Many hearts were broken when Netflix announced, in a pre-Thanksgiving, late Friday news drop, that Shadow and Bone would not be returning for a third season. Soon after, Grishaverse author Leigh Bardugo announced that a planned Crows spinoff, which had also allegedly already hired a writer’s room, would also not be moving forward at the streamer. Fantasy fans were understandably shocked by the news – how was Netflix going to cancel a show based on one of the most successful fantasy series of the last few years? Why was Shadow and Bone cancelled?
(New to Shadow and Bone? Check out the first chapter of the book here!)
This shock is not surprising because streaming television (and movies, by extension) is one of the few parts of the entertainment industry where we don’t have third-party audited and reliable data on popularity. In the US, Nielsen releases data on streaming shows, but their data has been criticized and contradicted by streamers like Netflix (and their data is not complete, since it is only US-based and only tracks what is being watched on actual television). Other companies, like Parrot Analytics, also record demand for shows, but their data is also incomplete. This is quite different from broadcast and cable television in the US in which ratings are announced every morning, the movie theatre box office, and even the Billboard Hot 100 results.
The only people who actually know how much a show is being watched are the streamers themselves, and they have pretty much kept that data secret. This has been such a big issue that data transparency was one of the big issues of the recent Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, and even after over 100 days on the picket lines they were only able to win a small data transparency victory – the streamers would share the data to a small number of WGA representatives who could then not disclose the data to anyone else.
It’s actually not suprising why streamers like Netflix, Max, Disney+, and Peacock aren’t releasing their viewership data. As Lucas Shaw (Forbes) and Matt Belloni (Puck) have pointed out, the numbers more almost everything on streaming are probably embarassingly small. It doesn’t look good to anyone, especially your shareholders, if you are flat out admitting all of your big splashy and expensive originals are failing. This is why, as Matt Belloni has noted, you only hear things like “this was Hulu’s biggest animated movie premiered on a Tuesday after the third Monday in December”. It’s all meaningless because streaming numbers for individual shows are, on the whole, lower than even legacy broadcast networks like CBS.
Netflix rocked the boat in the streaming industry when it announced that it would release the full data for nearly all of its shows and movies on a six-month basis. They released a full report, which can be downloaded here, detailing the number of minutes each of their programs were watched between January and June 2023. This was a big win for advocates for data transparency, who argue that streamers can only negotiate fairly with actors, writers, producers, etc. if everyone knows how actually popular a show or movie is*.
*And yes, a lot of the creatives who work on Netflix shows were mad about this because it did show how few people were watching their shows. Netflix can get away with it because they have enough consistent subscribers and viewers, but a platform like Peacock? If they released their true numbers no one would ever want their shows to go there because people make TV shows and movies for people to actually watch them (and I say this as someone who has loved some Peacock originals like Mrs. Davis and Poker Face).
This brings us back to Shadow and Bone, and what the data tells us about why Shadow and Bone was cancelled.
According to the report Shadow and Bone was streamed for just under 193 million minutes during its first roughly 100 days on Netflix. This ranks it as the 32nd most popular show/movie that Netflix had during its first six months of the year. Keep in mind that this ranking is a bit nebulous because comparing shows here is not always apples to apples. Netflix is only releasing how many minutes a show has been streamed, not how many people actually watched it. This makes determining popularity kind a bit tricky, because shows with more episodes and/or longer episodes will rack up more minutes viewed with fewer viewers. This is why Shadow and Bone can be cancelled even though Emily in Paris, which which ranks below Shadow and Bone, was renewed. The episodes of Shadow and Bone are roughly twice as long than Emily in Paris, which means that it has roughly half the viewers as that show.
If you do the math, Shadow and Bone’s second season was watched by roughly 10% of Netflix’s subscriber base. No one knows what Netflix is looking for, but this is not amazing. The recent WGA negotiation gives “success bonuses” to shows that reach 20% of a streaming service’s subscriber base*, which gives us some kind of idea of what streamers consider to be a “success” on their platforms. Shadow and Bone’s performance is well below that.
*I should also note that the dual WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes likely played a role in Shadow and Bone’s demise. I’m not blaming the strike (we should all support the rights of workers and unions!), but Netflix likely would have made a renewal decision about Shadow and Bone in early summer, about 3 months after release. The strikes pushed that back to late autumn, meaning that production of the new season likely wouldn’t have begun until Spring 2024 at the earliest. With all of the VFX work, this would have meant a new season arriving in Spring 2025 at the earliest. This would have been best-case scenario, and doesn’t include the scheduling tetris of a Crows spin-off either. While streamers are willing to have lengthy delays between their biggest shows like Stranger Things and Bridgerton, streamers in the past have shown that they aren’t willing to for shows with slightly smaller shows. Long waits between seasons means audiences forget about a show, requiring a new, hefty, and expensive marketing push to bring people back.
This is a further issue because Shadow and Bone is an expensive show to produce compared to Netflix shows that don’t need as many splashy sets, costumes, and VFX work. A 10% audience share might cut it for cheaper shows, but not something like this. Netflix likely had quite lofty expectations for Shadow and Bone; it was ordered to series in early 2019 coming off the halo of the monster ratings of Game of Thrones. Every streamer was putting their eggs into the epic fantasy basket, hoping for their next big hit. Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars were pumped into Shadow and Bone, The Witcher, The Rings of Power, The Wheel of Time, Cursed, His Dark Materials, Foundation, and more. The only one that has been successful in the US? The Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon. US viewers were quick to tell streamers that they weren’t generally interested in epic fantasy, especially cookie-cutter copy cats like most of the shows listed.
These big, splashy fantasy epics were always going to need big ratings to justify their bloating budgets, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic made them more expensive to film than in pre-pandemic times. In 2018-2019 when Shadow and Bone was first ordered, streamers were willing to eat these costs. The demand from shareholders was to grow subscriber numbers by any means necessary. Spend, spend, spend on content. Find the next Game of Thrones. Heck, even appealing to a niche audience if it means they’ll subscribe, like we’ve seen Paramount+ do with its many Star Trek series. What these media and tech companies quickly found out is that you can spend as much money as you want; consumers only have so much money in a depressed economy and streaming isn’t all that profitable on its best days. The mandate from shareholders changed – don’t spend money, cut costs. Make less. Bring budgets down. Disney has decided to decrease its Marvel and Star Wars output on Disney+. Warner/Discover has slashed the content on Max. Paramount+ has started cancelling and selling off its Star Trek shows. The only companies left in the big budget game are Apple and Amazon because they have such high profits from the other aspects of their business that they don’t need TV to turn a profit for them.
So, Shadow and Bone was caught in the cross-hairs of a radically changing streaming TV marketplace. Streamers are spending less and making less, making epic fantasy tv shows a risky proposition. Streamers want out of the big budget game unless you are directly related to A Game of Thrones or made by Apple/Amazon. Netflix decided that Shadow and Bone cost too much for what it was returning in terms of viewing numbers and audience engagement.
The data that Netflix has dropped doesn’t tell the whole story. It has a lot of missing information that Netflix, and other streamers, use when determining show renewals, including unique viewers and attracting different “taste clusters” (if you watched the final season of Barry, then you know!). Most importantly, the data doesn’t show us completion rates. Many fans complained that, quality-wise, Shadow and Bone season 2 was a big step down from its first season. Were people actually finishing it? People who don’t finish Season 2 don’t move onto Season 3. And the casual fan who isn’t familiar with the books probably won’t go watch a Crows spinoff if they didn’t like the parent show.
Streaming is no longer a TV-lover’s paradise. Shows are going to be cancelled more often, and fantasy shows are probably going to become exceedingly rare. Peacock dumped its planned Greenbone Saga adaptation, and it seems like Hulu is moving away from ACOTAR. Cheap and broad are back in vogue, and fantasy is, unfortunately for us fantasy lovers, neither of those things.