become more difficult. Bloys noted that HBO’s Sunday night ratings are now only about 30% of a show’s total audience, and “will continue to go down.” When “Game of Thrones” launched, digital made up about 2% of the show’s audience; now that share is 26% and rising.
On the bright side, Salke said she no longer wakes up at 4:45 a.m., with a pit in her stomach, to get the early overnight ratings. Of course, that’s because almost every rating is tiny – even the initial live numbers for “This Is Us.”
In accounting these shows, executives now need to take a “much bigger view,” Salke told Variety’s Debra Birnbaum, who moderated the panel. “Is there a vision here, do I believe in this? It’s a very difference business and it’s changing every hour.”
Shows are still in danger of being canceled with they’re “upside down financially, no galvanizing passion, and the showrunner is struggling with their vision. Are people talking about the show? Are you losing passionate fans, or were they never there? It’s often heartbreaking but you have to cut bait.”
In premium cable, Levine said executives can afford to be more patient, as ratings are far less important. “It’s about your continuing love of it and belief in the show, and feeling that that love is being returned by some part of the audience or the world. It could be awards media coverage, buzz, think pieces.”
It continues to be a competitive marketplace – Grad noted that FX recently lost out on a highly sought-after project to Hulu, and Erwich lamented losing something he wanted to HBO.
“Its an extraordinarily frothy market,” Erwich said. “It’s very competitive but you have to pick and choose when you’re going to go for it.”
Sometimes that means giving a greenlight to a series based off a pitch, which is something Levine said he wished the industry would stop. “Let’s actually develop something and do it right,” he said.
Erwich admitted Hulu initially started picked up straight to series because they needed shows on air quickly. Bloys added that things became so competitive that “straight to series became a mark of respect [to some showrunners].”
As for star-driven vehicles, Bloys said that virtually every major star is willing to do television. But, he added, “movie stars aren’t necessary.” Said Erwich: “The audiences love discovering people. The [competitive] arms race can take away from that.”
One major project this year with superstars ¬– HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon – was meant to be a one-season event. But Bloys confirmed that the author of the source material, Liane Moriarty, is indeed kicking around ideas for a second season. “It has to be good, the bar is pretty high,” he said. “[The stars] will only do something if it rises [to the occasion].”
Joked Grad: “Bigger Littler Lies!”
The ATX TV Festival runs June 8 – 11 in Austin, Texas. IndieWire will be on the ground throughout, so check back for more coverage this weekend.