Although network TV still exists (thank god for Abbott Elementary), the streaming industry is undeniably dominant today. We’re living in an age of endless new releases from platforms like Netflix, Peacock, and Apple TV+, but also mass cancellations, binge schedules, and absurdly short seasons. For better or worse, the streaming model has changed everything about the way we consume television, but it still feels utterly incompatible with one of the biggest ways fans engage with shows: shipping. Streaming is taking the fun out of ships, and teen shows are bearing the brunt of the damage.
It took three seasons for Joey and Pacey to admit their feelings for each other in Dawson’s Creek. Emily had multiple serious relationships in Pretty Little Liars before getting together with Alison. Seth and Summer started dating fairly early on in The O.C., but their journey to being “endgame” was long and filled with obstacles over four seasons. All of these relationships had intense build-ups, highs and lows, and clear growth. Now try to picture Joey and Pacey’s romance happening today. Dawson’s Creek would probably be an eight-episode Netflix series, released all at once and then canceled after its first season. We’d almost certainly never make it long enough to hear Pacey’s iconic “I remember everything” monologue.
Per its most basic definition, “shipping” is the act of wanting two characters to get together. It’s always been around, and it’s a particularly big element of teen shows, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans arguing over Buffy and Spike or Buffy and Angel to viewers rooting for Cheryl and Toni on Riverdale. The relationships between characters are an important part of a show, and it makes sense that viewers would get very invested in them. But it’s hard to do that when it feels like so many shows are being canceled so quickly these days.
In just 2022 alone, Netflix canceled 20 of its original shows, including several with passionate fan bases and relatively high viewership numbers. HBO Max has also canceled a hefty number of major titles (and purged some existing shows from the platform altogether). Of course, not every show is doomed to be canceled after just one season. But the looming threat raises the question: why bother getting deeply invested in a show, much less the relationships between the characters, when you know there’s a good chance it won’t survive? It’s especially unfortunate that so many teen shows with diverse characters and ships have been impacted. Warrior Nun and First Kill were praised for their sapphic representation, but both shows were swiftly canceled (the former after two seasons, the latter after just one). This, despite the fact that Warrior Nun had the highest audience rating of any Netflix show, and still ranks above the vast majority of action-adventure shows in U.S. viewer demand.
There’s also the increasingly low episode counts to consider. This itself isn’t a new phenomenon — the number of episodes and seasons have always varied based on the platform, and many cable shows have traditionally had more abbreviated seasons compared to broadcast. But shorter seasons and the threat of cancellation have become the norm with the advent of streaming. Season 1 of Dawson’s Creek may have only been 13 episodes long, but it ultimately had six seasons to grow, develop the characters, try out different pairings, and see which relationships proved to be the most compelling. Most shows — and ships — simply don’t have that same breathing room nowadays, with some seasons running for as few as five or six episodes.
There are myriad reasons for this shift, from freeing up room to green-light more shows to having smaller writers’ rooms. When it comes to developing rich relationships between characters, a limited number of episodes can be a major challenge. If you only get 10 episodes a season and don’t know if your show will be renewed, you simply don’t have time for slow-burn ships, “will they/won’t they?” dynamics, breakups that last more than an episode, or exploring multiple love interests.
Everything must move quickly and with purpose — forget filler episodes, holiday specials, or anything that isn’t absolutely crucial to the plot. The O.C.’s “The Mallpisode” wasn’t a particularly plot-heavy episode, but it was still important because it let us see how the friend group’s dynamics had shifted and it established that Marissa still had feelings for Ryan. Without that episode, the couple getting back together a few episodes later would have felt abrupt and unearned. When you take away crucial elements like this, you leave audiences with the bare bones of ships that could have been far more captivating if they’d simply had time to grow and develop organically.
Degrassi is just one example of a show whose on-screen relationships suffered under the streaming model. The franchise started all the way back in 1979, but one of its most famous iterations was Degrassi: The Next Generation, which ran on Canadian and US networks for 14 seasons. While earlier seasons were shorter, later seasons had as many as 44 episodes per season. When The Next Generation was canceled in 2015, Netflix relaunched it as a “new” original show titled Degrassi: Next Class. The new format featured 10 episodes a season and 24 minutes per episode, released in a binge format (two seasons of which were filmed back-to-back). This installment only lasted a year on Netflix, totaling four brief seasons.
One of the factors that may have led to the show’s premature demise? A lack of time to build those same meaningful relationships that made earlier generations of Degrassi so popular. “It was a real learning curve going to streaming," creator Linda Schuyler explained to me in an interview for BuzzFeed in 2020. "It wasn't so much of the big issues that were a problem — it was the relationship issues. Because if you've got 10 episodes, and it takes place over 10 weeks, [a couple] can get together, break up, and get back together again. But if they do that in a binge format, it seems like too fast and too much."
Netflix's That '90s Show, a sequel series to That ‘70s Show, also weathered the effects of this streamlined approach. The love triangle between Leia, Jay, and Nate in the Season 1 finale seemed to come out of nowhere. Maybe I missed some subtle hints at a budding romance throughout the season, but when Leia and Nate almost kissed, I had to pause and check to make sure I hadn’t accidentally skipped something. That ‘70s Show played with love triangles too, and usually executed them well, but the “Leia and Nate have feelings for each other” revelation felt too rushed and out of the blue. This new love triangle might have worked better if it had come in Season 2, after all the characters had spent more time together. Leia and Nate’s connection needs to be believable, and fans need to be fully emotionally invested in the existing relationship between Leia and Jay. Otherwise, who cares who ends up with whom?
Ultimately, shipping being less fun may be a symptom of a larger problem with the streaming model. There’s an abundance of new premieres and releases every week, but very few live in the cultural conversation for long. It’s incredibly difficult to craft the next big ship when you’ve only got a few episodes to convince the audience.
A successful teen drama romance earns the support of shippers gradually, the way Veronica Mars did with the Logan and Veronica relationship. When viewers first met Logan, he was a total jackass and not at all someone viewers could imagine with Veronica. But as Logan’s character evolved, so did his dynamic with Veronica. It didn’t take long for them to have their first kiss, but their deep love was seasons in the making. Our investment in their relationship grew naturally and organically. By the time Logan gave the “I thought our story was epic” speech, we understood exactly where he was coming from. We didn’t have to be convinced that they had a connection, we had witnessed it.
Well-developed relationships like these are a rarity on teen shows nowadays, but great couples do still exist, even on streaming services. Take Ginny and Marcus’ relationship in Netflix’s Ginny & Georgia — the show has gradually established their messy dynamic, making us believe their connection, and developing both characters individually. But if the series had been canceled after one season or if the actors hadn’t clicked right away, it wouldn’t have worked. Degrassi: Next Class won fans over with Miles and Lola’s relationship in just a few episodes, but the ship still had so much potential left unexplored.The odds are stacked against streaming shows, making it incredibly challenging to get ships right these days. Until streaming executives allow shows to pause and catch their breath, Dawson’s Creek-style relationships will become a relic of the past.
Kelly Martinez is an entertainment freelance writer covering all things TV, movies, and fandoms. She is based in Los Angeles.
TOPICS: Streaming TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, First Kill, That '70s Show, That '90s Show, Warrior Nun, Shipping