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BoJack Horseman’s finale signals the end of a Netflix era

BoJack premiered in 2014, during an entirely different Netflix era

When it premiered in 2014, it was one of Netflix’s earliest, best shows — and it would have failed in 2020.

BoJack Horseman, one of Netflix’s longest-running shows, comes to an end this Friday. But it’s unclear if BoJack Horseman would have succeeded if it was ordered today. It’s a show that needed time to breathe, and that’s a luxury most shows don’t get on Netflix anymore.

BoJack Horseman feels like the end of an era for Netflix, one that produced long-running series like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. All three shows were ordered by Netflix between 2013 and 2014, an ambitious time for the company. This was a period when Netflix didn’t have a new series or movie every week. Netflix slowly started rolling out original series to its subscribers, designed to exist alongside and stand out from the plethora of licensed series already on the service.

To get shows like House of Cards, which was in the middle of a bidding war between other networks, Netflix had to do the impossible: pay for two seasons upfront. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter in 2013 that Netflix didn’t want to echo a network like Starz by taking a sheepish approach to “seeing what sticks.”

“For us, I wanted to know that if it didn’t work, it was because it was a bad idea,” Sarandos said.

It was a good time for creators looking to pitch their ideas. Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his satirical comedy about a depressed celebrity horse living in Hollywood was one of the bets Netflix made in late 2013. BoJack Horseman was received with lukewarm attention from critics. Bob-Waksberg was prepared to end the show after the first and only season, but Sarandos had a different idea.

“I remember being told, ‘We expect the biggest day BoJack season one is going to have is when we launch BoJack season two,’” Bob-Waksberg told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. “We didn’t get a full two-season pickup, but that was the understanding, that these things take time to build.”

Image: Netflix

Netflix’s bet paid off. By 2015, Sarandos declared that the “appetite for original series was only growing,” and CEO Reed Hastings named BoJack Horseman his favorite show. Hastings even wore a BoJack Horseman sweater in a 2015 earnings call, hoping investors and reporters watching the call had “a great binge weekend on one of the most incredible shows.” Bob-Waksberg felt like he earned the trust of viewers, and the continued trust of Netflix, to delve deeper into what they wanted to see.

Reviews for the second season hailed BoJack Horseman as a smart, funny, and heartfelt animated series. Episodes like “Hank After Dark” earned the show its first awards attention. A third season was ordered by the streamer almost immediately. By July 2015, Netflix was sitting high and mighty in the world of entertainment — and competitors weren’t pleased. James Murdoch, CEO of 21st Century Fox, announced in September 2015 that the company was changing how it sold shows to digital streaming services like Netflix, according to Recode. Former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes echoed those thoughts, saying the company didn’t want to undercut itself “by having somebody else pay a fraction of the cost and create a better inventory on the various shows you yourself invented.”

Executives at Netflix knew that companies like Fox and Time Warner (now WarnerMedia) were upset. In an investors report that year, they wrote that “some studios will choose to license content to SVOD services like Hulu, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix, [but] others would not.” To offset the incoming shortage of licensed content Netflix was preparing for, the company doubled its efforts in the originals space. Sarandos told investors that Netflix would have 31 scripted shows in 2016, and attempt to globalize its reach.

“It’s not just a lot of volume,” Sarandos said. “This is quality stuff.”

Doubling its originals meant more content was needed. That meant more spending. The company started 2015 by raising $1.5 billion in additional long-term debt, according to Variety — double where Netflix was at the end of 2014. The debt was going to be used for content budgets and licensing, as well as potential acquisitions. This is relatively normal for a company, but it meant things needed to change for Netflix. Shows weren’t going to have three seasons to find their audience. Cancellations started happening. Big-budget shows like The Get Down and Sense8 were canceled after one and two seasons, respectively. Numbers were becoming even more crucial.

Hastings told CNBC in May 2017 that he wanted Netflix to “try more crazy things,” adding that the streamer-turned-network “should have a higher cancel-rate overall.” Sarandos also told investors that considering how many shows Netflix ordered around the world, the cancellation rate was still lower than that of network TV. Ninety-three percent of series are renewed on Netflix, compared to 70 percent of series in traditional cable.

“We love when there is a deep, passionate fan base for a show,” Sarandos said, speaking of Sense8, then Netflix’s most expensive series. “We just need it to be big enough to support the economics of that show.”

While Netflix’s strategy was shifting, BoJack Horseman was entering its prime. Critics praised the third season as worthy of major awards, and the fourth season was applauded for its vulnerability. Bob-Waksberg wanted to continue pushing what BoJack could do for animation. In December 2016, following the success of the show’s third season and especially its silent episode, “Fish Out of Water,” Bob-Waksberg tweeted a screenshot of an email he sent to Netflix higher-ups selling them on the concept.

“Sometimes when you want to do something new & challenging some people in charge might need some convincing,” Bob-Waksberg tweeted.

Even amid Netflix’s shift — the company was moving into film, and even reality TV was being introduced, despite Sarandos saying Netflix wasn’t interested in the genre just a few years priorBoJack Horseman remained a staple. BoJack kept going even when other shows were being pulled in favor of new ones.

By the show’s fifth season in 2018, Netflix had evolved from the little streaming platform that could into competitive enemy number one. Disney pulled the majority of its content from Netflix as it prepared to launch Disney+; WarnerMedia was preparing its own entry into the space with HBO Max; NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS were also gearing up to play. Netflix had to keep increasing its content budget — and debt load — to replace licensed series like Friends and The Office with new originals.

BoJack was one of the few originals from Netflix’s early days still going in 2018. House of Cards was preparing to end that year; Hemlock Grove had long been canceled. BoJack even managed to outlast some of the new series like The OA, but how long would that last? Bob-Waksberg acknowledged that he still had stories to tell, but noted it wasn’t fully up to him to keep the show going.

“I think we’ll kind of see what happens,” Bob-Waksberg said in an interview with IndieWire in 2018. “I think whether it has a long life or a relatively short life, I feel very lucky that I get to make it for as long as I get to make it.”

Image: Netflix

BoJack Horseman got a final season order in 2019. It wasn’t his choice to end the series, though he respected Netflix’s decision. The Netflix that Bob-Waksberg joined when BoJack was just a pitch was radically different from the one he’s preparing to leave. Bob-Waksberg didn’t imagine delving into the lives of BoJack’s supporting characters, but the last few seasons have found their strengths in talent agent Princess Carolyn, roommate Todd Chavez, and memoir writer Diane Nguyen — characters that grew because they had time to do so.

It’s uncertain that if BoJack Horseman had premiered today, it would get a second season to prove itself. Look what happened to BoJack animator and artist Lisa Hanawalt. Her show, Tuca and Bertie, was similar to BoJack Horseman, following the day-to-day lives of two women in their late 20s. It was more colorful than BoJack, more optimistic, and more female-focused, but still incorporated conversations about mental health and adult responsibilities — the same core elements that helped BoJack find a fan base.

Despite the rave reviews, Netflix canceled it after just one season. Hanawalt blamed it on Netflix’s algorithm not serving up the show to the right audience, which other creators on Twitter also complained about. Netflix had become a sea of content. Shows were competing to find an audience while the streamer’s biggest projects received top billing on the homepage. Bob-Waksberg shared his disappointment over Tuca and Bertie’s cancellation in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, specifically addressing a change in Netflix’s strategy from the time he started to now.

“It was my understanding that that was, at the time, the Netflix model: to give shows time to build,” Bob-Waksberg said. “It’s a shame that they seem to have moved away from that model.”

People forget Netflix is a TV network. There are investors who want to ensure their money is being well spent. It’s why Stranger Things keeps going with a massive budget, and why The Witcher gets top billing. That doesn’t mean Netflix has stopped taking chances on critical darlings; it just means there are fewer than before. Cindy Holland, Netflix’s VP of content, said in 2019 that critical acclaim is important, “but we’re really about trying to stretch our investment dollars as far as we can and make good on our investors’ money — it’s theirs, not ours.”

Netflix doesn’t release numbers for all its shows, making it impossible to tell just how successful BoJack’s first season was in 2014. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the best TV shows in recent years, with multiple outlets calling it one of the best shows of the last decade.

“I think if we premiered on any other network, or even on Netflix on any other time than when we did, I don’t know if we would’ve gotten the second season,” Bob-Waksberg told Vulture last year. “A lot of things on Netflix don’t get second seasons. I think it’s a very busy landscape. It’s hard to make an impression. I think we just got very lucky when we premiered.”

Sarandos wanted volume and quality, but never considered how the former might hurt the latter.

Bob-Waksberg continued: “It just so happened that summer there wasn’t too much other stuff going on. People could gradually discover our show and fall in love with it.”