The actress Diana-Maria Riva is very familiar with the cancellation of one of her shows. For an artist, it’s a painful and unfortunate part of show business. But this was different.
In December, Riva was stunned when she found out that “Gordita Chronicles,” her recently canceled family comedy, would be removed from HBO Max’s vast streaming library, one of dozens of shows HBO cut last year for American viewers. Among others: “Westworld,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “Minx,” “Mrs. Fletcher,” and numerous animated and reality series.
For Riva, the events were overwhelming. Spanning 10 episodes, the critically acclaimed series followed a 12-year-old girl named Cucu as she and her Dominican family adjust to life in 1980s Miami.
“It was like someone broke up with you and then came back to remind you a couple of weeks later that we were done,” says Riva, who plays Cucu’s mother. “It was already heartbreaking. But then it’s an added blow to just say, ‘Now we’re going to erase the evidence that you were ever here.’”
As streamers face increasing pressure to save money, several have followed HBO’s lead. Deleting original shows from their libraries can help streamers get tax breaks and, to a lesser extent, save on residual payments. But it brings criticism that they are sidelining already marginalized voices and ripping off creatives out of already thinner residual paychecks. These issues have heightened tension between executives and writers amid union contract negotiations that began late last month and could lead to a significant work stoppage this spring.
The broadcasting companies offer this defense: They never promised that the shows would live forever. In a hyper-competitive and ever-changing market, they say, every streamer is trying to balance broad offerings with sheer survival.
STREAMERS TIGHTEN YOUR BELT
Amid the downturn in the tech and media industries, streamers are being forced to cut spending and turn a profit rather than “pursue growth at all costs,” says media analyst Dan Rayburn.
“These companies have had to change the way they spend on content because Wall Street says you have to get to profitability much faster,” says Rayburn. He cites how Disney shares plummeted in November after the company revealed that its direct-to-consumer unit, which includes Disney+, hulu and ESPN+, lost nearly $1.5 billion in a quarter.
The HBO purges in 2022, which occurred when its parent company Warner Bros. merged with Discovery, allowing for a host of tax write-off possibilities, were the most notable example. But his rivals quickly followed suit. In January, Starz removed a handful of shows, including “Dangerous Liaisons,” a costume drama that disappeared from its streaming app days after the finale aired. Some fans said that they missed the last episode.
Then a few weeks later, Showtime underwent its own selection. It removed the Jeff Daniels-directed drama “American Rust,” among others. Paramount+, with Showtime’s integration into the service, followed suit with some of its offerings, including a revival of Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone.”
Some of those shows have found new homes. For those who haven’t, including “Gordita Chronicles,” the effects of her demise are widespread. Potential viewers may never get a chance to find out. Actors and writers no longer know if their work will ever be seen again. And the original streamer no longer has to pay residuals.
It’s unclear how much money streamers are saving through these wipes. But Rayburn says the companies clearly concluded that the removed programs were not attracting enough new customers or significantly helping retention efforts. Instead, streamers have been buying programming from rivals, including free and ad-supported TV streaming channels like Tubi, which recently began hosting some HBO shows, including “Westworld.”
Streamers, Rayburn says, are not required to host shows for years. Also, customers have become accustomed to jumping between apps to find titles that jump between them.
Casey Bloys, president and CEO of HBO and HBO Max, said on a recent episode of “The Watch” podcast that streamers are taking a closer look at their libraries and seeing how best to turn a profit.
“The idea that everything a company produces will be in one place forever and ever, for $15 a month, for eternity, is a relatively new concept,” Bloys said. Will $15 a month cover everything for the rest of the time? It’s a good idea, but it’s not viable.”
THE REDUCTION OF WASTE
The changing landscape has alarmed creatives who have already seen their waste decrease over the years.
Residues were once the cornerstone of an actor’s or writer’s livelihood, with large checks constantly pouring in as series became syndicated and appeared as reruns. Now, the creatives say, their residual income has plummeted as streamers grow. As part of the contracts negotiated by the unions, streamers still pay residual payments, but those final payments are not the size that actors and crews receive from TV networks.
Under the Writers Guild of America West’s contract with the Motion Picture and Television Producers Alliance, a single repeat of an hour-long prime-time show on ABC would currently earn its writer $24,558. But if that show were on Netflix, the writer would earn, at most, $20,018 in household waste per episode. And if the show were on a smaller streamer like HBO Max, that annual payment would top out at $13,346. Every additional year that there is a show on a streamer, the waste decreases. That, of course, assumes that the program is still part of the library.
Declining waste is an issue that industry insiders say could come to a head when the WGA’s contract expires in May, followed shortly by the expiration of contracts for the directors’ and actors’ guilds, both They expire June 30. Instead of looking for better residual rates, the writers want higher minimum wages and better financial security in an industry that is far more likely to order a 10-episode season than the 22-episode season that was standard when broadcasters dominated the medium. . The last writers’ strike, a 100-day work stoppage that ended in 2008, cost California’s economy an estimated $2 billion.
“In case you’re wondering why a WGA strike may be imminent, my first residual check for the broadcast show I wrote on was $12,000. Just got my first residual check for my broadcast show…$4,” screenwriter Kyra Jones tweeted.
Although residuals have decreased, Riva says they play a crucial role in ensuring that an actor earns enough money in any given year (currently $26,470) to maintain insurance eligibility through the actors’ guild, SAG-AFTRA.
“If you didn’t get a lot of work recently, but at least had enough residuals to get over that minimum threshold, that means you can insure your family,” Riva says.
MARGINALIZED VOICES LEFT
In a February press release, the Writer’s Guild of America West denounced HBO’s removal of its shows, saying it “illustrates how consolidation increases the power of gatekeepers at the expense of marginalized voices.”
The union cited HBO’s decisions to withdraw “Gordita Chronicles” and “Tuca & Bertie,” an animated series whose two leads were voiced by women of color. She also highlighted the studio’s highly unusual move to remove “Batgirl,” a nearly completed film starring Leslie Grace, an Afro-Latino actress, that HBO shelved for a tax deduction instead of releasing. In January, Warner Bros. Discovery’s chief financial officer Gunnar Wiedenfels said the company “is done” pursuing such content-related cancellations.
“We can’t just let shows disappear, especially shows that portray immigration and Latino families in a positive way,” said “Gordita Chronicles” show producer Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz. “Our communities are humanized through comedy. And that the program is not there as part of our media lexicon, it shows me a regression.
In a statement, HBO Max said canceling “Gordita Chronicles” was a “very difficult decision” it made as part of a move away from family entertainment. The streamer also confirmed that it has returned the rights to the show to Sony.
While other affected shows have found new homes through licensing deals, “Gordita Chronicles” remains in limbo, nearly impossible to find. For a while, some episodes still aired on American Airlines flights, but they’ve also recently disappeared from in-flight viewing options.
Both Muñoz-Liebowitz and Juan Javier Cárdenas, who played Cucu’s father on the show, hope that Sony will find him a new home. Cárdenas says that when other shows of his were cancelled, he took comfort in the knowledge that “the work would survive.” That is not the case with “Gordita Chronicles”, at least not now.
“To know that in the end,” says Cárdenas, “despite all the heart and soul that we put into the show, that it won’t be available for people to watch and enjoy in the future, that’s a very sad thing.”