BoJack premiered in 2014, during an entirely different Netflix era
When it premiered in 2014, it was one of Netflixs earliest, best shows and it would have failed in 2020.
BoJack Horseman, one of Netflixs longest-running shows, comes to an end this Friday. But its unclear if BoJack Horseman would have succeeded if it was ordered today. Its a show that needed time to breathe, and thats a luxury most shows dont 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 Blackand 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt get a full two-season pickup, but that was the understanding, that these things take time to build.
Netflixs 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 werent 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 didnt 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.
Its 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 werent going to have three seasons to find their audience. Cancellations started happening. Big-budget shows like The Get Down and Sense8were canceled after one and two seasons, respectively. Numbers were becoming even more crucial.
I remember being told, We expect the biggest day BoJackseason one is going to have is when we launch BoJackseason two
Hastings told CNBCin 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 Netflixs most expensive series. We just need it to be big enough to support the economics of that show.
While Netflixs 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 shows 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 Netflixs shift the company was moving into film, and even reality TV was being introduced, despite Sarandos saying Netflix wasnt 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 shows 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 Netflixs 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 wasnt fully up to him to keep the show going.
I think well 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.
BoJack Horseman got a final season order in 2019. It wasnt his choice to end the series, though he respected Netflixs decision. The Netflix that Bob-Waksberg joined when BoJack was just a pitch was radically different from the one hes preparing to leave. Bob-Waksberg didnt imagine delving into the lives of BoJacks 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.
Its 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 Netflixs 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 streamers biggest projects received top billing on the homepage. Bob-Waksberg shared his disappointment over Tuca and Berties cancellation in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, specifically addressing a change in Netflixs strategy from the time he started to now.
I think if we premiered on any other network, or even on Netflix on any other time than when we did, I dont know if we wouldve gotten the second season
It was my understanding that that was, at the time, the Netflix model: to give shows time to build, Bob-Waksberg said. Its 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. Its why Stranger Things keeps going with a massive budget, and why The Witcher gets top billing. That doesnt mean Netflix has stopped taking chances on critical darlings; it just means there are fewer than before. Cindy Holland, Netflixs VP of content, said in 2019 that critical acclaim is important, but were really about trying to stretch our investment dollars as far as we can and make good on our investors money its theirs, not ours.
Netflix doesnt release numbers for all its shows, making it impossible to tell just how successful BoJacks first season was in 2014. But that doesnt change the fact that itis 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 dont know if we wouldve gotten the second season, Bob-Waksberg told Vulture last year. A lot of things on Netflix dont get second seasons. I think its a very busy landscape. Its 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 wasnt too much other stuff going on. People could gradually discover our show and fall in love with it.
BoJack premiered in 2014, during an entirely different Netflix era