The Expanse got cancelled by Syfy. Are you surprised?

May 19, 2018

I’m not. We live in a global marketplace now with commerce flowing across the same networks as Internet chat and yet, seemingly, some studios and channels are still living in the 1950’s.

A tense moment on The Expanse

Maybe I’ve been spoiled, maybe the fact I can watch other shows like The Walking Dead and Star Trek: Discovery in the UK almost as quickly as the country of origin has made me expect I can do the same with all shows.

And indeed, why shouldn’t I? I can watch a show now on my mobile phone, my tablet or my smart TV. I can watch shows on the move, I can watch them on holiday and in some cases, I can even legally download them to watch later for when there’s no network.

Yet here we have Syfy cancelling The Expanse because of viewing figures. Neilsen viewing figures. Terrestrial TV viewing figures. In ONE country.

Yes, let that sink in. I can’t even remember the last time I watched ACTUAL terrestrial TV! Seriously, what value do these ratings have?

Let’s look at the probable demographics for The Expanse and to do that, let’s look at what The Expanse is about.

About The Expanse

The Expanse is based on six books by James SA Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The setting is our local solar system around 200 years into the future and focuses on a few main characters as a massive conspiracy unfolds. It’s classed as hard science fiction because unlike many shows, a great deal of effort has gone into making the show as realistic as technically possible. It’s fantastic to look at and has been described by many as Game of Thrones in space. Personally, I love watching liquids pour and the effect Coriolis force has. When you see that level of detail elsewhere let me know!

Acting is terrific, direction obviously so, the production values are fantastic and the scripts are tight. Casting has been great and the actors involved really bring this show to life. Syfy really did well when they commissioned this show to return to their roots of producing great sci-fi.

Hard sci-fi appeals to a certain demographic, one where they’d be highly likely to take advantage of better available technology to view the show and therefore perhaps not contribute to the ridiculously old-school Neilsen ratings. There’s another point on this I’ll make in a moment.

Distribution

We also have the distribution arrangements. Some of you may remember the hideous mismanagement of various communication channels when UK viewers simply wanted to know when they could watch The Expanse at all and couldn’t get any responses. This is not about the delay (although being behind by a year from the US was bad enough) this was about the shocking and disgraceful disconnect from the end consumers, the customers. We had to resort to running a Thunderclap campaign because no one was telling us anything. Even now, years on, that page receives more visits than any of our others!

It seems that once again, the distribution arrangements are in question. It’s not clear what the cancellation will mean for UK Season 3 viewers as once again we’re in the dark. The natural assumption is that Netflix will continue to stream as planned but with a show cancellation on hand I’m not altogether certain. Clearly, I don’t have all the facts nor am I speaking with great authority but piecing the news together in the absence of anything to the contrary we know this:

From Deadline: “The cancellation decision by Syfy is said to be linked to the nature of its agreement for the series, which only gives the cable network first-run linear rights in the US. That puts an extraordinary amount of emphasis on live, linear viewing which is inherently challenging for sci-fi/genre series which tend to draw the lion share of their audiences from digital/streaming.”

We also know that Netflix had the global rights to distribute. What we don’t know is the nature of that agreement, therefore, the only conclusion to be had is that Syfy isn’t getting a great deal for them to justify the expense of producing the show versus the only figures they have, the Neilsen ratings. Add to that, in the US, Amazon stream the previously shown seasons (after the first run) thereby reducing the limited revenue opportunity for Syfy.

Would you say it’s fair to conclude the cancellation is about the money and unrewarding deals? Also, correct me if I’m wrong, I was also under the impression that Syfy commissioned the show from Alcon Entertainment and also arranged the distribution deals? If that is indeed the case then what went wrong do you think?

Let’s see if Alcon Entertainment can find it a new home, hopefully, one with a global reach and sustainable deals and let’s hope they are earnestly looking. Because right now, sets are being dismantled.

Disenfranchised

Of course, how can you ignore the obvious diverse nature of the cast and therefore worldwide appeal of the show? Easily, it seems. I wandered over to The Expanse Reddit and there were quite a few posts outraged at the cancellation with many (largely US-based) Redditors rallying around organising petitions. This is all good and please take part! However, there’s still a huge disenfranchisement of those outside the U.S.A. who haven’t yet seen Season 3. Pop along to the Save The Expanse site and even that is US-centric, although I grant you that if you’re in the centre of a tornado it’s hard to view the outside world.

Some Redditors admit to seeing Season 1 & 2 illegally and are openly discussing doing the same for Season 3. I’m not supporting their stance but this isn’t their fault, it’s the fault of the archaic distribution arrangements. Specifically, the first-run linear rights in the US and the subsequent excruciating delay for the UK and other worldwide consumers.

On the flip side, you have those who are waiting to catch up legally. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get excited about a particular episode or season when it’s not to be shown in your country for a year. It’s just as hard to avoid the spoilers from social media. Can you imagine how hard it is to get worked up over a show cancellation that the network actively chose to delay your viewing of?

All of this just makes me wonder what’s gone wrong at the top of this complex chain because that’s where the strategic decisions are made.

The distribution strategy is poor and fragmented affecting not only the global consumer experience but also it seems to be affecting the revenue of the commissioning network and the very sustainability of the show.

For such a media-rich show with state of the art effects, publicity photos are hard to come by, interviews nigh impossible and there’s no response to emails or calls. Overall there seems to be a massive gap in marketing and PR for this show. An example of this is Season Two appearing on Netflix in the UK with hardly a whimper. This gap in marketing and PR is not a new thing either, from my perspective it’s been uncoordinated from the start.

The only people visibly battling for publicity are the Expanse Writers on Twitter and a few insiders. Is this what we have come to expect from shows that have multiple distribution agreements? A sense of silo mentality from different quarters with no central marketing coordination?

So the risk here is that despite the fact it’s a great show, despite the fact that many people want to save it, there are thousands of people out there who don’t care as much as they could have. What effect this will have on campaign success remains to be seen.

Summary

The Expanse is a fantastic Intellectual Property and I really hope someone decent, someone who understands the modern world, someone who understands global marketing, global distribution and PR, simply picks it up and gives it the boost it needs. Shows need a global strategy that suits the modern age including simultaneous continental and regional releases with streaming services as core parts of that strategy. Not as an add-on or afterthought. They’ll reap the reward in the long term (just think of the geek market for merchandising!) but only if they understand and communicate with their customers. It’s 101 stuff these days, the world has moved on from the fifties.

Update 22 May 2018 – It looks like some who DOES understand global marketing, global distribution and PR MAY have picked up The Expanse. Amazon Studios! Let’s hope we get some form of synchronicity with regard to the global distribution. Confirmation of this hopefully soon.

For updates about the campaign, visit the SAVE THE EXPANSE website.

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