Pop Culture

Why Does Netflix Keep Canceling YA Adaptations?

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Annika Barranti Klein

Staff Writer

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

First Kill. Paper Girls. The Baby-Sitters Club. I Am Not Okay With This. Anne with an E. The Midnight Club. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Have you noticed that streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime seem to just love to cancel adaptations of YA (and middle grade) adaptations before their time? I noticed, too, and I set out to figure out 1. why, and 2. if it’s actually as widespread — or as targeted — as it looks. Is it actually a YA problem, or do the YA cancellations stand out to me because I love YA? Is it an adaptation problem, a streaming problem, or just TV business as usual? It’s also been noted that a lot of the canceled series are visibly queer, which adds a layer of concern for me — are the streamers targeting queer media for kids? I certainly hope not.

To examine all of these questions, let’s look at a selection of canceled streaming adaptations. Information has been gathered from various sources, which I will link throughout. Anything that doesn’t have a source is my own conjecture; while I worked in development in Hollywood for a couple years (at the very bottom), I don’t have any inside info about these particular shows or their cancellations, and there was no streaming yet at the time — but I have a decent idea how the machine works more generally.

First, let’s look at everything Netflix has canceled. This list focuses on Netflix original series, and it does not limit those to adaptations; I think getting a fuller picture will help to spotlight whether adaptations are getting short shrift. According to Matt Fowler at IGN, when Netflix first started producing original content, it was practically a running joke that they’d never cancel anything, with Orange is the New Black (an adaptation!) running for seven seasons. Of the 92 canceled series listed on Decider, I could only confirm that 16 were adaptations, including five Marvel series.

  • Hemlock Grove ran three seasons and was canceled in 2014
  • Girlboss ran one season and was canceled in 2017
  • Iron Fist ran two seasons and was canceled in 2018
  • Luke Cage ran two seasons and was canceled in 2018
  • Daredevil ran three seasons and was canceled in 2018
  • Jessica Jones ran three seasons and was canceled in 2019
  • The Punisher ran two seasons and was canceled in 2019
  • The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ran four seasons and was canceled in 2020
  • I am Not Okay With This ran one season and was canceled in 2020
  • The Irregulars ran one season and was canceled in 2021
  • Jupiter’s Legacy ran one season and was canceled in 2021
  • Cursed ran one season and was canceled in 2021
  • The Baby-Sitters Club ran two seasons and was canceled in 2022
  • Raising Dion ran two seasons and was canceled in 2022
  • First Kill ran one season and was canceled in 2022
  • The Midnight Club ran one season and was canceled in 2022

Of these, six series — The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, I am Not Okay With This, The Irregulars, The Baby-Sitters Club, First Kill, and The Midnight Club — are YA and/or middle grade. Anne with an E is not included on the Decider list, presumably because it was made by the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC) and distributed by Netflix outside of Canada; it ran three seasons and was canceled in 2019, around the time that Netflix and the CBC dissolved their partnership (so…likely not a coincidence).

How many non-adaptations are YA? I am estimating 17 of the 92 on Decider’s list, but it’s actually hard to tell who the target audience is for some of them! I also noted that the list doesn’t include the cancellation of Julie and the Phantoms, which is the most perfect YA show of all time, non-adaptation division, so it very well may be missing other titles as well. 

It was more difficult to find a list of canceled Amazon Prime original series, so I decided to work off this list of shows canceled in 2022. Of the five series on the list, two — Paper Girls and I Know What You Did Last Summer — are both YA and adaptations; one, The Wilds, is YA and, while not an adaptation, was apparently marketed as a riff on Lord of the Flies. The other two series were both adult: sci-fi drama Night Sky and fatphobic comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which was given a final season, so barely even counts as canceled).

(As an aside, I found a list of series canceled by Amazon up to September 2021, including Good Girls Revolt, a non-YA adaptation of the book by the same name, a nonfiction look at the Newsweek lawsuit Nora Ephron was involved in. I was unable to work off that list because the website — Ranker, if you are brave enough to try — was so laden with pop-up ads that I couldn’t navigate it with all of my blockers turned on.)

Because there is less information readily available on Prime, I will mostly focus on Netflix’s cancellations. I will also be totally ignoring the Marvel shows, since those were all canceled shortly before Disney’s merger with Fox and the launch of Disney+, which makes it likely that the decisions were not made solely by Netflix. And I won’t count Anne with an E, since no one else is. I’m left with five canceled adult adaptations, five canceled YA adaptations, and my beloved BSC, which I will reluctantly remove from the discussion, since it is middle grade.

This means that 23 out of 92 total canceled series (about 25%) are YA, but nearly 50% of the canceled adaptations (again, not including Marvel) are YA. Are the numbers really too small to draw conclusions from? Yeah, probably! But when you also look at the Prime numbers, which admittedly draw from an even smaller pool, it really does feel like YA adaptations are being targeted. And importantly, teens have less say in what streaming services they subscribe to and when and what they can watch, which makes it all the worse when they are punished for not finishing a show fast enough. The access issues are reminiscent of the increased cost of YA paperbacks, and probably worth an article of their own.

So. Why does Netflix cancels original series? There are a lot of theories out there, many of them solid, but absolutely no definitive answers. Back when One Day at a Time was canceled, I remember a lot of discussion about Netflix contracts being for three seasons, with pay bumps on renewal, and speculation that they then canceled any shows that weren’t moneymakers so they wouldn’t have to increase salaries. I can’t find any of the articles that were written about this at the time, of course, but the conversations were happening. 

Peter Clines, author of the Ex-Heroes books and a property master who’s worked on several movies and TV series including Veronica Mars, offered an alternate theory on Twitter not too long ago: residuals. He goes into detail in the below thread, but the short version is that the 2007 WGA writers strike was largely over streaming (which was paying no residuals due to not existing when contracts were written), and it resulted in a terrible deal whereby streamers do not have to pay residuals on the first 24 days of streaming; it’s important to note that Netflix often cancels shows that are not viewed “enough” (more on that in a minute) in the first 28 days.

Because Netflix does not share overall viewership data, we are left without a metric like traditional television’s Nielsen ratings and have to go by whatever data Netflix chooses to share publicly. This is…not great. Forbes offered an explanation in the form of completion rates, meaning how many people watched an entire series (rather than just the first episode or some episodes) as a reason for cancellations. The article includes completion rates for several popular shows (they say they used a third party to obtain those, as Netflix doesn’t share them with, apparently, anyone), all of which were renewed for completion rates over 50% and canceled for completion rates under 50%. It seems fairly logical, but again, there is absolutely no way to confirm that data, nor is there any reason to think that completion rates are necessarily the best metric to use.

Felicia D. Henderson, showrunner of First Kill, blamed Netflix’s marketing for killing the series, which was based on a short story by V.E. Schwab from Vampires Never Get Old. Henderson told Variety, “The art for the initial marketing was beautiful. I think I expected […] that the other equally compelling and important elements of the show […] would eventually be promoted, and that didn’t happen.” Like several other canceled Netflix original series, First Kill was one of the top shows on Netflix in the two months before its cancellation, but didn’t have the completion numbers (again, whatever those are) Netflix expected to justify its price tag. 

There’s more. In 2020, Cindy Holland was let go as Netflix’s VP of television, and Bela Bajaria was promoted to global head of television. In a lengthy New Yorker profile by Rachel Syme, Bajaria describes the ideal Netflix show as a “gourmet cheeseburger,” pointing to the wildly popular adaptation Bridgerton as the gold standard. Even more recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings promoted Greg Peters and Ted Sarandos to his job and left the company. It’s impossible to guess what changes are underway as a result of these leadership changes, but it’s not unreasonable to guess that, like any media empire, a new boss will want to bring in new shows associated with them, not their predecessor.

We may be looking at even more YA adaptation cancellations in the near future.