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Why your favorite show isn’t on Netflix

Or Hulu, or Amazon, or Crackle, or...

The Drew Carey Show
You can’t stream The Drew Carey Show. Anywhere.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

"Why can’t I watch that show right now?" someone asked me on Twitter after I tweeted about The Drew Carey Show.

(I’m sure you will agree that it was vital to the fate of the republic that I conduct a Twitter poll as to which of the sitcom’s three main opening credits sequences was best.)

But it was true! You can watch Drew Carey’s pilot on Amazon with a subscription, but additional episodes will cost you $2 a pop. When you consider the show made over 200 episodes, it hardly seems worth it. And in this era of streaming, I hear this question all the time: "Why isn’t my favorite show on Netflix/Hulu/Amazon/insert niche streaming service here?"

And it goes beyond shows from the past. Have you tried to watch previous seasons of ABC’s Black-ish, one of TV’s best family comedies? You can’t. The first season has disappeared from Hulu, with season two soon to join it. The currently airing third season is there now, but once a season leaves Hulu, Black-ish disappears into the ether, unless you’re willing to purchase it for digital download or on DVD.

That seems weird for a popular, Emmy-nominated comedy, right? It certainly seems weird to me, and I get paid to follow this stuff. Here’s what’s happening.

Netflix and Hulu aren’t alternatives to the industry; they’re part of it

The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is produced by AMC Networks and not one of the major studios.

The easiest way to visualize how streaming fits into the larger equation is to picture the film and TV industries as one gigantic mountain, blotting out the horizon. A lot of people tend to think of streaming services as like Netflix as completely different mountains that are changing the way movies and TV shows are made and marketed. And to a degree, that’s true.

But mostly, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and all the other streaming services aren’t completely different mountains; they’re developers who are building luxury ski resorts on the original mountain. They might offer viewers a more appealing way to enjoy the mountain, but they’re technically dependent on the mountain to exist.

If you were to dig into that mountain, you would find that its core — indeed, the vast bulk of it — is made of various production companies that control the rights to your favorite films and TV shows. For the most part, those companies are the big studios you’re already familiar with (Warner Brothers, Disney, Fox, etc.), but there are also many smaller independent players who scrounge out a living by producing stuff for less money upfront, then living off the profits (which they earn through sales of DVDs, streaming rights, foreign rights, etc.) for years to come.

Those independent players include some companies you’ve never heard of and some you probably have, like AMC Networks. AMC Networks makes The Walking Dead, among other TV series, and technically isn’t owned by one of the big studio conglomerates.

Once a studio (I’m going to use the term "studio," rather than production company, because it’s more readily understandable, even though it’s not 100 percent accurate) has made a film or TV series, it effectively licenses that film or TV series to be shown in various places. For the most part, it will send a film to movie theaters for its first run, or send a TV series to a network that will air it first.

No matter where a film or TV series debuts, the studio controls its long tail, and that long tail is how the studio will make most of its money. It can sell the film or TV series on DVD, or sell it to be shown in other countries, or sell it for digital download, or sell it to be shown on a streaming service. And as streaming becomes a more and more important part of the overall economic picture of any film or TV series, studios are placing more of a premium on streaming rights. (For more on how this works on the TV end, you can read here.)

If you’re a streaming service — who might have a huge budget for programming, but must figure out how to split that budget between producing new shows and acquiring old ones — well, the more studios charge, the less stuff you can buy.

Warner Brothers is often the culprit when it comes to missing TV shows

'Gilmore Girls' Pop-Up
Netflix turned various eateries into spins on Luke’s Diner from the show Gilmore Girls.
Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images

Almost every time someone asks me about a missing TV show on streaming, the show in question is produced by Warner Brothers. The studio has one of the largest inventories in Hollywood, but it’s also not affiliated with any of the major streaming services in the way that, say, Disney is affiliated with Netflix (via a deal Netflix made to stream Disney content). There are persistent rumors that Warner Brothers might make such a deal with Hulu, but so far, all it has done is purchase a small stake in the company.

And it makes sense for Warner Brothers to play coy. Yes, it licenses some of its shows, but it’s reasonable to assume the studio is being paid good money for them. We don’t have hard dollar figures, but considering the flashy promotional campaigns Netflix has mounted since acquiring the rights to Friends and Gilmore Girls (both Warner Brothers productions), it’s not hard to imagine it’s trying to recoup on a substantial investment. (You know what else was a Warner Brothers production? The Drew Carey Show.)

Warner Brothers is also behind lots of currently airing TV shows without streaming deals — most notably The Big Bang Theory, which is earning the studio tons of money in syndicated reruns. Reruns are another reason why a show might not turn up on streaming; if it’s still a healthy draw when it comes to televised reruns, the studio may not want to kill that particular fatted calf.

But Warner Brothers isn’t the only studio doing this. 20th Century Fox owns Fresh Off the Boat and Modern Family, both of which lack streaming deals, and Disney owns Black-ish, which is also without a streaming home, presumably because of their syndication potential. This is a common occurrence with comedies, because if any program is going to have a life in syndicated reruns, it’s a comedy. They’ve always repeated better than dramas, and that’s especially true in the serialized drama era, when knowing a big plot twist can sometimes ruin the fun of watching a big episode.

So if you’re not sure why a TV show you love isn’t on streaming yet, you can probably blame the studio that made it. Chances are, that studio is holding out for a better deal, or still making plenty of money off the show in syndication, or hoping it might find a syndication deal in the near future. Streaming is changing the TV and film industries, yes, but not by as much as you might think it is.