SyFy Canceling The Expanse was Shortsighted and Inevitable
After the news of SyFy canceling The Expanse broke, a closer look at the shortsighted deal the network signed made that cancelation inevitable.
For a network that prides itself on programming that’s frequently tied to futuristic worlds and technology, SyFy Channel is sadly stuck in the past.
Last week the network, which is owned by NBCUniversal (which, in turn, is owned by Comcast), announced that it would not renew its critically acclaimed sci-fi series, The Expanse. The show will finish out its 13-episode third season, but that’s it. The response was swift and fierce. Alcon Entertainment, the production company behind The Expanse, vowed to shop the program to other networks and platforms, and fans launched several campaigns to show their support.
TV shows get canceled all the time, and while it’s usually rough on fans, especially when the show is heavily serialized and that story is only half told, there are ugly realities to the business side of TV production that can’t be ignored. If a show isn’t attracting enough viewers, it generally won’t be renewed and that’s the end of it.
But with The Expanse, the reason for the cancelation is a little more frustrating, given that it mostly stems from SyFy Channel’s own shortsighted business practices.
To be fair, The Expanse is an expensive show to produce and it was not a runaway ratings hit. It is, however, in line with most of SyFy Channel’s offerings, coming in just below The Magicians, Krypton, and the comedy Happy! Critics also rave about it (us included), with NPR going so far as to call it “the best and most important piece of science fiction to appear on the small screen in a decade.”
The show is also based on a series of best-selling books by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), and the current season of the show is sporting a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes – and that’s from both professional critics and audiences, a rare convergence on the rating site.
But despite all the positives, based on the deal SyFy struck to air The Expanse, the show’s cancelation was almost inevitable.
As Deadline notes, “the cancellation decision by Syfy is said to be linked to the nature of its agreement for the series, which only gives the cable network first-run linear rights in the U.S.” Essentially, SyFy banked heavily on the live viewings and didn’t put much – or really any stock in the digital streaming rights, which are fairly muddled. Amazon airs previous seasons for its Prime members while Netflix has the international distribution rights, but nobody can air recent episodes until long after the season concludes. As with most SyFy shows, episodes typically hit streaming platforms a few weeks before the new season launches, completely negating the benefits of streaming viewership.
For people looking to keep current and watch the show online, SyFy does offer its own online streaming site, but calling it “glitchy” is generous and you can’t access the content without a cable TV subscription anyway. Even then, there is an obtrusive logo in the corner and you have to sit through plenty of commercials. On top of that, only the third season is available on the site, forcing you elsewhere to watch the entire show.
SyFy seems to treat streaming technology as an afterthought. That may be a sign of shortsighted execs that undervalue cord cutters, or it might be a sign that its parent company Comcast is not a fan of streaming platforms.
Ironically, SyFy is overseen by NBCUniversal, and NBC is very active in streaming. Shows like Timeless are only on the air because the streaming numbers gave a huge bump to the live numbers, saving it from cancelation at the last minute. One of NBC’s bigger recent breakout hits, This is Us, reportedly earned around 47 percent of its revenue for the pilot from digital views, while the comedy The Good Place earns around 36 percent of its revenue online. So as a company that relies on ads, it has to recognize the value. Its parent company Comcast has different motivations though, especially when it comes to cable TV.
Comcast is heavily invested in cable TV packages, for proof of that just look at its current pricing structure – it varies by area, but in Portland, the only “deals” it offers include cable TV. Comcast is showing increased profits thanks in part to mobile and broadband expansions, but it is losing tens of thousands of cable subscribers per quarter. As a company, it is positioning itself for a future where cable TV packages are secondary to ala carte and streaming platforms, but it is in no rush to help that future get here faster – unless it is in control.
For several years now, Comcast has been trying to host its own online content, with mixed results. In late 2017, it began to roll out Xfinity Instant TV, an ala carte TV subscription model similar to Sling TV, with a base fee offering a handful of channels and then more available as part of individual bundles you can add on. It’s a good way to keep cord cutters on board, but it still doesn’t really answer the demands of people that want to watch their content on-demand (notwithstanding the smattering of slim and inconsistent on-demand offerings on the service).
Meanwhile, genre shows are having a renaissance of sorts on streaming platforms. Shows like Stranger Things, Black Mirror, and Lost in Space are huge hits for Netflix (and have both been renewed), while others like The Man in the High Castle for genre fans as Amazon gears up to spend hundreds of millions on genre content (most of which is going to a Lord of the Rings TV series).
There is a lot of money to be found in online streaming of both wholly original content and airing content shortly after it aired live, but SyFy either didn’t care about that or is actively trying to prevent people from using those services. Either way, it’s a futile and shortsighted battle. Even premium stations like HBO, where their money comes from direct audience subscriptions, isn’t ignoring this market. Along with its own standalone platform, HBO has a deal with Amazon to give audiences yet another way to stream its content. HBO is not leaving any money on the table, while SyFy doesn’t bother.
It’s a shame The Expanse was canceled. It’s an excellent show that did everything right – the cast is putting out award-worthy performances, the quality is high, and there seems to be a well-crafted plan at work that could see the show through for years. Having SyFy cut it loose may end up being the best thing that could happen to it if another network or platform picks it up.
Netflix would seem like an obvious possible suitor given that it owns the international rights and could – presumably – also take on the previous seasons, and while Hulu might be a longshot, it would be a great way to add original content to its lineup with minimal effort. At the moment though, it appears like Amazon Prime is the best shot for a last minute save.
Amazon currently has the domestic rights for the first two seasons of The Expanse and it has a hunger for genre TV. Part of that is down to the recent promotion of Sharon Tal Yguado to studio head after he was initially tapped specifically to develop genre TV. According to The Expanse’s prop master Jim Murray, Netflix has passed but “Amazon is our best option for pick up,” and the show’s VFX supervisor Bob Munroe said the same thing. But given the massive fan swell, others might give the show a new look.
Whatever happens to The Expanse, this should be a warning to all networks interested in producing expensive, quality TV. The audiences are there, but they need to have more options on how to watch. By not appreciating or accepting that, SyFy doomed The Expanse before it even premiered. It didn’t matter how good it was – and this season is its best yet – the network limited its reach and negated all the praise the show earned by making it difficult to jump in and catch up. Plus, without the streaming revenue, SyFy stifled its earning potential.
It’s also not surprising that the show’s numbers were slightly down this season from last, especially when you consider that there were nearly 60-million cord cutters in 2017, a 33 percent increase from 2016. And while SyFy might have some good shows, it’s probably not enough to keep people connected to an expensive TV service that better, cheaper options also serve. And if this is how SyFy continues to operate, people won’t risk watching new shows on the network for fear of sudden cancelation, no matter how good they are.
The good news is that the conversation over the cancelation is bringing more exposure to The Expanse than SyFy managed to create in three years of airing it. It has as good a chance of being saved as any high budget, serialized genre show. And if it is, it will be by a network that understands modern audiences better than one that somewhat ironically features the tagline “Imagine Greater.”