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The streaming model is cratering — here's how that's hurting actors, writers and fans

Four women in mid-length skirts and pink jackets look over their shoulders at the camera with smiles on their faces while standing in the hallway of a high school.
Eduardo Araquel
(From left) Tricia Fukuhara, Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Wells and Ari Notartomaso in "Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies."

Ever had a show you've been meaning to watch disappear from a streaming service? Or have your favorite series get quashed? Cara Horton, a self-described "theater kid," feels your pain.

"I'm getting really sick of my favorite shows being canceled after one season when they're left on massive cliffhangers," says the 15-year-old.

Horton was a big fan of the Netflix series Julie and the Phantoms, which was canceled after one season. Now it's happened to her again with Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, which was recently nominated for two Emmys.

Horton took a cue from a fellow-Phantoms fan and started a petition to save the Pink Ladies. Paramount Television Studios is shopping the Grease prequel to find it a new platform. But Horton sees a trend. "I think streaming services have really forgotten that it takes a couple of seasons before a show gets big and picks up," she bemoans.

Disney turned heads recently when it removed the sci-fi teen adventure Crater, a movie that reportedly cost $53 million to make. It vanished from Disney+ after just two months. Betsy Bozdech feels lucky she got to watch Crater with her two kids before it got yanked. She calls the movie, "pretty emotional" and "intense."

A still image from the film "Crater" shows five teenage astronauts in full space suits standing on the rocky, dusty surface of a moon.
/ Disney
The film Crater vanished from Disney+ after just two months. Above, Isaiah Russell-Bailey as Caleb, left, Mckenna Grace as Addison, Orson Hong as Borney, Thomas Boyce as Marcus and Billy Barratt as Dylan.

"It's about friendship and separation. It was a great family movie night for us," says Bozdech, the editorial director at Common Sense Media, which reviews content for kids (including Crater). "Sort of the promise when a lot of these streamers launched was that you got access to the whole catalog forever," she continues. "So I think it's a little bit of a feeling of a rug being pulled out from under you."

The streaming business is 'soul-crushing'

If it's irritating for fans, imagine what it's like for the people who make the content.

Streaming is at the heart of the writers and actors strikes. The unions argue streamers operate in a way that makes it nearly impossible for most members to make a living.

Historically, writers, actors and others made money for the content they created and then, when their shows were rerun or sold to another network, they got more money in residuals. But with streamers, it's more typical to get a flat fee. And if your show gets taken down, it's kind of like taking it off the market.

A woman wearing a linen collared shirt smiles at the camera with a city out of focus in the background.
Mia / Zoe Marshall
Zoe Marshall
"It's soul-crushing," says screenwriter Zoe Marshall. Her movie Fantasy Football was removed by Paramount+.

When a writer works on a show that gets removed, "it's soul-crushing," says Zoe Marshall whose teen comedy Fantasy Football disappeared from Paramount+ despite an all-star cast and co-producers that included LeBron James' company.

Fantasy Football is about a teen girl whose father is an older, professional football player. His career is fumbling. When a bit of magic strikes, his daughter finds she can control his moves on the field with her video-game console. "I wanted it to be a smart picture about what it's like to be a smart, Black girl who has a positive relationship with her Black father," says Marshall.

"When you manage to get something actually made, it is a tremendous feather in your cap professionally," she continues, "and people start to look at your work as references. When they can no longer watch what you've made, it can be a real hiccup in getting more jobs moving forward."

"As far as Fantasy Football being removed, [Paramount] may never do anything with it again. So I may not see any additional residuals for something that made them an untold amount of money," laments Marshall.

"Untold" is the key word there. Streamers also don't share ratings, which makes it hard for creatives to negotiate future projects. A show can even become a hit and yet the actors and writers still don't make any extra money, as The New Yorker recently explained in a deep dive about Orange Is the New Black.

A glut of content?

Streamers themselves are having a rough time navigating the waters. On Disney's last earnings call, executives said that removing content would give them a tax write-off. CEO Bob Iger explained another reason for removing content: There's too much of it.

When Disney+ first launched, he said they thought the way to attract subscribers was "to flood the digital shelves as much as possible. ... We realized that we made a lot of content that is not necessarily driving sub growth, and we're getting much more surgical about what it is we make."

He also pointed out that a streamer can't just put shows out there and hope people find them. "You're spending a lot of money marketing things that are not going to have an impact on the bottom line."

Still, the beauty of streaming was that it was supposed to provide vast amounts of diverse content — something for everyone.

"What is the point of this golden streaming age if the creative people, the consumers, if they're all kind of agitated about ... not getting what they thought they were going to get?" asks Maureen Ryan, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.

Ryan's been covering Hollywood for some 30 years and has a new book called Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood. "It's a really rough moment. I think it's basically Streamaggedon's Reckoning," she jokes. "That would be the bad action movie I would make out of this."

It's a "reckoning" that goes beyond the picket lines. All sides of the Hollywood labor standoff hope for hit shows. But in today's fast-paced culture, the time, talent, patience and money required are a tall order.

This story was edited for audio and digital by Rose Friedman. The digital version was produced by Beth Novey.

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Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.