‘I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it’: how it feels to make a TV flop

Amelia Tait
·11-min read

John Fusco has been writing scripts for 34 years. In that time, he’s seen his work brought to life by stars including Jackie Chan and Woody Harrelson. As a producer, he has worked with blockbuster budgets totalling tens of millions of dollars, and his Kevin Costner-fronted Bonnie and Clyde drama, The Highwaymen, was one of Netflix’s top 10 most-watched original shows last year. But there is one part of Fusco’s career that he finds difficult to look back on. “I feel like I finally have a therapist,” he laughs at the end of a 30-minute call about his 2016 historical adventure series Marco Polo.

The fourth series Netflix commissioned, Marco Polo was a fantasy epic that followed Polo’s 13th-century jaunts in the court of Kublai Khan. The show’s eye-watering budget was visible in every episode, with lavish sets and expensive special effects. But it wasn’t enough, and the show never took off, languishing behind Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards, the platform’s big hits at the time.

Its fortunes weren’t helped by Harvey Weinstein, who produced the show and compared it before release to Game Of Thrones (this was three years before the New York Times exposed his history of rape and sexual assault). Even then, Fusco felt that Weinstein’s comment meant the show didn’t stand a chance: “When I read that in the New York Times, I needed a really stiff drink… it was the biggest single blow to any chance our show had.”

Marco Polo was cancelled two years after its 2014 premiere, with the Hollywood Reporter claiming the show was a $200m loss for Netflix. Fusco’s writers’ room had written 10 hours of season three before the announcement, which came while Marco Polo’s line producer was “stranded alone” in Malaysia with the show’s sets, unsure whether to bulldoze them or prepare for the next season.

Cancellation, even a lack of interest in certain shows, is an accepted part of the Netflix business model

We are living in the era of “peak TV”. Last year, the number of scripted TV series in America soared to an all-time high, with 532 shows making it to air, a 52% increase from 2013. That glut of new shows means it is also now easier than ever for shows to get cancelled or, worse, be entirely ignored. They and their stars can’t all be household names; by definition, peak TV has to have its troughs. For every record-breaking scripted drama or reality show, there will be another that passes the world by. What are the human (and financial) costs of trough TV?

In the last half decade, only a dozen Netflix Originals (the streaming giant’s preferred name for the shows it commissions) have lasted more than three seasons, with the majority ending after just one. The animated comedy Tuca & Bertie, voiced by Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish, was cancelled after 10 episodes last year; stoner comedy Disjointed, starring Kathy Bates as a pot activist, never made it to season two; critically acclaimed crime drama Seven Seconds was quietly cancelled after 10 episodes, despite lead actor Regina King’s Emmy; and Baz Luhrmann’s hyped The Get Down, about the 1970s disco and hip-hop scene, was cut from an initial 13 episodes to 11.

Big names and bigger budgets don’t guarantee TV success. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new streaming app Quibi launched in April with a roster of original 10-minute shows designed to be watched on your phone. The platform benefited from more than $2bn investment, but had managed only 4m downloads by the end of May, and it is estimated that only 30% of downloads have translated into active users. Despite the involvement of directors including Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro, and stars such as Idris Elba and Jennifer Lopez, Quibi fell out of Apple’s UK top 50 app chart after less than two weeks.

Katzenberg has blamed Covid-19 for Quibi’s less than stellar start, as the app was originally designed to be used on the go. But many streaming services factor flops into their business plan. “Netflix does not need to concern itself as much as people think with encouraging more viewing hours on its platform,” says Danyaal Rashid, an analyst at GlobalData, a leading entertainment research company. “It is more concerned with growing subscribers, as this is where it makes its money.” Cancellation, even a lack of interest in certain shows, is an accepted part of the business model.

Christoph Waltz and Liam Hemsworth in Most Dangerous Game on the new streaming app, Quibi.
Christoph Waltz and Liam Hemsworth in Most Dangerous Game on the new streaming app, Quibi. Photograph: AP

But if failure is planned for in the boardroom, how do writers handle it when their magnum opus flops? And what about the actors and reality stars who have upended their lives for what they thought would be their big break?

Must Be The Music was a Sky One talent competition that launched in 2010, focused on finding a star who wrote their own songs, and touted as the anti-X Factor. Yet its finale was watched by just 370,000 people in the UK (that year, the X Factor final had 17.2 million viewers), and the show was cancelled soon afterwards. Emma Gillespie, the show’s winner, auditioned as a quirky 26-year-old with blue mascara who sang a goose pimply guitar number called Focus.

Today, Gillespie says she was never too disappointed by the viewing figures, and had stumbled on the auditions accidentally. “To be honest, I was quite naive going into it – I didn’t really expect anything,” she says. She won a £100,000 cash prize and received 100% of the profits every time one of her songs was downloaded from iTunes during the show (enough to give her an income stream, she says). Her first single after the show debuted at number 10 in the charts.

“When I heard there wasn’t going to be another [season], I just felt incredibly lucky,” Gillespie says. In many ways it was a relief the show wasn’t more popular, as her mental health suffered. “I was used to slowly, slowly building a fanbase. But this picked me up and plonked me right in the middle of the upper end of the music industry.”

A move from Scotland to London left Gillespie feeling isolated and depressed. She produced an album with a record label, but felt it wasn’t entirely true to her original sound, and “went into a little black hole for a while”. After a road trip across the US, she got her life back on track, but says she remains thankful the show wasn’t more popular: “If it had been bigger, it maybe would’ve been too much for me.”

With so many channels, creators can still get 15 minutes of fame; they just have to accept they will get it with 15 people

Perhaps the starkest example of forgotten reality TV is the 2016 Channel 4 social experiment Eden, which recruited people who were “tired of modern life” to build a new civilisation from scratch in a remote part of Scotland. Contestants were given no technology and had to figure out how to build shelters, grow food and organise their new society. Yet low ratings meant the show ceased broadcasting after just four episodes. In the press, fantastical stories abounded that the cast were unaware they were off air, emerging from the wilderness after a year to find that no one had been watching.

But the cast say they knew the show wasn’t being broadcast: when the experiment started, they would sneak into the production facilities to ask for food. A few weeks in, they were told that the show had stopped airing but might come back at some point. Months later, they were told the crew had stopped filming. The contestants carried on with the project for another seven months, out of dedication to the social experiment. “If you want to be on air and have a great time, and have champagne and stuff, you go on something like Love Island,” says Katie Tunn, one of the contestants. “We were there more for the challenge.” Tunn says it made no difference to her when she heard that the show was no longer being aired, though she regrets that such an extraordinary experiment went unnoticed by the viewing public. In particular she wishes more people had observed the sexism she says she experienced: the male contestants, who by the end outnumbered women, wanted a clear division of “manly jobs”, like cutting logs and fishing, and “women’s jobs”, like gardening and washing up.

In the end, Tunn feels she “dodged a bullet” by avoiding wider press attention. She began taking antidepressants after the show. “I came out and I was in bits, basically. It was such a big transition… we were like little moles blinking out into the sunshine.” She also knows she was at her worst at some of the more difficult moments, and laughs when asked if she’s relieved that these scenes didn’t air. In her mind, a show like Love Island is “dangerous”: “I don’t have the mental capacity to deal with the fallout from something like that. I get one mean comment on Twitter and my day is ruined.”

Few of today’s reality stars expect long television careers; a few thousand Instagram followers are often more than enough to justify an appearance on The Voice or a reality show like BBC Three’s Glow Up, a quest to find Britain’s next makeup star. In a world where X Factor contestants are no longer guaranteed Christmas No 1s, the power of TV as a mass medium is diminished.

But is a smaller, kinder audience preferable to becoming a household name, with all the scrutiny that brings? Even Fusco enjoys the fact that Marco Polo amassed a few diehard fans, who still email him from time to time with their favourite characters and spin-offs they’d like to see. With so many channels and streaming services available, creators can still get their 15 minutes of fame; they just might have to accept they will be getting it with 15 people. For Fusco, the loyalty of the fans made his work worthwhile.

To have to go and say, ‘We’ve been cancelled’, when you’re in the middle of an episode – it’s a very hard thing to do

But some shows never get a chance to build a fanbase, however small. The cruellest turn in trough TV is having your show pulled before the finale makes it to air. Halfway through filming the eighth episode of his historical crime drama The Playboy Club, about the experiences of the original 1960s bunnies, producer Chad Hodge received an unwelcome phone call. In a brief conversation with the show’s network, NBC, Hodge discovered his show was being cancelled after just three episodes had aired. The show had attracted more than 5 million viewers when it premiered in 2011; but by the time the second episode rolled around, viewing figures had dropped by 20%.

“It was a shock. I definitely had to take a few minutes to gather my wits and emotions,” Hodge says. It was up to him to inform the cast and crew, who were working on set. “To have to say, ‘We’ve been cancelled’, when you’re in the middle of an episode – it’s a very hard thing to do.” The network allowed him to film the season finale, which he quickly rewrote to wrap the series up. It never aired. “I figured, ‘OK, they’re going to release all these episodes at some point.’ But they never did.”

It was a dispiriting experience. Hodge had interviewed former Playboy bunnies to tell a story he considered “empowering”. “I feel we made a great series and most of it was never even seen. Everyone was so excited about it, there’s a premiere, all this money’s being spent, huge ad campaigns. And then, in a matter of three weeks, nobody’s interested and nobody calls.”

With a raft of new streaming services launching in the next two years (and some charging premium prices, like HBO Max, analyst Rashid predicts that the streaming market is going to become more segmented, with higher prices likely to “force customers to limit themselves to just a few platforms”. In this environment, there may be more and more shows that go unwatched.

Meanwhile, John Fusco is still sore about the Marco Polo fiasco. His career was not damaged (he currently has five shows in development, as well as a film based on his successful children’s series Spirit Riding Free), but he had originally pitched five seasons and “had a long arc worked out, following the signposts of history”. He asked Netflix for a movie deal to wrap up the show’s loose ends, but was refused. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it,” he says, four years on. “There’s no other way to describe it – it was crushing.”