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Why producers are deciding to end shows like Succession, You and Stranger Things after 4-5 seasons

A slew of popular television programmes have recently announced they will be pulling the plug following a four or five season run, with big names like Netflix’s YOU, recently announcing its fifth and final season, following the March release of season four.

Others heading to the chopping block include HBO’s Succession, Netflix’s Stranger Things, and Prime Video’s Marvelous Mrs Maisel to name just a few.

The number of series drawing to a close within this timeframe has led Vanity Fair to question describe the current phenomenon as the ‘five-year itch’ and question whether it is the result of a ‘shrewd creative impulse’ or rather a ‘sly contractual decision’.

Now experts have shared with FEMAIL some of the reasons they believe these television series may have been capped at five seasons.

When it comes to the idea of TV currently experiencing a ‘five-year itch’, industry professionals said producers want the programme to go out on a high, and need a large viewership to outweigh the growing cost of production. 

Succession, which features siblings fighting for control of their father Logan Roy’s powerful media empire will come to a close after its fourth season (pictured: Brian Cox as  Logan Roy)

Some fans were disappointed when it was announced that the fifth season of Stranger Things would be its last (pictured: Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven)

Penn Badgely (pictured) who plays protagonist Joe Goldberg in Netflix series YOU, let it slip earlier this year that the streaming giant was unlikely to go beyond five seasons

Some fans were disappointed when it was announced that the fifth season of Stranger Things would be its last (left). Penn Badgely (pictured right) who plays protagonist Joe Goldberg in Netflix series YOU, let it slip earlier this year that the streaming giant was unlikely to go beyond five seasons

It’s worth noting that five seasons has not historically been considered the optimum length for TV shows – and there are several reasons why this has changed in recent years. 

Dr Jonathan Wroot is a Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for Film Studies at the University of Greenwich. 

He told FEMAIL: ‘Broadly, the length of series in the 2010s and 2020s has greatly changed compared to earlier decades (particularly in the 1990s and 2000s). 

‘Four to five seasons, often with 10-12 episodes, seems to be preferred at the current time – for studios, writers, and audiences. 

‘This is a marked contrast to shows from the 1990s and 2000s which may have run to five to seven seasons, with 26 episodes per season. 

‘These shows were often made for broadcast television, whereas now the focus is on content for streaming services. 

‘That being said, there are some exceptions to these such as shows that remain popular and in production since the 1990s and 2000s, like South Park (1997-), and Grey’s Anatomy (2005-).’

Dr Wroot also pointed out that this applies uniquely to US shows, as there are different conventions in other parts of the world.

For example, when it comes to the BBC, he said: ‘The length of six episodes for a season of an original prime time drama TV series (often with one hour episodes) seems to have been the standard for decades, even before the era of streaming services).’

He added that Netflix has come under fire in recent years for ‘cancelling many shows after one or two seasons’. 

Dr Wroot explained: ‘There are some audience and industry preferences for four to five seasons, in terms of binge-watching, but there are other factors, such as those related to recent shows’ production contexts and their costs.

‘Those that are allowed to run to four or five seasons, or longer, are often their most watched shows, and are exceptionally popular compared to other titles. 

‘These then become the shows they spend the most money on.’ 

It’s been widely reported that Netflix has a particular metric when it comes to deciding which shows to continue and which to cancel.

It compares viewership numbers to the cost of renewal to decided whether the cost of producing a new season is worth it when considering the number of views that season is likely to get.

Speaking in 2018, during the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, Netflix’s vice president of original programming Cindy Holland explained the process.

She said: ‘The biggest thing that we look at is, are we getting enough viewership to justify the cost of the series?’    

When considering some of the financial reasons, it’s worth noting that as successful programmes continue, they start to offer diminishing returns, with the increasingly famous cast member negotiating larger pay packets, for example.

Jack Cooper, PR Expert from EdHopkinsPR, predicted this could be behind the recent wave of cancellations.

He told FEMAIL: ‘As TV shows gain more popularity, there is a natural increase in demand for the original actors to return, giving them the leverage to lead negotiations regarding their fees. 

‘Since the artist is at the forefront of the production’s success, production companies understand that they must agree to reasonable rising terms and figures if they want to continue producing additional series.’

He added: ‘As the success of a show grows, so does the expense and pressure to maintain its production.

‘For example, when Stranger Things first launched on Netflix, Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven earned $30,000 per episode in season one. 

‘However, in season four, she now earns a staggering $300,000 per episode due to the show’s worldwide success and the actors’ increased fame.’ 

According to the experts, streaming services struggles to attract new subscribers for a show that has more than three seasons, meaning its ratio of viewership to cost does not generally support longer-running shows. 

Indeed, the streaming giant has come under fire for cancelling shows at a much earlier phase, with programmes including GLOW surviving for three seasons, and Luke Cage, Sense8, and Altered Carbon among those only surviving two.

For shows that boast the success of Stranger Things, Succession, or YOU, that run can be extended, according to Jack.

He explained: ‘The fame [of these shows and their casts] generates significant buzz around the program, gaining international press coverage, which enables production companies to afford and cover the rising costs of the stars and overall production value to continue producing subsequent seasons.’ 

However, TV shows cannot continue indefinitely, and while some programmes that appear on streaming services may bypass the two to three series cap, they must eventually end.

Some fans theorise that many shows simply cannot generate the material to exist beyond five seasons while maintaining the same high creative standard. 

When it comes to Amazon Prime’s Marvelous Mrs Maisel, for example, producers were open about why its fifth season was always destined to be its last, with creative decisions a key factor.

Executive producer Dan Palladino told The Hollywood Reporter: ‘We have an idea emotionally where we want the Midge character to end…The first year was her discovery, the second year things unravel, the third season she goes on tour.’

He added that Amazon Prime ‘had already heard the bullet points for what the seasons were going to be’.

According to Jack, this can be a significant factor in when producers choose to bring productions to a close.

Netflix has come under fire for cancelling shows relatively early into a run, like GLOW (pictured) which ran for just three seasons

Netflix has come under fire for cancelling shows relatively early into a run, like GLOW (pictured) which ran for just three seasons

He told FEMAIL: ‘From my perspective, I believe that the decision to end a show is not necessarily due to a lack of content or creativity from production companies and writers, but rather a concern for maintaining the show’s success and avoiding disappointing the audience. 

‘It is always better for a series to be remembered as a must-see rather than a flop.’ 

When it comes to YOU, it appears that creative elements could also have been the major factor when it came to the decision to make the fifth season its last.

Speaking on the Happy Sad Confused podcast in February, Penn Badgley, who plays Joe Goldberg, YOU’s protagonist, let it slip that the end of the show could be approaching, as his contract was set to come to an end.

He said: ‘I signed a six-year contract right out the gate. So they could do two more if they wanted.’

However, he nixed the idea of two more, adding: ‘I think if there’s another season, I think it’s only going to be one.’

He continued: ‘I think – this is my understanding, but I don’t know, I really don’t know.

‘But I know that everybody concerned, from the top on down, nobody wants this show to become tired. 

‘That’s when Joe is the most disgusting. That’s when the show stops having the intelligence that it has.’

Meanwhile, YOU showrunner Sera Gamble, speaking on TV’s Top 5 podcast, also suggested that the producers felt the show would not maintain its quality if it extended beyond five seasons.

She said producers ‘have an idea for season 5 that [they’re] excited about, and noted that it was ‘never anyone’s intention to just run this one into the ground’.

Sera explained: ‘When we’re done, we’ll be done. We’ll pack it up and it will exist on Netflix for everyone to enjoy. 

‘Even in the early conversations with Penn Badgley, the idea is not to just crank out episodes forever – it’s to feel like we have told the complete story.’

Timeline and optimal length has always been a factor when it comes to HBO original series Succession too, according to series creator Jesse Armstrong.

Speaking to the New Yorker last month, he said he ‘never thought this could go on forever’, adding that the end ‘has always been kind of present in my mind’, and that he had been considering when the show should end as early as season two.

He said: ‘We could do a couple of short seasons, or two more seasons. 

‘Or we could go on for ages and turn the show into something rather different, and be a more rangy, freewheeling kind of fun show, where there would be good weeks and bad weeks. 

Another show that came to an end after five seasons is The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (pictured). According to one of the programme's producers, it reached its natural end

Another show that came to an end after five seasons is The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (pictured). According to one of the programme’s producers, it reached its natural end

‘Or we could do something a bit more muscular and complete, and go out sort of strong. And that was definitely always my preference.’

According to Jack, this kind of ‘discretion’ when it comes to ending a series can ensure the show’s legacy.

He said: ‘For instance, Gavin and Stacey aired for three seasons, and its creators, James [Corden] and Ruth [Jones], demonstrated great discretion in knowing when to conclude the series and leave the audience in anticipation, allowing the rest of the storyline to the viewers’ imagination.   

‘This approach highlights the fact that money is not the driving factor for some of the biggest TV stars. 

‘Rather, these artists are passionate about their craft and the projects they work on and want to maintain their reputation as both actors and professionals.’

Deborah Klikova agreed that the optimum length of any given show can be unique to that particular programme.

She told FEMAIL: ‘While it may be an issue of sustainability of narrative stories beyond four or five seasons regardless of the number of episodes in each season, it is worth noting that many series have gone well beyond that limit.   

‘Furthermore, there are many four/five series shows which have been successful such as Breaking Bad.’

Ultimately, she said, to fully understand why the lifespan of any particular show is what it is, would require ‘an analysis of narrative structures in certain dramas (long running vs limited seasons)’.

This, she said, would make it possible to ‘ascertain differences as to why and how they are able to be long running and whether the decision to cease a series is conscious by the creators/showrunners or a decree by management based on financial and marketing data’.