The Expanse was cancelled. I know, I destroyed my coffee machine in rage too.
Deadline reported the The Expanse’s cancellation, writing that the third season would be its last on Syfy, with the production company Alcon Television Group planning to shop the series to other buyers. Syfy parent company NBCUniversal had the following statement:
“The Expanse transported us across the solar system for three brilliant seasons of television,” said Chris McCumber, President, Entertainment Networks for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “Everyone at Syfy is a massive fan of the series, and this was an incredibly difficult decision. We want to sincerely thank The Expanse’s amazing cast, crew and all the dedicated creatives who helped bring James S.A. Corey’s story to life. And to the series’ loyal fans, we thank you most of all.”
Luckily for all of humanity, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon is saving the show during the International Space Development Conference. You can watch the video of this pivotal moment for sci-fi fans everywhere here. Cas Anvar, who plays pilot and central character Alex Kamal, posted the full reaction video on his Twitter. Notably, Bezos says the series will be a Prime original for multiple coming seasons. Excellent, exciting news.
The Expanse is probably the best sci-fi show on TV right now. For me, it’s probably my favorite space science fiction series ever. It’s a believable, fairly realistic depiction of humanity’s near future in space. People have colonized the solar system, with power coalescing into 3 broad powers: Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Earth and Mars are the main powers here, legitimate nation-states with space-faring fleets and governments while the Belt consists of all the people settled on asteroid belt mining colonies and other disjointed settlements. The laziest way I can describe it is a Game of Thrones in space because of the interweaving character storylines and political intrigue (that has a Tufts University politics professor abuzz) over a backdrop of epic believable space battles.
And the production value is excellent.
Believing in The Expanse
The Expanse’s believability is a signature of the series. I remember attending the premiere screening of the pilot at San Diego Comic Con and being impressed that they showed the activation of magnetic boots for walking in zero gravity, which is pretty much any time the space ships aren’t under acceleration. It’s a small detail, but it adds a lot to the world feeling fully realized. The attention to the physics of the ship movements, having to strap in/mouth guard up/dose drugs because of the g-forces involved in turning around a spaceship, settlers raised in different environments adapting to local gravity–there’s a lot to nerd out about.
In an Indiewire interview, the executive producers revealed the size of the sets and the extra oomph of having real sets instead of just actors in front of a blue screens:
Everything is a total of about 80,000 square feet. There’s a big stage that’s 40,000 square feet and then two 18,000 square foot stages. It’s in Pinewood Toronto, but it’s massive. The sets were really big. I mean you don’t usually build on this scale for science fiction. Obviously as big as they were, we enhanced them massively with visual effects. There’s a good amount of blue screen work, but — the physical environment of the series — a ton of it is practical. The spaceships, the interiors. We built The Knight, which is the shuttle they go off in the pilot. It’s 30 feet high. Three stories, actually almost closer to four. And the vertical space, we pulled people up on a wire so you could actually do zero-G floats on them in a convincing fashion. Again, it’s rare when you build that kind of vertical space. The airlock set that we built is 30 feet up and goes 25 feet down. It’s not common to build like this.
While CG is always going to be necessary in a sci-fi series, the producers recognize how real environments contribute to the final product:
FERGUS: It’s accepted now — everyone knows you’re watching bullshit. You know you’re watching a fake environment, but everybody is fine with it. It’s kind of accepted now that that’s the vocabulary of fantasy or sci-fi or even drama, when I see people sitting in a car. It takes you out, but it’s accepted. You can do it, and not feel ashamed about it anymore, but it still sucks a lot of the time because you feel disassociated with the environment and then actors can’t give that little extra bit of truth to a piece of plastic. I just feel like it’s beautiful to have people in real spaces, as much as that old Kubrick kind of ingenuity.
SHANKAR: We used every trick possible. Blue-wrapped teeter-totters, so people could float around without wires. The actors had movement coaches so they could hold their hand up properly at zero G so it never floats down. And shooting off speed and hiding wires. No trick was spared.
The show itself has a very distinct character. I’ve heard it described as a sci-fi noir with a Western feel. The executive producers for The Expanse also shared their own vision of the show in another part of the Indiewire interview:
“Lost” is “Lord of the Flies.” “Game of Thrones” is the medieval battle for power. What’s “The Expanse”?
FERGUS: “Chinatown” in space. That spoke a lot about the little guy stepping in this vast world. It’s the story of the future. Whether it’s California or the future of the solar system, it’s resource-based with very powerful people gaming the future for their own needs until one little schmuck steps in the plan and starts poking around too much. There were a lot of parallels in that respect.
SHANKAR: The one that I always go to, because it feels so much like a socio-political allegory, I keep going back to history, so to me it feels like “The Guns of August.” It’s about this series of mistakes and miscalculations and misapprehensions amongst people on all different sides, that leads to this insane conflict breaking out. There’s an incredibly interesting story in World War I. We talk about it a lot, especially in Season 1. A lot of people don’t really know what’s going on and they make the wrong conclusions about why people are doing what, and all that does is it preys on their own prejudices and hatreds and stirs the conflict even more, which is part of the plan of the bad guys. They’re counting on human beings living off their worst possible nature. And so, to me if feels a little more connected to history.
One of the reasons why universe of The Expanse feels like a fully fleshed out world is because it was a world, before it was a story. Ty Franck, co-creator of the novels The Expanse is based on, revealed that the idea started out as notes for a possible MMO game in a Rolling Stone interview:
I’m an astronomy geek, so I was doing all this reading about all the various moons of the gas giants, and if people were going to live on them, how would that look and how would that work. I was writing up a lot of this stuff and thinking it would be a cool pen-and-paper game. Then a friend of mine whose uncle was a bigwig at a Chinese ISP called and said, “Hey they’re talking about making their own MMO. Do you have any ideas that you could pitch to them?” And she said, “Yes, I totally do,” hung up, and immediately called me.
The MMO venture didn’t pan out, so he turned his “…giant notebook filled with notes and astronomical charts and all this crazy stuff…” into a tabletop role playing game for 10 years. In case you don’t have any tabletop RPG playing friends, you should know they’re probably some of the most (annoyingly) detail oriented and meticulous people when it comes to the worlds they build. Ty met his future co-creator in a serendipitous game session, leading to the birth of the novels:
Then the last one I ran was the one that [The Expanse co-author Daniel Abraham] was a player in, and after about the third session, he kept looking at my giant notebook, and he would say things like, “Since every company out here in the Belt has their own scrip, what does the economy look like? How does the money exchange work?” So I would explain it to him and he would say, “If we’re in these rock tunnels, wouldn’t the rocks be really cold? What do the tunnels look like?” I would explain that to him, and he saw that it was all in my book, and finally he said, “You’ve done all the world-building that people do for novels. Why don’t we just write a novel out of this?” I was like, “Yeah sure.”
Why Was The Expanse Cancelled?
Okay, you get it. The Expanse is good.
But you came to here to dig deeper into the story behind its cancellation. Fortunately, so did I.
First, let’s understand is the relationship that Syfy had with The Expanse. TV networks like Syfy can have 2 different kinds of shows: network originals that are owned, produced, and distributed by the network and licensed shows that they just have distribution rights for. The Expanse falls into the second category because the show is distributed by Syfy, but owned and produced by Alcon Television Group (technically also SeanDanielCo and Penguin in a Parka, but Alcon seems to be the important partner here).
Here’s a graphic that shows how The Expanse distribution is structured, since it’s a little complicated:
According to Deadline, Syfy only had the “…first-run linear rights in the U.S…” which “…puts an extraordinary amount of emphasis on live, linear viewing, which is inherently challenging for sci-fi/genre series that tend to draw the lion’s share of their audiences from digital/streaming.” Reddit user galaxyfudge digs deeper into this in an expansive post:
Additionally, SyFy has no SVOD (subscription video on demand) service, a la HBO Now. As a result, the only way to watch the show live is to view it on SyFy when it airs on TV or through the app.
Shows live and die by their ratings. For The Expanse, it struggled from the first episode, debuting to a modest 0.3 rating in the 18-49 demo and 1.19 million viewers. Unfortunately, those numbers weren’t the peak of the season, they were the peak of the entire series. Since the premiere, only four other episodes have reached a 0.3 rating live. No other episode has cracked 1 million viewers live.
Thus, The Expanse cancellation seems to root from Syfy’s distribution deal only giving them rights to the live airing of the show and not having a streaming service viewers can use to watch the show later. Fans have also complained about Syfy’s lackluster marketing for the show and the unavailability of licensed merchandise (probably because it’s not a Syfy original show). Even on Syfy’s own The Expanse page, only the last 5 episodes are viewable. Syfy only has a small time window to get viewership ratings up, so they’ve sabotaged themselves in this distribution agreement and it results in disappointing ratings.
It seems all we’ve been talking about is ratings, ratings, ratings. Are the ratings really that bad for The Expanse? Let’s dig into that a bit.
Are the Ratings for The Expanse Bad?
Let’s define some terms first. When people talk about the ratings for a show, they’re talking about the Nielsen ratings, which are measurements for how many people in the US watch something on TV. Nielsen is also attempting to account for streaming viewers in the ratings, though it seems to be a work in progress. Advertisers and TV networks use these ratings to negotiate prices for ads. Higher ratings translate to higher prices and more revenue for the network.
In general, people in the industry trust the ratings as reliable so they determine much of a show’s future. Spotted Ratings, an expert who has written about Nielsen ratings for almost 10 years, has this to say about just how much influence the ratings have:
The networks’ renewal and cancellation decisions still correlate quite closely with shows’ abilities to generate TV advertising revenue (which in turn correlate quite closely with TV ratings).
I sourced various ratings and viewership information from The Expanse Wikipedia page, TV Series Finale, and TV By The Numbers then ran my calculations in Google sheets (you can run through my calculations here). There’s going to be a bunch of methodological and math stuff I’ll be sharing for transparency, so if you don’t want to read that you can just skip to the charts.
I wanted to see if The Expanse’s ratings are actually disappointing, so I plotted their ratings from the first to the current season:
What Do the Ratings for The Expanse Tell Us?
I plotted 3 things here for easy viewing: the Live Nielsen rating (blue line), the number of Live viewers in millions (red line), and the Live+7 Nielsen rating (green line). There’s gaps for the Live+7 because not every episode had publicly available ratings data for that measure. I’ve also added trend lines behind the plotted data using the best fitting line possible to highlight any patterns (aka a high R-squared value for you math nerds). The graph starts with the season 1 premiere and has the premieres for season 2/3 marked for your convenience.
Indeed, there is a drop in the Live ratings (blue line) from the first episode, from 0.33 (1.19 million viewers) to 0.19 (609 thousand viewers) in season 3, episode 6. However, the overall performance looks relatively consistent, with a slowing drop in the ratings that could be the inflection point where ratings start creeping back up in the next few episodes. If we look at the number of Live viewers, we can actually see it going up, approaching season premiere levels. Looking at season averages for Live ratings, The Expanse’s season 3 ratings are the only current Syfy show increasing in ratings (+2.61%) from the previous season. More on that later.
The Live+7 (green line) data is woefully incomplete so I’d avoid reading too much into this, but the trend line for Live+7 even appears to be turning positive, indicating a rising rating trend and increasing viewership of the show.
Why Are You Mainly Using Live Ratings Data?
I’m using Live+ Nielsen ratings here mainly because that’s the only kind of ratings I have complete data for. Live+ is short for Live+Same Day, which covers people who watch a program live or watch it later that same day with a DVR. TV executives also look at Live+3 and Live+7 numbers that cover people who watch something up to 3 days or 7 days later via DVR. Live+ ratings are still good enough for analyzing trends and comparing performance. I’d still caution that sci-fi shows are inherently more attractive to the techno-savvy aka cord-cutting delayed viewing streaming audiences.
I’m also using the ratings to inform my estimates of The Expanse’s ad revenue. Spotted Ratings says Live+ is pretty close to the number used to set ad rates:
And that’s not even the real data that sets ad rates; those are called C3 ratings, and they measure commercial viewing within three days of the telecast. Those publicly appear even less often. And from what little I’ve seen of them, Live + Same Day numbers are a pretty good approximation. Most shows’ C3 ratings are ultimately within about plus or minus 10 percent of the Live+SD.
Do a Lot of People Watch The Expanse Later Instead of Live?
I’d say so, at least based on the episodes I have the total rating and viewer data for:
Notice that in every case, DVR viewers make up half or more of the total viewers within 7 days of an Expanse episode airing. While DVR is different from on demand video services like Netflix, I’d still say it supports the theory that The Expanse fans are a technologically inclined bunch, the perfect kind of audience for streaming shows on demand. Too bad Syfy doesn’t have a streaming service it can leverage to tap viewers of older episodes. Remember, it only has first run linear rights, so someone watching it on Hulu or Amazon Video nets Syfy 0 revenue.
Doing a quick search on Google Trends shows that interest in streaming The Expanse spikes every time a new season starts:
While this is a pretty loose check–I’m just checking search interest on the phrases “watch expanse online” and “expanse streaming”–you can see how interested streaming audiences are in the show. The average level of interest also seems to be going up, especially in the off-season times. It also looks like recent episodes have increasing interest levels as well.
How Do The Expanse’s Ratings Compare to Other Syfy Shows?
Nothing exists in a vacuum, so it would be useful to compare The Expanse to other shows Syfy has running. The Magicians is a Syfy original flagship show and currently the best performing show on the network, judging by the average Nielsen rating for the season. It’s also been renewed for a fourth season. Let’s compare their Live ratings:
Quick note–The Magicians has a 13 episode first season, while The Expanse only had 10 episodes in the first season so season 3 episode 6 in The Expanse corresponds to season 3 episode 3 in The Magicians here. That doesn’t really change my analysis, but just a heads up.
While The Magicians does have a higher overall Live rating, The Expanse approaches it a few times. In a recent episode, The Expanse is close to matching The Magicians in ratings. The Magician’s hovers around mid 0.2 to 0.3 Live ratings for the rest of its third season, so if The Expanse, improves its high teens to near 0.2 rating, it will close the gap in the second half of season 3. The Expanse may be underperforming compared to Syfy’s top series, but it’s not underperforming by a lot.
Let’s zoom out a bit and compare the averaged season Live ratings for all the current Syfy shows with at least 3 seasons:
Now this is where it gets interesting–The Expanse is actually outperforming several other Syfy shows that were renewed, yet only The Expanse and Dark Matter were cancelled. Also, remember how I said The Expanse is the only Syfy show with an average current season rating that’s improving? You can barely see it here, but that blue line is slightly increasing from season 2 to season 3. The exact increase is 2.61%, with other Syfy shows having a average season 2 to season 3 rating loss ranging from -3.18% (Killjoys) up to -32.32% (Z Nation). The Expanse actually seems to be doing decently when put in that context.
Let’s look at the percentage change in average ratings for 3 seasons on all of these Syfy shows. Then we can average those rating changes to get the meta average rating change between each season (yes I know that sentence is a bit confusing). So lets average our averages and get the average average:
Notably, it seems none of Syfy’s shows with 3+ seasons is increasing their ratings. The Magicians seems to lose the least, The Expanse is second, with the rest of the shows lagging behind them. The Expanse definitely isn’t last in the pack here though, it’s just not the rising star they probably want in terms of the ratings.
We should keep in mind the current season for The Expanse is only halfway done, so the ratings can still change.
I left off two of the shows, Channel Zero and 12 Monkeys, because Google Trends only lets you compare 5 topics at a time. The interest plots for those two shows are also quite low compared to The Expanse, comparable to the interest levels of Killjoys here. If you don’t believe me you can check the data on Google Trends.
It’s pretty clear that general online audience interest is increasing in the show, with interest levels starting to approach season 1 levels. In the more recent time frame, The Expanse is even leaving the other shows behind. Of course, this doesn’t help Syfy since they need live TV audiences in the US, not online audiences throughout the world. It’s clear that having the show on a globally accessible streaming service would be a good fit.
Breaking interest down by region shows some countries have more interest in the other Syfy properties:
That’s okay that The Expanse isn’t #1 everywhere, just more opportunity for growth right 😉 ? Seems like Canada, Nordic countries, and Australia are leading the charge for interest in the show. C’mon America, you guys need to catch up! I have no idea why The Expanse has such a high proportion of interest in eastern European countries though.
Limiting our data to just The Expanse, we can see all the countries the show has audiences in:
Canadians have good taste in sci-fi, I must say.
Is Syfy as Whole Underperforming and Not Just The Expanse?
The data points at The Expanse not doing that poorly relative to the other shows Syfy has chosen to renew. Could it be the network as a whole that’s underperforming and losing viewers, with The Expanse doing its best despite that trend? In other words, is The Expanse swimming against the downward current at Syfy?
The source data measures Syfy viewers twice a year, in spring and fall, asking them if they had watched Syfy anytime within 7 days of the survey. The measurements end at spring 2017.
Looking at this graph, it seems even before the premiere of The Expanse, Syfy had declining viewership. The premiere of The Expanse didn’t seem to reverse that trend, although Syfy’s hemorrhaging of viewers seems to be leveling out in 2017. Perhaps Syfy executives expected a runaway hit that would help turn around the channel. Because they haven’t gotten the smashing success they wanted, they’re now trying to cut their losses and bet on a new show that can turn around the network’s performance. Syfy didn’t want something just doing okay, they wanted a show that would become their cash cow.
The Expanse was probably supposed to be their flag-bearing “prestige” show, like The Walking Dead for AMC or Game of Thrones for HBO, that would revive the Syfy brand and get Syfy taken seriously by audiences again. In marketing terms, it would boost their brand equity.
A quick counterpoint: TV viewership in general is down, so it’s not just Syfy suffering.
Is The Expanse the Best Show on Syfy e.g. Prestige Show Status?
In my opinion it definitely is the best show and my opinion is the law.
Jokes aside, I’ve heard from many others that they also find The Expanse amazing–all I’ve heard are positive things in the media too. Let’s check assumptions and quantify things by comparing it to other current Syfy shows with at least 3 seasons.
The way I’ll do this is by getting scores from review aggregators and IMDB–I find them generally trustworthy indicators– then adding them all together to get what I’ll call a Quality Score. Note that I had to normalize the data since some sites report scores out of 10 and others out of 100, so I just multiplied the smaller scores by 10 to give everything equal weight:
I took the liberty of calculating the average score for these shows, so we can see more easily which shows are above average. In terms of quality, The Expanse is ahead of everyone, with its closest competitor, Dark Matter, behind by about 27 points. Percentage wise, Dark Matter is about 6.4% lower in Quality Score. The Magicians, Syfy’s #1 show in the ratings, has a 10% lower quality score than The Expanse.
Some caveats here: a few of the shows were missing official metascores for a season because they didn’t have a certain number of reviews (Metacritic waits for at least 4 reviews) so for those I just averaged the reviews that were available for that season. If a season had no reviews at all, I just left it out and only used the scores for the seasons that did have scores. To get the overall score, I averaged the scores of all 3 seasons together. If you want to check my work, here’s the spreadsheet.
I’d imagine it’s more important for a potential buyer of The Expanse to see how the show has been doing in its latest season, since that’s the most recent information. Thus, I also calculated the Quality Scores for just the third season of these Syfy shows:
Several of the shows show improvement in their third season. The Expanse still has the top Quality Score, but now 12 Monkeys beats out Dark Matter for second place. Percentage wise, The Expanse is about 3.9% above 12 Monkeys and 8.3% above The Magicians. Again, I’ll caution that if a show didn’t have a season 3 score, I’d either average the reviews they did have to get the metascore or I just used the numbers from the overall score for all 3 seasons.
Just for fun, let’s do a quick social media sentiment comparison:
Social media stats are notoriously slippery when it comes to translating them to real world results, but together with the other data we’ve looked at, I’d say this is pretty positive. This is also just one social media search engine’s opinion and won’t take all posts on social networks into account. Still useful to see The Expanse buzz is positive and strong though.
So what does all this mean? I’d say The Expanse was worthy of being a flagship Syfy show and its top show in terms of quality. The critics and audiences would agree. I can objectively say that The Expanse is probably the best show in its third season on Syfy right now.
Of course, that doesn’t really matter to Syfy if it doesn’t result in better ratings. They’re still bleeding viewers and The Expanse might not have enough mainstream appeal for reverse that trend for them. In the end, while The Expanse’s ratings aren’t that bad in comparison to the other Syfy shows, they just were not good enough to keep the show around, especially since Syfy had limited ways–due to their distribution agreement–to make money from it.
We’ll dig deeper into the financials later, first lets talk a bit more about how Syfy uses the ratings to determine cancellations.
Why Does Syfy Care About the Ratings? What About Streaming Viewers?
They care because of money.
Syfy doesn’t make money off streaming viewers, they only make money from selling TV commercial time on a show like The Expanse. They also make money from cable companies since people pay for certain packages just to get specific channels, like ESPN or Syfy, so cable companies pay the network to provide their content. That really only comes into play if you have a ratings juggernaut type show though, a show that lifts the viewership of your entire channel. Obviously, that didn’t really apply to The Expanse.
The third way Syfy can make money is through content licensing, which is basically selling the rights for your content to be shown on other networks or streaming services. Since Syfy doesn’t own The Expanse (Alcon does), they can’t make any money this way. Technically, you can stream The Expanse on the Syfy website, but this requires you to login through your cable provider so it’s really not a separate streaming service as a kind of DVR viewing service. It’s also way more limited–only the last 5 episodes are available. I’d still wager Syfy makes nearly all their money on the show from TV ads.
A Syfy executive even wrote an article in 2012 about how and why they use the Nielsen ratings to decide which shows to keep or cancel. Craig Engler was a senior executive for 15 years at Syfy, but he’s currently the GM at AMC’s streaming video service Shudder. There’s nothing better for understanding Syfy’s decisions than hearing it straight from the executive’s mouth, so let’s take a look.
Engler has this to say about the accuracy of the ratings and sci-fi shows:
Overall I don’t think there’s any evidence to support that Nielsens are wildly inaccurate or especially harsh on sci-fi shows. And sci-fi shows are actually canceled no more frequently than other genres. The reality of TV is that most shows fail, in any genre. That’s endemic to all entertainment businesses. Most movies aren’t successful, most books don’t become best-sellers, etc.
The Nielsens aren’t perfect, but no system trying to measure what 100 million+ households are watching ever will be. Even if you could precisely measure what was on every TV at all times of the day or night, you wouldn’t be able to figure out if the person watching them is paying attention, or how many people are watching that TV, or even if anyone is watching. What you need is a system that’s as reasonably accurate as you can expect, and that everyone on all sides of the TV business accepts as a standard. For now, it’s Nielsen ratings.
There’s been much industry buzz about improving the accuracy of the Nielsen ratings and the search for good alternatives (ComScore seems to be gaining steam) that take missing numbers into account or allows for more targeted ad buying, but despite its shortcomings, people in the TV business still generally trade in Nielsen ratings as their currency. Nielsen, to its credit, is also working on counting streaming viewers, with recent integration of Hulu and YouTube TV into its ratings.
Engler further specifies why online viewer counts aren’t as important to cable networks as the Nielsen ratings (emphasis mine):
Since different kinds of views bring in different amounts of revenue, you can’t treat all views equally. And the difference in revenue derived from TV views compared to online views is massive. If you add up all the money you get selling ads in live and DVR viewing and stack that against all the money you bring in through every other kind of viewing method, you’d probably be lucky to get $1 in online revenue for the same number of views that would bring in $10 on TV. And that’s likely an optimistic number.
What makes it more lopsided is that the pool of online viewers is smaller than the pool of TV viewers. Although it feels like everyone in the U.S. is connected to the Internet and watches TV online, only about 2/3 of houses in the U.S. have broadband Internet access. And only 50-70 percent of households that have the Internet watch video online. And of the people who watch video online, most of them are watching short videos, not full TV episodes. And we can’t include international viewing because the production companies we license shows from reserve those rights to include in their international deals.
He does end on a hopeful note and the article was published 6 years ago so much has changed in the TV industry landscape since then. He acknowledges how things might be different, especially now in 2018:
Five years ago, online revenue for TV shows was counted in pennies, and now it’s counted in nickels. Hopefully it will get to quarters in the next few years, and then online viewing might really start making an impact on the ability of TV networks to renew shows.
But as of early 2011 this is how the TV industry stands…
Recent industry media discussion also notes that networks are generally more patient in today’s TV landscape and willing to let a show run longer before deciding to cancel it. The general decline of live TV ratings as a whole has forced networks to evaluate things over a longer time horizon. Still, digital views are treated as second class citizens when it comes to evaluating a show for cancellation decisions:
Digital viewing plays less of a role in CBS’s analysis since it has been notoriously harder to measure, and social buzz is “the flimsiest of all the numbers,” Mr. Kahl said. “If no one is watching it doesn’t matter.”
“We are not at a place where we would make a decision if a show is tanking on linear [TV] but has huge digital ratings to keep it on,” NBC’s Mr. Bader said.
The only time that might be different is if the distribution deal allows for a network to make money off streaming views:
“It’s important for networks to have a stake in the game by owning the content outright or a piece of it,” said Chris McCumber, president, USA Network, whose drama “Mr. Robot” has become somewhat of a model in this new ecosystem.
Less important were the linear ratings, which weren’t overly impressive when they arrived. The first season of “Mr. Robot” averaged 1.4 million live-plus-same-day viewers and a 0.5 rating among adults 18-to-49 years old.
USA was right to renew “Mr. Robot” when it did, Mr. McCumber said. Ratings grew 75% in C3; the show delivered 7.6 million video streams during the season; people watched its streams longer than other USA series (15 minutes compared with six minutes); and the series is still generating about 900,000 video-on-demand starts per week.
USA is already grabbing more revenue by selling the series’ back episodes to Amazon.
I’m not letting Syfy off the hook for cancelling an amazing show like The Expanse, but it’s good to know what they’re thinking. Comparing it to other shows on Syfy, the ratings really aren’t bad. And I believe The Expanse could have done a lot better if Syfy had a streaming service/rights to make revenue from or if there was better marketing for the show, but what’s done is done and Syfy is limited with content it doesn’t own.
Okay, so Syfy’s a business, they need to make money. Let’s dig into that.
Is The Expanse Profitable for Syfy?
It would be much easier for me if Syfy would give the financial numbers out, but that’s not going to happen. Numbers like the cost of production, licensing fees, budgets, revenues, advertising contracts, and deals are all considered strategic proprietary information for a company in television so they won’t share those numbers unless they can really gain something from it.
You could also be top tier connected like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and get secret information from insider sources.
I’m not that connected, so I just have to troll through news articles, talk to a couple people in the industry, and make a lot of educated guesses. There’s no public financials for The Expanse so take all my calculations with a grain of salt. This is just to ballpark some figures.
How Much Does The Expanse Cost?
Starting up a series from nothing involves a lot of work, so the first episode is usually the most expensive. In addition, some episodes have special locations or more intense CG/SFX shots so they can be more expensive than usual. I’m assuming this all smooths out on the season level, so we can just assign an average cost per episode and it’ll work out to a similar total budget by the end of the season.
Let’s look at the per episode production costs for some similar series that we have public information on. Note: I adjusted the price tags for inflation, so the source numbers will vary from whats written here:
- Battlestar Galactica: $2 million [source]
- Stargate Universe: $2.36 million [source]
- Star Trek The Next Generation: $3.6 million [source]
- Star Trek Discovery: $8 million [source]
- The Walking Dead: $3 million [source]
- Defiance: $3.34 million [source]
Looks like somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million is typical.
I also spoke with a couple people familiar with the TV production industry and they gave me around $3.5-4 million as an estimate. On The Expanse subreddit, people often throw around $5 million per episode figure though no one has a source for that. In one reddit thread filled with speculation that the The Expanse had a budget similar to Game of Thrones’ $6-$10 million per episode, Bob Munroe, producer and senior VFX supervisor for The Expanse, revealed they had nowhere close to that amount:
Munroe, when asked about the budget per episode, declined to give numbers, but did share that the show has a substantial budget:
So now we’ve got a range of numbers to work with–it’s not $10 million/episode and I don’t think it’d be less than Battlestar Galactica’s $2 million. The $6 million/episode for earlier seasons of Game of Thrones is probably also above The Expanse’s budget. I’ll give a range of estimates so we cover different possible budgets:
- Low Cost: $2 million/episode
- Mid Cost: $3.5 million/episode
- High Cost: $5 million/episode
In my opinion, the Mid Cost scenario is most likely to be close to the actual production budget.
We aren’t done figuring costs yet since Syfy would not have paid the full production cost. Alcon owns and produces The Expanse, remember? Instead, Syfy pays a licensing fee to for the show’s distribution rights. I asked someone familiar with the industry to speculate on possible licensing costs, and they gave me a range of 15% to 30% of the production cost. Another person familiar with the industry gave me a much higher quote: 45-50% for first run rights in the US market. I’m just going with the lower range for now since licensing fees reportedly have been dropping. TV viewership in general is down and networks are more wary to make a deal without international/streaming video on demand in their agreement, like the deal Syfy made with Alcon.
Now we have 2 ranges of assumptions to work with.
We want to get Syfy’s cost per episode using these 2 sets of starting conditions. The best tool for comparing the outcomes of multiple different scenarios is a sensitivity analysis. That’s just a fancy way of saying you’ll check what answers you get for a bunch of different assumptions.
To do the sensitivity analysis, we’ll use this equation in our calculations:
License Cost = Production Cost * License Fee
We’ll do that for each of our options. For productions costs, that’s $2m (low), $3.5m (mid), and $5m (high), and for license fee we’ll do 15%, 20%, and 30%. Remember, you can double check my calculations or run them yourself here.
You use this the same way you would use a multiplication table. If I wanted the license cost where it’s a Mid level production cost and Syfy pays 20% of production, I’d look at the row labeled Mid, then over to the column labeled 20%. That’s the box right in the center, $700,000. This table helps us understand the possible amounts that Syfy would have paid for the rights to air each episode of The Expanse. Again, this is all speculative, but it gives you a good idea of the neighborhood we’re in financially.
Based on the info so far, I’d judge the most likely scenarios are Mid/15% and Mid/20%, which would mean Syfy paid $525,000-$700,000 for each episode of The Expanse. I’m leaving a bit more towards 15% though.
What About Marketing Costs for The Expanse?
But wait you say, what about the cost of marketing? Let’s put together our assumptions range.
The highest marketing budget figures I could find was the $10 million Syfy spent on Defiance for a $40 million season. In percentage terms, that works out to 37% of the production cost. Defiance was higher profile than The Expanse, yet it was still cancelled for financial reasons. Syfy probably took some lessons from that and felt they spent too much so I’m pretty sure The Expanse’s marketing budget is lower than that. That’s the absolute ceiling, but we can probably narrow it a bit more than that. This MediaPost article shows Netflix having a $1 billion marketing budget on a projected $6 billion of new content spending, which works out to 16.66%. We’ll use that as our high marketing spending assumption
Looking at parent corporation Comcast’s 2017 Annual Report, we can dig into NBCUniversal’s Cable Networks segment financial numbers. Syfy is just one of several cable networks in that division, though they are tied for 2nd largest in terms of reach. We can divide the reported advertising, marketing, and promotion expense by the programming/production expense (531m/4,670m) to get a rough 11.37% marketing budget percentage. We’ll use that for our mid level assumption.
One of the The Expanse subreddit’s favorite axes to grind is how little marketing Syfy does for The Expanse. In that linked thread, people mention a lack of trailers, Twitter/Facebook promotion, the lack of branded merchandise, commercials not mentioning the show, etc. People aren’t hearing about The Expanse from Syfy, according to the word on the streets. To account for this , I just used 8% as the low marketing spend assumption, which is less than half of the high assumption. That’s isn’t based on any source, that’s just me pulling numbers based on my best guess.
Thus our final assumptions we’ll be using for sensitivity analysis:
- Low: 8% of program cost
- Mid: 11.37%
- High: 16.66%
Our equation will use license costs that we previous calculated since Syfy doesn’t pay the full production cost. Specifically, I’ll use the Mid level production cost row since that’s most probable and it’ll keep our table from becoming too unwieldy:
Marketing Cost = License Cost * Marketing Budget Percentage
I think the most likely scenarios here are Mid/15% and Mid/20% license cost x 8% and 11% marketing percentage. That means the marketing budget per episode is in the range of $42,000-$79,590. I’m leaning more towards the low budget side though just because it always seems like no one has heard of this show, so if I was being pessimistic I’d say they’re spending $42-$56,000 per episode on marketing.
Next, let’s figure out how much revenue Syfy makes.
How Much Ad Revenue Does Syfy Make Per Episode of The Expanse?
I previously mentioned how Syfy makes money on The Expanse. They can’t make money from licensing it to other networks since they don’t own the show, so that just leaves advertising. Technically, Syfy would also make money from cable subscribers who join a specific package just so they can watch The Expanse on Syfy, but that revenue gets shared by all Syfy shows and it’s hard to attribute how much is due to a specific show on the network. In addition, cable companies sell channels in big fat packages, so it’s even harder to tell who is subscribing specifically for Syfy. We’ll set that aside for now and just focus on the revenue we can directly tie to The Expanse.
The main reason the Nielsen ratings are important is because it shows advertisers how many people they can reach with an ad. Since the number of viewers fluctuates on each episode, we’ll have 3 viewer numbers assumptions: low, mid, and high. I’ll get these numbers from the reported Live viewers for each episode. Low will use the smallest number of viewers of an Expanse episode, high will be the highest viewer number, and mid will be the average viewers across all episodes.
I’m going with the Live numbers because they are the closest proxy to the number advertisers actually use to determine rates, the C3 rating, and it’s usually around 10% more than the Live rating according to the data I looked at. The difference is probably because it measures ad viewing within 3 days of a shows broadcast, while Live just measures that day. To account for that, I’ll just increase my low, mid, and high viewers numbers by 10%. That gives us these viewer numbers:
- Low: 0.50 million
- Mid: 0.67 million
- High: 1.31 million
Now we need to figure out how much an advertiser will pay for these viewers. In the TV ad industry, rates are quoted with a CPM figure telling you the cost per thousand views. I came up with my low, mid, and high CPM rates through some research into 2018’s average CPM rate for cable networks at the upfronts–a big industry annual event where billions of dollars are spent on TV ads– and an old Nielsen/Well Fargo report on CPM ranges. The low number will be the low CPM in the Nielsen report, the mid will be the average CPM from this year’s upfronts, and the high will be the high CPM in the Nielsen report. That gives us these CPM assumptions:
- Low: $9.50
- Mid: $15.94
- High: $25
To get the ad revenue, we just need one more number–how many ads are shown in an episode. Fortunately, a kind reddit user listed all of the commercials in a recent showing of The Expanse so I just counted that out (43 commercials!). Now we multiply:
Ad Revenue = (Viewers * CPM * Number of Commercials)/1000
Why divide by 1000? It’s because CPM is per thousand viewers while our viewers number is obviously not in groups of a thousand, so we have to adjust for that. Putting that together in our sensitivity analysis:
I’m going with the Mid Viewers/Mid CPM and Mid/High revenue estimates as most likely. I’m inclined to believe the average viewers is the most probable for any random episode. I believe those numbers for CPM are reasonable for Syfy’s ad rates since it’s at number 31 on the top 100 cable networks for Q1 2018 according to AdWeek TVNewser. That makes me believe SyFy should be able to command at least the cable industry average for CPM ad rates. It’s likely that it’s a little higher than that since it’s towards the top of the list and according to Comcast’s ad offering page for SyFy, the channel reaches a high proportion of high income households and homeowners, a valuable demographic with money to spend. The Expanse also premieres during a coveted prime time weekday night slot, making it more attractive.
Thus, I edu-guesstimate that The Expanse pulls in between $460,436.79 and $722,140.52 in ad revenue for each episode.
Let’s put all of that together to get the net profit.
How Much Profit Does Syfy Make on Each Expanse Episode?
We’re going to use all the outcomes we’ve calculated to make a giant 9 x 9 table showing a universe of profits for all possible situations. It’s kind of scary, so skip ahead to the prettier looking chart if you hate math. Also, yes I realize we haven’t figured marketing expenses in yet. That’ll come in a second.
By the way, if you need a refresher:
Profit = Revenue – Costs
You don’t really need to read this boring thing if you don’t want to; it’s here for transparency/completeness. You’ll notice it’s much more likely we get a net loss in profits than a net gain, which isn’t very good for the show’s financial case. In general, I’d say the cost factors have more influence on the profit an episode makes; all 9 cost rows have a possible negative profit outcome, but only 7 of the revenue columns have positive profits. 2 of the revenue columns have negative profit, no matter how low the cost assumption is.
Again, we’re just speculating on the possibilities here, so don’t take this as gospel. To me, this more shows me what the probability of a positive profit is.
Let’s leave this eye straining table and look at the data on some prettier graphs, grouped by revenue scenarios and by cost scenarios.
The main thing I notice here is that production cost and license cost are pretty close on how much they influence the profit. We have an even-ish ratio of possible profits above 0 and below 0. If you count the dots where production cost is low, you’ll see there’s slightly more positive outcomes than when the license cost is low (14 vs 11), so I’d say production cost has a slight edge influencing the net profit.
What stands out here is how negative the profits look when grouping by the revenue scenario, indicating the revenue assumptions have less influence on the net profit than cost does.
Let’s trim down our 81 possible outcomes into something more manageable, just the most (in my opinion) probable outcomes.
For cost scenarios: low to mid level costs look more probable since similar shows generally converge around the $3 million/episode mark. Also, the first season would be most expensive, since they have to build all the sets and costumes while later seasons they have most stuff ready and experience working with everything. I selected 15% for licensing because I think they’d try to be cheap after continually losing viewers/spending on expensive original series and 20% licensing because it’s a safe middle ground number.
For revenue scenarios: I choose mid viewer numbers and mid CPM because those stay closest to the actual data and reports I have. I’m also throwing in mid viewers x high CPM because Syfy is #33 in the top 100 cable channels, favorable audience demographics, and The Expanse is in a prime time slot.
Filtering by those cost and revenue criteria leaves me with just the 8 profit estimates I’m most confident in:
That’s much easier to work with.
We have 2 net loss and 6 net gain outcomes in our selected scenarios, so positive profits looks more likely. Averaging all of these numbers together gets us $110,039. If we assume the more extreme outcomes are less probable, then $110,039 would be our expected value for any given episode of The Expanse before marketing expenses.
Just for fun, I decided to math the shit out of this and find the probability of having a profit between $0 and $422,141, the maximum predicted profit. I’m assuming that this collection of outcomes will be representative of the spectrum of profits you’d get on an Expanse episode. I calculated Z scores for 0 and 422,141, converted those to p values, and subtracted. That gives a probability of 72.59% for a profit within that range. That’s a pretty good chance of getting a net profit if you ask me. My stats knowledge is pretty rusty so forgive me if I made a mistake here.
Let’s wrap things up and factor in our marketing costs per episode. Let’s bring out our marketing cost table:
From our previous marketing cost sensitivity analysis matrix way up in the costs section, I’m picking 2 figures as most likely:
- Mid Marketing Budget: $79,590 per episode
Mid/20% (License Cost) x 11% (Marketing Cost)
- Low Marketing Budget: $56,000 per episode
Mid/20% (License Cost) x 8% (Marketing Cost)
The mid marketing budget figure is a nice middle of the road estimate and it’s supported by the data. I used the mid level license cost assumption to keep the figures somewhat reasonable. The low marketing budget figure is included since Syfy has gotten plenty of heat on social media for a lackluster marketing effort.
We’re going to subtract each marketing budget amount from our 8 best profit guesses to get our final net profit numbers. To be clear, we’re going to be doing this:
Net Profit = Profit-Before-Marketing-Expenses – Marketing Budget
The different marketing budget costs don’t really impact my general conclusion here: it’s pretty much a coin toss on an episode making positive or negative profit for Syfy. The cost per episode being higher or ad revenues being lower could push profits either way. Assuming the outcomes are distributed in a way where the extremes are less probable, we can average them together to get our overall expected value on any episode of The Expanse. A high marketing budget has an expected net profit per episode of $30k while a low marketing budget has an expected profit of $54k per episode. Note, these are incremental profits that can be tied directly to the show. I’m not counting what Syfy as a channel gets from cable providers yet because you can’t easily tie that directly to a show.
In conclusion, I’d expect the average Expanse episode to make $30,449 – $54,039 in net profit for Syfy. For 3 seasons of The Expanse, that’s a net profit of $1,004,806 – $1,783,276.
That might sound like a lot of money to you and me, but that’s pretty much a razor thin profit for a multimillion dollar business like Syfy. It’s also highly possible that profits were negative, since any small increase in cost or decrease in revenue would easily change our expected profits.
Bonus for Finance Nerds: Looking at The Expanse’s Return on Investment With Net Present Value
Looking at the cost of borrowing money (WACC, look up weighted average cost of capital) for parent corporation Comcast, we can see they pay about 9.08% to borrow. That means their return on the show should be at least 9.08% of their investment if they want to cover their costs. We can use something finance people call Net Present Value to find out how much the show’s total return on investment is for 3 seasons, taking into account their cost to borrow money. NPV gives you an amount in present day dollars of your future profits minus investment costs. I’m only bothering to do this finance math because it’s likely their bean counters did the same while considering the cancellation decision. You can check my calculations in the spreadsheet if you want.
The NPV using our mid level marketing cost number is $916,799.71; NPV for our low marketing cost is $1,627,087.40. That’s how much value 3 seasons of the show adds to Syfy’s bottom line, which is barely anything when you consider how much they spent on the series. On Comcast’s annual report, Syfy is part of NBCUniversal’s cable networks division, which had over 4 billion dollars in net earnings from 12 cable networks in 2016 alone. If we just naively divide those, that comes out to each cable network earning about $339 million in profits each per year. Syfy is one of their bigger networks too, so it’s likely more for them. Financially, The Expanse was earning them pennies.
2X Bonus: How Much Money Does Syfy Get From Cable Providers?
One last thing to consider: I mentioned this earlier, but Syfy does get fees from cable providers like DirecTV or TimeWarner Cable who pay them to include Syfy in cable packages. Some proportion of those fees would come from subscribers who specifically want Syfy just so they can watch The Expanse. That number is pretty difficult to quantify though; Syfy gets paid for their entire channel’s content, not just specific shows.
I’m also inclined to believe that networks tend to view that income as a giant payout, a big general fund to dole out around the network instead of each show being tied to a specific portion of the cable provider fees. That’s why I believe Syfy executives would focus more on the incremental income they can tie directly to a specific show, like ad revenue, when judging its performance. Still, it’d be nice to get the cable fee numbers for completeness. You can follow the calculation in depth on the spreadsheet here.
Syfy gets $0.35 for each cable subscriber and they had 89.7 million of them in 2017 according to Variety’s chart. We’re gonna multiply those to get the monthly cable fee revenue ($31,409,700.00) then multiply that by 12 to get the yearly amount ($376,916,400.00). Syfy currently has 14 original shows, 2 reality shows, and like the twelfth rerun of Armageddon. The reruns are basically filler and the reality shows are cheap, so let’s say that only gets 30% of the of the cable fee money. We subtract that 30%, then we divide the remainder ($263,841,480) by the 14 original Syfy shows ($18,845,820). Assuming each show has 13 episodes in a season, that works out to about $1.4 million in cable fee profit per episode of The Expanse.
That would easily make The Expanse profitable, but they likely want a hit that can match cable fees in ad revenue or be cheaper to produce. Because they don’t own the show, they can’t license it out to other networks, make money from streamers, or sell international rights, limiting them to just ad dollars.
That’s just a rough estimate since every show brings in different ratings plus we don’t even really know if someone would drop a cable package if Syfy wasn’t showing The Expanse anymore. Remember that cable channels come in a big bundle, so its questionable how much a single show will influence someone to downgrade and lose a bunch of channels.
I’m also assuming Syfy’s exclusive content is bringing in most of the cable subscriber money here, though we could easily assume all the garbage TV brings in more and that would reduce the amount of money for each original show. Regardless, I still believe Syfy execs would focus on the numbers a show directly bring in, not a much wobblier cable fee estimate.
So What’s the Bottom Line on Why Syfy Cancelled The Expanse?
It wasn’t profitable enough for them. They were expecting a breakout hit to turn their network around, but limited revenue streams and ratings that weren’t high enough mean they’re going to keep searching for their hit. Combine those factors with the higher costs for the series and the result is a questionable incremental profit margin. It wouldn’t be the first time Syfy has cancelled a show due to the financials. Also, being just one segment of one division of a monster cable company probably ties their hands on how much they can really support true quality science fiction, instead of just chasing ratings. Perhaps things could have turned out differently if they had worldwide digital and streaming rights, but that’s a moot point now.
There’s a lot of assumptions in my analysis, but overall I’m pretty confident in my conclusions, unless someone from Syfy wants to share their confidential information with me.
When the news first broke about Syfy’s cancellation of the series, fans were stunned. I know I was. But the fan community immediately organized a campaign to save the show, which was covered in several media outlets. In the beginning, the fans were pushing for either Netflix or Amazon to pick up the show. There were desperate times as well, like when the Props Master for the show, Jim Murray, announced there was less than 24 hours before all of the sets were scrapped and props sold off. That would have been a massive blow to the renewal effort since rebuilding the sets, offices, and props would be very expensive. Rumors say a certain Martian marine’s power armor cost $100,000 by itself. Fortunately, doomsday was averted as the crew was given some breathing room before the sets were destroyed.
The #SaveTheExpanse campaign resulted in some impressive publicity wins:
- A petition with over 138,000 signatures
- Funding the flying of a banner above Amazon Studios
- Sending a 3D model of the Rocinante to the edge of space
- A slick fan created trailer for the show
There’s was also passionate campaigning on the part of the cast/crew, fan videos praising the series, concerted efforts to push the live viewing numbers up, and celebrities like Adam Savage, George RR Martin, Wil Wheaton and an astronaut sharing support for the show.
In the early days, redditor galaxyfudge noted that Amazon would be the best choice for fans to focus on:
Let’s get this out of the way: Amazon is the best play for The Expanse and its survival. The last few days has seen an increasing amount of news/rumors that Amazon is interested in the show. It certainly makes sense. Amazon already owns the U.S. streaming rights to the show. Additionally, Amazon is looking to boost its profile with its original programming. While it has been successful, with shows such as the fantastic The Marvelous Mrs. Maiseland The Man in the High Castle, one could argue that Amazon hasn’t really made a dent compared to its contemporaries like Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale. Most importantly though, is that the Alcon Television Group is already producing a show for Amazon. Announced in February 2017, Alcon TV and Amazon are co-producing the original kids TV series, Pete the Cat. Yes, a kids series has nothing to do with a massive space opera, but the fact that Alcon and Amazon already have a working relationship means The Expanse could hit the ground running.
That notion was further confirmed by Props Master Murray when revealed to fans Amazon was the best option for salvation. The campaign’s efforts were rewarded with unofficial word from The Hollywood Reporter that Amazon was negotiating acquisition of the series, but a tweet from the Expanse Writers twitter account cautioned that the deal wasn’t closed yet:
We’re excited, but the deal’s not closed…we’re not quite through the woods yet! ? Keep up the fight Expansers & watch this weeks episode LIVE with us on SyFy ? we’ll be dancing in the streets right along with you as soon as we get anything official #TheExpanse #SaveTheExpanse https://t.co/cHNi3bTd8P
— The Expanse Writers (@TheExpanseWR) May 21, 2018
The deal was finally confirmed by Amazon’s CEO himself, Jeff Bezos, at the International Space Development Conference, only an hour after The Expanse panel at the same event. Bezos himself was probably delighted since he’s a big fan of The Expanse novels and a lifelong science fiction reader. The whole room and the cast were undeniably heartened by the news.
One of The Expanse’s original creators, Daniel Abraham even took to reddit to thank fans for their support in the victory:
Now I have to re-book all my travel plans for the summer. 🙂
Seriously, though. This community played a significant part in the support of the show. And no matter what anyone says, there were a lot of opportunities for this to go pear-shaped. We’re grateful for all the work you folks put in to to haul the show up out of the grave.
There’s a lot of work to be done, and we’re going to get to it. If I’m a little thin on social media for a few weeks, that’s going to be why.
Y’all take care.
That’s one happy ending I’m glad for.
Want to start watching The Expanse now? You can watch each season on Amazon Video for free with with Prime (except for the current season) or it’s about 20 bucks a season or about 18 bucks on DVD:
These are affiliate links so I get a small commission because running servers costs money and writing articles takes a ton of work, so sue me :p