Dude, where's my streaming TV show? - Transcripts

March 10, 2023

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Over the past year, dozens of shows have been disappearing from streaming platforms like HBO Max and Showtime. Shows like Minx, Made for Love, FBoy Island, and even big budget hits like Westworld have been removed entirely.

So why did these platforms, after investing millions of dollars in creating original content, decide not just to cancel those shows, but to make them unavailable altogether?

We dive into the economics of the television industry looking for answers to a streaming mystery that has affected both fans and creatives. And we find out what happens when the stream runs dry.

This episode was produced by Willa Rubin with help from Emma Peaslee. It was edited by Keith Romer. Engineering by Josh Newell. Sierra Juarez checked the facts. Jess Jiang is our acting executive producer.

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+ in Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.


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This is Planet Money from NPR. When it comes to sifting through the overwhelming amount of streaming TV shows these days,

Em Lund has a pretty simple strategy. I don't watch things to the end if I don't like them. If a show doesn't hold me for the first few episodes, I'm like, well, it's not for me. You don't fall for the sunk costs fallacy. No, time is precious.

My attention is precious. So last fall when she got hooked on a new HBO Max show

called Made For Love, it was kind of a big deal. The show is a sort of dystopian dark comedy about a woman trying to leave her tech billionaire husband only to find out that he's implanted a chip in her brain. A prototype for a chip he wants to sell to the public

as a way to help couples sync up. We've created your phones, your computers, your software

and now it's time for love to evolve too.

It's funny and it's also so dark and sad.

We made it possible because you were Made For Love. And also Ray Romano plays her father and he's like very endearing. Still as lovable as ever? Yes, and he is dating or partnered with Robert Sockstall and it's just so absurd.

It sort of reminded me of what is exciting about television.

Em blew through all the episodes in just a couple of days. Yeah, I was sort of obsessed with the show for a second and I was telling everyone I thought would like it

that they should watch it. But then just a few weeks later before any of her friends had gotten the chance to take her up on the recommendation, Em came across a tweet

with a kind of confusing piece of news. HBO Max's parent company had announced that Made For Love was being removed from the platform. Not just that they wouldn't be making any new episodes. The two seasons that had already been made would disappear from the service altogether. At least in the US, no one would be able to stream it and there wouldn't be a way to buy or rent the episodes from other platforms.

It was just sort of entering this digital limbo. And I remember talking to at least one of my other friends where I was like, so I hope you didn't start it because now you're never gonna get to see it. No narrative closure for you. Yeah, and we spent some time being like, why would they do this? It makes no sense and it just pisses us off.

No narrative closure. And Em and her friends were not the only ones left wondering about why their favorite shows were vanishing. Because it wasn't just Made For Love that's disappeared mysteriously over the past year. And it wasn't just from HBO Max. Dozens of shows from reboots like The Twilight Zone to lusty reality shows like F-Boy Island to prestige blockbusters like Westworld. All of a sudden they were just gone. Hello and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Alexei Horowitz-Gazi.

And I'm Nick Fountain. Today on the show, Why Is This Happening?

What is the economic logic for why these streaming platforms are taking down shows they've already paid millions of dollars to make? And what does this mean for the future of all our other favorite shows? To figure out why streaming shows like Made For Love are being mysteriously disappeared, we knew we were gonna have to visit every corner of Hollywood.

From the writer's room to the boardroom. And to start our quest for clues, we went to Made For Love's creator and showrunner, Alyssa Nutting.

Who is completely obsessed with making TV? I am a workaholic who loves stories.

Like what are your hobbies? I don't have hobbies.

I mean, really, like I wanna be inside of a story every second of the day.

Today's your lucky day.

We're inside one right now. The Alyssa story goes something like this. A young writer with bills to pay, a kindergarten age daughter, and dreams of becoming a television showrunner

publishes a novel called Made For Love back in 2017. She then spends about a year shopping the story around two Hollywood studios. And as it happened, she could not have picked a better time in television history to try to get into the business. Netflix had inspired panic among all the legacy media companies and tech juggernauts. These companies had rolled out their own new streaming services, and they were in the market for all sorts of content.

Like Quibi was sort of, you know, like a whisper on everybody's lips. Disney Plus, Hulu. There were all kinds of places, and it was just like, you know, cable is dead and, you know, this is the future.

So Alyssa was thrilled when her show got picked up. And even better, when she found out, it was going to HBO Max.

Were you in HBO, Stan? Oh, absolutely. The Wire, Sopranos, True Detective, True Blood,

really everything they made.

And now Made For Love.

Right, yes, so it felt great. It's probably worth mentioning here that NPR receives financial support from HBO. Also, seemingly every other streaming company, Amazon Prime, Apple, which owns Apple TV, and also FX, the National Geographic Channel, and 20th Century Fox, which are all owned by Disney.

Anyways, back to Alyssa's story. Alyssa quickly discovered that getting a show green lit and actually making that show are very different things.

Yeah, turns out being in charge of a prestige TV operation means basically having to give up

everything else in your life. You can be a showrunner, you know, and a mother, but you can only do one of them well, I think, at any given time. And I always chose the one that had, like, millions of dollars and hundreds of people counting on me

to do my job well and hundreds of- Sorry, kid. But finally, after more than a year of work, the show comes out, gets positive reviews, and her hard work pays off. Made For Love gets picked up for another season.

Alyssa had kinda made it. Even last summer, when she found out that the show would not be renewed for a third season, she was disappointed, but she figured, you know, that's show business. She'd proven to herself and to her future employers that she could do the thing. And anyone who wanted to see her show

could just pull up HBO Max and watch it. But then, Alyssa starts to hear about something troubling

happening to other shows at HBO Max. I remember hearing something, oh, your rumor,

about the Gordita Chronicles, you know, maybe disappearing. The Gordita Chronicles was another HBO Max original. Like Made For Love, the show had gotten good reviews and had a fiercely loyal following, and now it was apparently at risk

of being removed from the platform entirely. And I mean, I was just so shocked, you know, because it's such a great show and had such, you know, wonderful critical reception.

I remember feeling like, okay, like nothing safe. Last August, HBO Max pulled dozens of shows and original movies off of their platform. From children's programming, like the Sesame Street spin-off, the not-too-late show with Elmo,

to period dramas like Vinyl. Now, both the Gordita Chronicles and Made For Love survived that round. But for Alyssa, the whole thing was both terrifying and kind of baffling.

How does that make any sense? You know, like if they have more shows on their streamer and things for people to watch, isn't it kind of like more money for them?

And this just doesn't feel logical. Rumors going around on social media suggested that these moves had something to do with cost-cutting at HBO Max's parent company,

and specifically something to do with tax write-offs. In a particularly meta moment, John Oliver joked about this theory about HBO Max on his own show, streaming on HBO Max. Riffing on the company's old slogan,

it's not TV, it's HBO. HBO Max, it's not TV,

it's a series of tax write-offs to appease Wall Street. Now, let's poke at that theory a little bit. Here's how it goes. Last spring, HBO Max's parent company Warner Media was spun off by its former owner and merged with Discovery. And as part of that deal, the new company, Warner Brothers Discovery, had to take on around $50 billion in debt. And the company made plans to cut back on spending in all these different ways,

including went the idea on their tax bill. Taxes for companies in the content game long had very specific rules because of how the business works. Movies and TV shows cost a ton of money upfront to make, but then the money they earn comes in over the course of years as more and more people watch. So for a long time, companies were required to spread out their expenses, to write off all the money they spent on the front end

over the course of roughly the next decade. And the whole tax write-off theory seemed to hinge on the idea that Warner Brothers Discovery was saying, you know, all those shows that were taken down, they represent a loss to us. We spent a bunch of money on them and we don't expect to get that money back. So let's just skip that whole spreading out the cost over 10 years thing and just take the whole tax write-off right now.

That theory, we should say, turned out to be mostly wrong, at least in the case of TV shows like Made For Love. First, recent changes to the tax code mean that media companies no longer always have to wait to write off their expenses. And whatever savings Warner Brothers Discovery might've gotten on its tax bill probably wouldn't be worth all that much compared to the money they could still expect to make from those shows.

But for Made For Love showrunner Alyssa, whether the tax write-off theory was right or wrong was besides the point. For her, all that really mattered was that last December,

more shows started getting taken down. I would read any article about a show disappearing and my first reaction was relief when I didn't see our show's name included. I just was like, please, just not us, please, just not us,

please, just not us. Then one morning last December, she got the news. Made For Love was being removed from HBO Max. Though Alyssa did not hear about it from an executive at the company. Instead, a friend sent her a link to an article about it

before Alyssa even got out of bed. I woke up to this text message and I remember putting the phone back down, closing my eyes and thinking like, let's just try waking up again and maybe I'll get a different result. But yeah, I picked it back up and I saw it again

and it was really sad. Alyssa had dedicated years of her life to making this show with the expectation that it would kind of live on forever.

And now all of a sudden, it was just going dark. And the real reasons behind what was happening to her show turned out not to be about tax write-offs, but about these tectonic shifts remaking the entertainment industry. That's after the break.

Hey, Jeff Guo here. Maybe you heard our recent story, Meow Money Meow Problems. It's about a small town where stray cats were bequeathed hundreds of thousands of dollars

in a charitable trust. Who's this? That's Bandit. Hi, how are you?

Bandit. Bandit. Now you can go behind the scenes of our reporting and production process in our recent bonus episode.

There is this deep mystery embedded what happened to all this money.

It doesn't just vanish. That episode is available now for Planet Money Plus supporters. If that's not you, it could be. Check out the link in our episode notes.

In order to puzzle through why HBO Max seemed to be shelving so many streaming shows, we reached out to Warner Brothers Discovery, but they didn't make anybody available for an interview. We also read through their SEC filings, listened to earnings calls, but it was mostly corporate speak without a whole lot of clarity. So we went in search of a guide to this world

and we found David Offenberg. As far as I can tell, I am the only tenured finance professor in the world

specializing in film and TV. David teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. And as part of that job, he's constantly calling up Hollywood execs and asking them to confidentially spill the beans

about the industry's latest financial machinations. And now my brain is swollen

with really obscure film and TV finance facts. We ran theory number one, the tax write-off theory by David. And he said, that would probably not free up enough money to justify taking a show off your platform on its own.

But he did have a theory number two. Theory number two is that HBO Max

is trying to also save on residuals. Residuals. Residuals are the fees that a television network has to pay a show's cast and crew every time the program is run more than once. David says this system started back

in the early days of television. When the television channel would rebroadcast the same show and the actor said, hey, you're making money on that, but I should be making money on that too,

because you're using my performance. If the network is gonna sell ads every time they rerun the show that I wrote or directed or starred in, why should they get to keep all that money for themselves? Residuals are a way to make sure all these stakeholders get a little cut of the rerun action. And David explains a similar system has developed for streaming services, except they pay a flat fee annually

instead of on a rerun by rerun basis. So every year that a streaming platform like HBO Max decides to keep a show on its site, it is agreeing to pay out all the original writers and directors and actors, regardless of how many people

are actually watching their work. One thing I can tell you about Residuals is that they are more expensive in earlier years of the show's life and less expensive in later years. And so there is something of a heightened incentive to cancel a show and take it off the platform early in its life,

because that's when the Residuals are most expensive. David says that for an almost brand new show like Made For Love, pulling it down could potentially save the streaming service millions of dollars in Residuals payments. By taking down some shows, platforms might also be cutting down on the costs of profit sharing deals with big stars or royalties for things like the right

to use a hit song in an episode. But David says the possible explanations for these disappearing shows doesn't stop there. And this is where theory number three comes in, the revaluation of shows theory. For this theory, you gotta think back to the moment a few years ago when the streaming platforms were feeling spendy, because the name of the game then was just to scale up as fast as possible, try to avoid being devoured by Netflix. And so execs were greenlighting shows to fill their streaming libraries as fast as they could.

And the hope was that those libraries would become synonymous with each streaming company's brand and assure customers that they'd never run out of that sweet, sweet premium content. If you signed up for HBO Max, that meant you could graze your way through every episode of Girls

and True Detective at your leisure. Then last spring, reports started cropping up about how this whole strategy might have started to stall out.

Netflix reported its first quarter earnings for 20s. Streaming giant losing, losing 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter. This is the first time Netflix has lost subscribers in a decade. That is when the fantasy of an endlessly growing subscriber base

came to an abrupt halt. I would say the music at the streaming party stopped the day that Netflix announced it lost subscribers. That was the moment where the mentality in streaming switched from growth

to maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. Netflix itself did seem to bounce back, but the last year has been brutal for most of the other major streaming platforms. Collectively, they've lost billions of dollars

in the last quarter. And while Warner Brothers Discovery may have pioneered this strategy of pulling shows from their platform,

they are not alone. Warner Brothers took the hit for the industry. They got the heat, they got the blame. And then every other streamer around town looked at that and said, ooh, that's a good idea. We should do that too.

And so it's definitely becoming the industry norm. And the boom times for TV show runners and actors and writers and best boys

may be coming to an end. The business is maturing. And so because of that, fewer decisions are being made by the entrepreneurs in the room

and more are being made by the accountants. Which helps to explain why we've started to see all these different streaming companies crack down on password sharing, raise subscription prices, and pull back on developing new shows.

Have we all just been living in like a subsidized dream world for the past five years

when it comes to streaming content? We have absolutely been living in a subsidized dream world. This is why these companies are losing so much money on their streaming platforms. It's because they've been subsidizing them for the past few years to get to scale, to get subscribers. And they can't sustain it.

And this is where we circle back to theory number three, the revaluation of shows theory. Because in the boom times, smaller, less popular shows could be justified because maybe they brought in a niche audience that grew the overall subscriber base. But David says with this increased focus on the bottom line, things are now a little more cut and dry.

There's two ways a show adds value to a streaming platform. One is, does it bring in new subscribers? And two, does it retain existing subscribers?

So think about what happens when a new season of Bridgerton comes out and you're like, oh yeah, I gotta sign back up for Netflix right now. Bridgerton is the kind of show that goes in category one, bringing in new subscribers.

It's like a gateway show. Yeah, and Netflix expects some of those customers to cancel their subscriptions once they've binged whatever they signed up for. But they are hoping that they have enough stuff on offer to keep people around between the blockbusters. Which brings us to category number two,

the shows that retain subscribers, the retainers. So this would be like you've finished the new season of Bridgerton and you're going through salacious romance withdrawal. And as you are frantically scrolling through Netflix, you stumble across, I don't know, the Tinder Swindler. And you're like, well, I might as well burn through

this one too now that I'm already signed up.

Yeah, Tinder Swindler, that's a classic retainer. Now at this point, if a show is not in one of those two categories, it might fall into the dreaded category of library shows. The ones that streaming platforms used to rely on to give their subscribers the impression of an endless universe of content. But now the value of being a library show

has gone way, way down. And what the streaming services have found is that people don't watch those library shows very much. They sit there, they accrue residuals costs,

and they're not actually getting watched. But just because many shows are bringing in fewer subscription dollars than they are costing these streaming companies, that does not mean that these shows are completely worthless. There are all sorts of new platforms and even old cable channels that would love to get their hands on some premium content that up until now has been locked away as part of this library hoarding model.

Which brings us to our final theory in the case of the disappearing shows,

the yard sale theory. So all of these shows that HBO Max has taken down represent a library of assets that could be sold. So it's not just that they're taking them off the platform to cut residuals, but they could actually sell these assets

to other providers. Yeah, in fact, some of the biggest titles to have been taken off HBO Max are already being licensed to other streamers. Shows like Westworld, Raised by Wolves, and Yes, F-Boy Island are all being sold off to platforms like 2B, where, get this, you'll be able to watch them for free, but you gotta watch some ads. Or if you wanna go even more retro, some you'll be able to watch on DVD.

It is kind of a new era. One that Warner Brothers Discovery President and CEO David Zasloff, who insists on calling subscribers subs,

seemed to acknowledge in an earnings call last year. I believe the grand experiment, chasing subs at any cost, is over. Let's face it, the strategy to spend money with abandon while making a fraction in return, all in the service of growing sub numbers,

has ultimately proven to be deeply flawed. In the big picture, finance professor David Offenberg says that what this all means for the rest of us is that this golden age where we've been served more Netflix than we could ever possibly chill to,

that is coming to an end. I think the peak of streaming was 2021, where we had a ton of streaming services with a ton of great shows at low subscription prices. And we are never going back to that. We are gonna have fewer streaming services going forward as they consolidate. We are gonna have higher prices, as we've seen, and we're gonna have fewer shows. We're gonna have to watch whatever they serve us,

just like CBS, NBC, and Fox and ABC in the old days. For now, at least, shows like Made For Love remain stuck in limbo between the old way of doing things and the new one. Alyssa Nutting, the show's creator, says she's had talks about how and where Made For Love might be able to stream again,

but no deal has been made so far. As for Em Lund, the Made For Love superfan who recommended the show to all her friends before finding out it had been removed, she says this whole debacle has her reconsidering her relationship to all the streaming platforms,

but really HBO Max in particular. Like, as they pull things from their streaming service,

I think about canceling my subscription just out of spite. She is still holding onto the world where we could depend on streaming platforms to keep their libraries up forever, so that a show she loves today

would still be there tomorrow. And that if I go and recommend it to friends, if they wait three weeks to go watch it, it will still be up on the website.

That seems like a fair request, that your credibility isn't impugned by the disappearance of your recommendation

within a week or two. Right? I'm losing friends over this, it's terrible.

Though, friends, the TV series, that you can still stream on HBO Max. At least for now.

Quick reminder that we wanna hear from you about what we're doing well at Planet Money and what we could improve. We got a short anonymous survey at n.pr.pmsurvey. It takes less than 10 minutes, and it would be a huge help to us if you filled it out. And again, it is at n.pr.pmsurvey.

Also, there's a link to it in the show notes. Today's episode was produced by Willa Rubin with help from Emma Peasley. It was edited by Keith Romer, engineered by Josh Newell, and fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Jess Jang is our acting executive producer. Special thanks to Jamila White, Jonathan Handel, Elon Haimoff, Skyler Moore, Theodore Garcia, and Eric Deggans.

I'm Alexey Horowitz-Gazzi. And I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR.

Thank you for listening.