Inside the boiler room of Netflix — which is probably a server farm the size of Delaware — they are collecting and analyzing petabytes of data from subscribers in 190 countries. Tastes, preferences, time spent watching, captions on/off, what the dog’s account is watching … you get the idea. Some of the data goes into an algorithm that suggests to every Netflix user what show to binge next. Another algorithm decides which menu thumbnails you’re most likely to click. These aren’t trivial calculations. The business model of Netflix isn’t about selling ads or iPhones — it’s about keeping the subscribers happy, or at least constantly engaged.
And it seems there’s an algorithm that tells Netflix executives which shows to renew and which ones to cut bait on. That algorithm is a stone cold killer. Just in the past few weeks, the axe has fallen on The Order, GLOW, Patriot Act, Away, Teenage Bounty Hunters, Altered Carbon and The Society.
This murder spree is notable because it’s Netflix, the leader in quality, in critics’ top-10-list-worthy shows, in Emmys — hell, The Dark Crystal picked one up days before it was canned. In response, Netflix executives point to the fact that it’s Netflix. No television channel in the world puts on as many shows, so even if just one out of three originals per season is cancelled (which they claim is industry standard), that’s a spectacular body count.
But TV’s ultimate disrupter marches to its own beat. As Deadline reported last year, Netflix structures the financing of its originals differently than other studios, so the disincentives kick in a lot sooner in the lifecycle than with trad TV. And because there’s a smorgasbord of quality out there, viewers are apt to tune away from even pretty good shows the moment they become too familiar. When that happens, Netflix always wants to have something else simmering on the stove, enticing you to stick around and not even think about trying HBO Max. (Netflix won’t have to worry about Dave Chappelle fans doing that.)
Why else put out a rare ratings release, crowing about the audience for The Queen’s Gambit, a one-and-done with just seven episodes? Netflix isn’t trying to build audience for The Queen’s Gambit. Rather, it wants the industry to know that its volume-buying approach consistently yields television’s buzziest shows. But it also seems to send another message to the industry — that the ideal TV series is one that's around just long enough to get talked about, like a Kara Walker exhibit or a pop-up restaurant.
Which brings me to the second season of Virgin River, the quirky little Netflix romcom that could. Based on the series of novels by the prolific Robyn Carr, it’s about a young doctor named Mel, played winningly by Alexandra Breckenridge, who takes a job in woodsy Northern California, far from the life in L.A. she’s trying to put behind her. She falls for handsome bar owner Jack (Martin Henderson), whose war buddy Preacher (Colin Lawrence) cooks the best kale and lentils dish in town. Mel tries to win the acceptance of the town’s longtime doctor in town, a cranky old coot with a heart of gold played by … Tim Matheson?? (Man, did I feel old when I realized that was Otter from Animal House.) Doc’s ex-wife Hope (Annette O’Toole) gives as good as she gets.
Clearly someone at Netflix was looking for an excuse to bring back that old WB favorite Everwood and give it some Northern Exposure, because that’s what Virgin River is. In traditional TV, this would be one of those comfort-food shows that goes on and on, season after season, ending old love triangles, starting new ones. But Virgin River likely won’t get long enough in the tooth for that to be a problem. It’s not for lack of content (Carr just came out with her 21st novel in the series) but lack of incentives. Networks do franchises — Grey’s Anatomy, SVU, Survivor — but Netflix does pop-ups. It has trained its audience to expect new delights every week. Networks depend on audiences faithfully following their hits. But on Netflix, the hit show is always the same — it’s Netflix. That’s why you launch that app every night. It’s got more new stuff to feast your eyes on than your inbox.
The flip side of the coin is that shows die young. Don’t blame Netflix. It’s just doing what you want it to do, whether you admit it or not. Primetimer’s Jon Hein, who watches Virgin River with his wife, consumed Season 2 and says the lovelines are already wearing thin. From what I’ve seen of the new season, I agree. Jon’s confident that "we'll be heading back for Season 3 when that inevitably rolls around,” but there’s nothing inevitable about a Netflix renewal. And by the way, I’m not saying don’t check out the new season of Virgin River. Please do! I think you’ll really like it. You may even fall in love with it. As the old saying goes, it’s better to have loved and lost than to even think about trying HBO Max.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.