I started watching ABC’s The Middle when I was 13. The show was on its fourth season, and I excitedly caught up in time for the fifth season premiere. I remained a devoted viewer until the series’ end in 2018, eagerly catching it on Wednesday nights, and then Tuesdays once ABC made the risky—and ultimately effective—move to have it spearhead a second comedy block.
The Middle was never a ratings crown jewel. It wasn’t an awards magnet, nor was it at the epicenter of cultural conversations. Still, it ran for nine seasons and 215 episodes, wrapping with a pre-announced final season that cemented the show as a charming slice-of-life sitcom.
That was just five years ago, but the television world that The Middle benefited from has fast evaporated in the streaming era. Instead, in the decade since Netflix launched its first original series, the TV industry has catapulted in a direction even less hospitable than the conditions that led to the last writers strike.
The 2007-2008 writers’ strike came as streaming was in its infancy, and the TV industry looked quite a bit different. Broadcast was still king and live ratings still told the bulk of the story, but writers were already honing in on the growing use of streaming and the increasingly complicated way to calculate residuals.
The 2023 strike has arrived in an entirely different TV world, streamers stifling writers through a “new media” loophole despite streaming’s dominant role in modern TV viewing. But this writers’ strike can’t solely be put on the network executives and their inability to adopt a modern outlook on the old-school TV model.
Streamers had a chance to enter the fray with a new ideal for television, providing a lasting home for shows too niche for broadcast. They had a chance to polish the broadcast model’s obvious flaws and help grow the medium, whilst maintaining the tried-and-true methods that had created classic series.
But Netflix in particular has shown time and time again that the streaming era is not kind to creativity, nor is it the oasis of “peak TV” audiences once dreamed it was.
Rather, it’s the most corporate the TV industry has ever been. It’s a hostile environment that treats writers like disposable cogs in a machine, stifling them not only in terms of simple pay, but longevity.
Scrolling through Netflix’s original catalog is a depressing graveyard of half-baked ideas and forgotten series, with just a handful of shows managing to escape early death. For every miraculous hit, there’s the corpse of Santa Clarita Diet to step over.
Netflix debuted its first original series in 2013. Kicking off with House of Cards, the streamer quickly entered the conversation as a bright up-and-comer sure to shake up the television industry. The service’s longest series is Grace and Frankie, which aired seven seasons and 94 episodes from 2015 to 2022. On the drama side, the longest running show is one of the streamer’s first: Orange is the New Black, which ran for seven seasons and 91 episodes.
Animated series Big Mouth is set to usurp both in season count with its upcoming eighth and final season, although it’ll fall short in episodes with 81. The Crown’s upcoming sixth season will make it Netflix’s longest-running current drama—although it’ll be the series’ last. It is one of just three Netflix dramas to surpass four seasons.
Aside from Grace and Frankie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the only live-action comedy to crack 50 episodes—and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.
Netflix’s longest-running ongoing comedy is Sex Education, which has popped out three seasons and 24 episodes since its 2019 debut and has a fourth on the way. Never Have I Ever is set to end with its upcoming fourth season, while comedies Emily in Paris and The Upshaws are also set to air a fourth season (or a fourth “part,” in the latter’s case). Not even 10 scripted originals have hit the 50 episode mark, and that trend has only gotten bleaker in recent years with most new series struggling to make it to a second or third season.
The thing about The Middle is its run wasn’t extraordinary. It was a quiet utility player whose ratings rarely exceeded the status quo, but it maintained its role as an ABC comedy staple for a decade, alongside flashier power player Modern Family.
For every mammoth hit like Modern Family and Seinfeld, there’s an unremarkable staple just filling a gap on a TV schedule. CBS’ Rules of Engagement ran for seven seasons right around the ratings average of its peers, popping out 100 episodes as a stopgap whenever the network needed to replace a fall flop. Fringe spent half of its low-rated five-season run making use of Fox’s Friday night death slot.
Obviously, TV has always been a cutthroat industry where cancellations are plentiful, but at least there was a hope—for audiences and writers alike—that you’d end up with a regular fixture of the network’s schedule. That just isn’t possible in the parameters Netflix has created. The company’s churn-and-burn mentality seems to look at TV shows as a necessary evil to maintain subscriber growth, rather than the content designed to elicit fan engagement and network loyalty.
It’s not just that TV seasons have shrunk astronomically, but streamers seem adamantly unwilling to create a long-lasting series. And it’s not a problem exclusive to Netflix.
Ted Lasso became a surprise hit for Apple TV+ in fall 2020, so it was no surprise when the series was renewed for a second, 12-episode season—practically the biggest size a streamer is willing to greenlight at this point. And it wasn’t shocking when the series scored itself a third season, either. What is shocking, however, is the decision to cap the series at the end of this season. Really, we can’t pretend it’s a quality issue as Ted Lasso began as a blissfully mediocre show and has rapidly deteriorated since.
The show’s ending isn’t an outlier in the streaming era, which seems to see shows as a fad to burn through bright and fast, like a TikTok trend. That’s not what TV was built on, and it’s the last way to build viewer loyalty. TV’s charm is the ability to follow characters through the highest of stakes and the little, everyday moments.
Friends would be a lesser show had they cut the filler and robbed us of the episode where Rachel and Chandler repeatedly steal their neighbor’s cheesecake. Desperate Housewives wouldn’t have been such a soapy staple without its one-off episode celebrating the neighborhood handyman. And the thought of losing the Queen of Jordan episodes of 30 Rock sends a chill down my spine.
Look, I love a short-lived cult classic. Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23 is one of TV’s greatest entries and its 26-episode run doesn’t change that. But its ratings were trash, and if I could watch 10 seasons of Chloe (Krysten Ritter) and June (Dreama Walker), I absolutely would.
Meanwhile, even Netflix’s greatest hits are fighting for their lives to hit a fourth season. Grace and Frankie is an astronomical outlier; it’s practically the Law & Order: SVU of streaming series.
Netflix could’ve been a refuge for writers, a place where the barriers of network TV were removed and shows once deemed inaccessible could find a proper home. It could have been the premier streamer for audiences burnt by shows mistreated by network TV. Instead, the streamer has failed both writers and viewers, exacerbating the environment that created this writers’ strike.
At its relatively young age, you could argue Netflix is simply building up its long-running tier, slowly but surely. But really, it’s the opposite. The days of Netflix originals routinely making it to a third or fourth season are long gone.
Netflix’s longest running ongoing comedy premiered in 2019. Its longest running ongoing drama, Stranger Things, premiered in 2016 (and has only dropped four seasons since). Only seven ongoing English-language scripted originals (not including children’s content) premiered before 2020. If you include shows the streamer acquired before 2020 (Black Mirror, You and British drama Top Boy), that buffs the number up to 10.
This comes as the streamer has spread itself thin with a deluge of reality TV content, shows like Queer Eye and Selling Sunset comfortably strolling to long runs in recent years. Netflix’s aggressively one-note model leaves no room for the mid-tier shows. If your show isn’t blowing up and the next viral hit, how can it be expected to survive?
Netflix isn’t a place for The Middle. It’s not somewhere 9-1-1 could happily stroll into a mainstay franchise. And it’s certainly not the platform for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to deliver a four-season run—an ironic twist given the CW’s licensing deal with Netflix may have been the only thing preserving that show’s lifespan.
Even now, some of Netflix’s biggest selling points come from shows it hasn’t even created. Many casual fans may even assume Riverdale is a Netflix original due to its summer 2017 blowup.
In 2022, Grey’s Anatomy, Gilmore Girls, Seinfeld, and Supernatural were all in the top 15 overall streamed programs thanks to Netflix, according to data by Nielsen. Grey’s Anatomy managed to outstream all but three Netflix originals—Stranger Things, Cocomelon and Ozark—showing the monstrous strength of Netflix’s licensed catalog.
And it’s not as though Netflix took a backseat on original content last year. The streamer dropped more than 50 scripted original seasons in 2022 (again, not including children’s series). Ultimately, dozens of originals a year don’t mean a whole lot if 90 percent flame out before they reach 20 episodes. Audiences aren’t stupid, they don’t want to invest in shows with no foreseeable future.
From the streamer’s ironic Blockbuster sitcom to the On My Block spinoff Freeridge, you can expect practically any new comedy to meet certain death. Even cult hits like First Kill, which garnered a passionate LGBTQ+ fanbase, have struggled to make it past the first season, while hyped-up Riverdale spinoff Chilling Adventures of Sabrina only scored itself two seasons (or four parts).
Then there’s COVID casualties like Glow and The Society, who had their renewals snatched away without a chance to properly wrap. It’s worthless to invest in an avalanche of unfinished stories, making the streamer’s multitude of originals more of a depressing display than a true show of the roster’s strength.
The streamer’s executives don’t seem to understand that building a truly strong original catalog means having layered content, and layered expectations. It requires an understanding that, alongside the massive event that Strangers Things provides every three years, you need a proper repertoire of low-budget, subdued shows to build subscriber loyalty.
You need to have the mentality of someone who actually watches and enjoys TV. Netflix’s executive decisions come across so painfully robotic that I truly question if anyone at the helm has ever been a fan of a TV show not named The Masked Singer.
There’s really no financial reason Netflix hasn’t fostered a strong comedy brand, regular procedural dramas, and a slew of primetime soap operas. In a world where Friends and The Office still maintain so much streaming power and gussied-up soaps like Succession and The White Lotus dominate the cultural conversation, there’s a clear appetite for the bread-and-butter of TV’s past.
Just look at the success of Abbott Elementary, a show utilizing the classic sitcom mold in a wonderfully modern fashion. Try to imagine for even a second that Netflix could create a comedy hit of the same caliber.
But here’s the simple truth: They do not want to.
What it comes down to is that if streamers want to truly position themselves as the leaders of the TV industry, they should recognize you need a valuable catalog to do that.
Take a look at ABC’s 2011-2012 TV schedule, which featured new seasons of Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Modern Family, The Middle, Private Practice, and Castle, alongside newbies Revenge, Scandal, Once Upon a Time and Last Man Standing. That right there is 10 shows that usurped 50 episodes and—with the exception of Revenge—ran six or more seasons. In one season, ABC modeled what Netflix has failed to do in 10 years.
What will represent Netflix 10 years from now? How can any up-and-coming TV writer find comfort in the streamer’s growing hostility towards any sense of stability? There’s only one consistency with Netflix: brutal ineptitude.