Television 2015: Is There Really Too Much TV?
This is one in a series of essays running this week and next about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters.
If you started on Jan. 1, 2016, and caught up with one scripted 2015 prime-time TV series per day, you could not finish by the end of the calendar year. Assign Jan. 1 to Mad Men, Jan. 2 to Orange Is the New Black, Jan. 3 to Modern Family and so on, knock out a whole show every single day, week in and week out, on Saturdays and Sundays and Flag Day and your birthday, and you will not make it. You won't even be close. That's how much television there is. That's how out of hand television is. Not reality television, not cupcake contests, not the Kardashians, not all the most popularly indicted signs of a supposed slack-jawed apocalypse brought about by abysmal taste. This is just original scripted shows. It's TV as we've known it for decades and decades. And a lot of it is pretty good.
According to estimates provided to critics and reporters last week by the research team at FX Networks, more than 400 original scripted English-language series — just in prime time, not counting game shows, reality shows, documentary shows, daytime or nighttime talk shows, news or sports — will air on American television in 2015 before the year is out, meaning your one-show-a-day plan would come up painfully short. You wouldn't have made it this year with the shows from last year either, though you'd have gotten closer. The FX numbers say 2014 featured a total of 371 scripted series: 164 from basic cable, 145 from broadcast networks, 35 from pay cable and 27 from online services like Netflix. We were already up to 267 at the midpoint of 2015, which is how they estimate that in the end, it's going to be over 400. Project Catch-up 2015 would have ended on New Year's Eve with your disappointed gaze falling upon a tattered list of six stragglers; Project Catch-up 2016 would drag into the following February.
John Landgraf, the highly regarded CEO of FX Networks, has nurtured shows like The Americans, Justified and Louie. Each year, he transfixes a permanently cynical but temporarily credulous entertainment press with a calculatedly candid talk on the state of the art and industry. He put it this way in his recent session: "This is simply too much television."
This isn't a new idea for viewers or writers. Critic Alan Sepinwall wrote about it in 2013 — a year when there were roughly 60 fewer scripted series than there will be this year. But Landgraf's comment was picked up and widely reported; it helped set the tone for the rest of the tour. What was different about these remarks wasn't just noticing or commenting on how much TV there is, but an executive calling out — and in a sense calling for — a possible end to it.
Landgraf predicted that 2015 or 2016 would represent what he called "peak television" in the United States in terms of sheer volume, followed by a period of contraction. And note well: He doesn't believe all the excess inventory comes from bad and mediocre shows. He says good shows are part of the problem, too: "There's just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones." (Do you hear that, people who make good shows? You're getting in the way of greatness.)
The number for 2014 — 371 scripted shows — was a 75 percent increase from just five years earlier in 2009, when there were 211. While the highest-profile new entrants were streaming services, the bulk of the increase over those five years came from basic cable — that's outlets you don't pay for separately, like USA, Lifetime, SyFy, Comedy Central, AMC, TNT, TBS, ABC Family and, yes, FX. In 2009, all of basic cable produced 66 scripted shows. In 2014, it produced 164. And of all the basic cable outlets listed on FX's own documents, no one added more scripted shows between 2009 and 2014 than FX did — they more than doubled their output from seven to 17 (tied in total increase with Adult Swim, which went from eight to 18), on top of starting another entire affiliated channel, FXX, which had four scripted shows in 2014. If you're looking for a symbol of series proliferation in human form, Landgraf is as good a choice as anyone.
Ten years ago, a common lament was that reality shows were wiping out jobs for television writers. Now, Landgraf says, "This bubble has created a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories." Now, we have the head of one of the most respected cable networks in the business speaking specifically about good scripted shows when he says, in effect: "Enough."
Many of these hundreds of shows have limited ratings impact. A lot of them will scrape together just over a million viewers in a nation of hundreds of millions of people; many will reach only a few hundred thousand. Some aren't designed to do much more than that. Critics will try to help audiences find the little ones that deserve to be found. Sometimes, their doting will help buy another season here and there — much more often, it won't. Good shows will die. Bad shows will die. Most shows will die.
Too much television.
You can choose to see Landgraf's glut-shaming as a wonk's earnest analysis, a network representative's self-interest or a little bit of both. FX is a relatively new player in the history of scripted TV, given that it only started developing shows 15 years ago. But it's a legacy outlet when you compare it to the short-pants whiz-bang upstarts at Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and the network long ago established the critical credibility that's only recently arrived, for instance, at Lifetime with its excellent summer drama UnREAL. If prestige in television is your currency, FX is already old money. Maybe not relatives-on-the-Mayflower money, but certainly, say, steel money rather than tech money.
Because it got so much attention, and because it tracks with what people instinctively sense is true, it helps to put "too much television" in the context of other things Landgraf has said in the past about the state of the art and what competitors are doing. He has something of a history as a visionary in anticipatory threat assessment.
All the way back in the summer of 2012, which sometimes feels like it is to the development of American television as 1950 or so is to the development of American cars, Landgraf fired first at streaming sites like Netflix — which hadn't premiered any of its originals yet — encouraging the press to push them for hard viewership numbers: "We'd suggest that these new competitors should be required to develop and release measurement for their shows which allows apples to apples comparison with broadcast, basic, and premium cable." Netflix hadn't stipulated that viewership counts were their measure of success, but he was pulling for their feet to be held to the fire upon arrival.
Those viewing numbers never came, but not because the media didn't demand them. We dutifully plead for them every year for what's beginning to feel like the ceremonial whimsy of it, like we're putting messages in bottles and floating them across the sea to ask permission to marry a beautiful royal who will never have us. But Netflix, despite probably knowing more about what you watch and how you watch it than practically anybody, declines over and over again to provide hard numbers for one simple reason: They don't have to. They don't rely on ads, they don't get counted in ratings — they just don't have to. There's no upside in revealing anything that works, because it will only bring attention to anything that doesn't, and there's certainly no upside in revealing anything that's failing when your executive is taking questions like, "Was this all part of the grand plan that you were going to become essentially a huge network, or that you were going to be able to do so quickly what has taken some cable networks decades to do?" When that's the perception, why interfere?
And despite the fact that Landgraf made those remarks more than six months before Netflix premiered its first original, he was basically right about how it would go with them: they don't give numbers, they don't provide any way to fact-check whether shows are resonating with viewers, they claim just about everything is going exactly as planned, and they enjoy a measure of blithe opacity when it comes to scrutinizing their sometimes giddy self-evaluations that broadcast and cable outlets do not. Creative and business success are emphatically two different things, of course; you don't need numbers to know if a show is good, and Netflix is legitimately in a position where different numbers matter to them. But business success is what keeps businesses running and lets them employ people who make art (and in turn lets people who make art pay their bills), so understanding creative decisions often requires a grasp of the counting of the beans, vulgar as that may be.
As we talk about the state of television, we will return again and again to this idea: Television is a seductive medium in lots of ways, and it is important not to be seduced. In this case, it is important not to be seduced by the idea that in the Netflix model, as long as nobody learns whether people are watching a show or not, you achieve a durable creative Nirvana where nobody cares about money, where it's all about the art forever.
Everybody has to get paid. Netflix will apply some standard to whether original series are worth pursuing from a business perspective, whether or not they're telling you what it is. Whether their experimentation with creators will hit a wall at some point, we simply don't know, because we don't know whether it's financially sustainable in its current form. Maybe they're confident the subscriptions they're gaining from their original programs easily pay for their production; maybe not. But this narrative of success based more on buzz than data is one that John Landgraf saw coming a mile away and started arguing against long before it really seemed necessary. Pointing it out was both honest and absolutely right, but it was also a powerfully intelligent executive presenting a forward-thinking counternarrative with a competitive angle.
So it doesn't take a particularly determined cynic to see in Landgraf's claim of too much television both a wise and experienced eye and a strategist for whom a narrative of "enough already" is well-timed. FX is done with its enthusiastic Make More Everything phase: Landgraf said he believes they're making about as many shows as they can while preserving quality and consistency. So for him to argue against proliferation in television now is a little like waiting until your own little tin bucket of berries is full before pointing out that the entire group you're picking with really ought to leave something on the trees for the birds. On the one hand, you're probably right. On the other, easy for you to say — you're having pie later.
Predictably, Craig Erwich, who heads up content at Hulu, doesn't seem to think there's too much television. He said to critics at his session, "You've championed this remarkable expansion, not just for Hulu, but for the entire streaming landscape. And I think TV's better for it." Neither does Ted Sarandos at Netflix, who happily announced the continuing expansion of the service's offerings. For these guys, as you'd expect, there's still plenty of room for new arrivals before what Landgraf presented as an inevitable contraction beginning in the next year or two.
Even Michael Lombardo of HBO took a rosier view, saying that in spite of the multiplying outlets and programs, "if it's good, it will find its place." (Let us take a moment with one eyebrow raised to say: R.I.P. every very good show that never found its place.) What Lombardo did say, though, is that limited series like True Detective might thrive in an environment in which there's so much going on that people aren't looking for "something they can passively experience for five or six or eight years." Admitting that perhaps each project should be open to being shorter and more focused, to doing its work and getting out, isn't quite an anti-proliferation argument. But it is an admission that in such a crowded space, something has to give. That's the nature of limited time available to a finite audience.
Maybe the biggest potential problem with the anti-proliferation argument is this, and we'll return to it later in this series: Those 400 shows are not — and in particular, those 211 shows in 2009 were not — representing the tastes, thoughts or voices of everyone equally. Outlets like FX and HBO, for instance, have long made dramas that, brilliant as they often are, look mostly through white male creators' eyes, mostly at what white male leads do. But Netflix made Orange Is the New Black. Amazon made Transparent. Hulu has a new show called Casual that's getting a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. While it's styled as a comedy, it gives a great and rich leading role to Michaela Watkins, who's been a supporting MVP in countless projects for years (Transparent and Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer among them, giving her the streaming-service hat trick).
If there is to be a contraction that works to the benefit of the industry and the audience at large, it can't come from cutting off newcomers and telling them we're full, or from raising the bar to get your show made or renewed or reviewed. Some of those newcomers are cultivating ground that has been allowed to lie fallow by the holders of all that old money. They are giving opportunities to creative people who, despite their brilliance, haven't been snapped up by HBO the way, say, Bill Simmons was. So it's not as simple as "too much." It's partly that if you don't make room, sometimes people knock the walls down and make the space bigger, and if it turns out that the space is now unworkably big, you can't expect the last people who got in to be the first ones who offer to leave, and you may lose the right to work the door.
Because really, what does "too much television" mean? Does it mean more than anyone can possibly watch? There have long been more movies than anyone can see and more books than anyone can read. Does it mean more than critics can possibly comprehensively analyze and get their heads around? It seems backward for the limits on a form to be set by the capacity of its analysts. Does it mean more than can survive under current business models? Maybe so, but that could be a problem with the business models. Does it mean more than people can sort through to find what's good? Then maybe we need better discovery tools.
Even if we agree that Too Much Television is the right analysis, where in media is anyone successfully forcing backward the progression toward more stuff created for less money by more people, requiring different distribution models and better help to find what's good? That progression is underway in music, in film, in books, in criticism — who would ever say there are too many bands making too much music and really believe you could do anything about it? When we get past peak television, will people stop making Web series? And if everything is eventually indistinguishable from a Web series because people watch it using the Internet instead of a coaxial cable, how will we decide which of those things are part of this contracting television business and which are part of the inevitably expanding "segmented online video" business or whatever we would hypothetically call series on YouTube and Vimeo? Who would really give up the growth of oddball corners of TV that make space for things that are good and weird?
It sounds right that there's too much television. It feels right that there's too much television. The entire idea of press tour is that this was once a business where a critic could plausibly attend a half-hour press conference on every new show of any significance in one trip to California without risking scurvy, situational depression or a divorce. But who would expect to be individually briefed on every significant book in every corner of publishing — literary and genre, fiction and nonfiction — in one trip? The idea of film festivals is selectivity, after all, not comprehensiveness. Perhaps the answer is for networks to stop trying to bring all their stuff and bring their best stuff.
It may be that it's less that we have reached the point of too much television and more that we have reached the point where television has to break open for good, where we accept that it's been a long time since you could look at what was on offer on a given evening on a two-page grid in a magazine 8 inches high, and we're never going to have that again. It's not a closed system in which you can reasonably expect that if something is of quality, your smart friends have seen it or should have seen it. It's a scattered system where, as with books and films, it's a given that commercial success doesn't come to everything that has merit, and that's no scandalous failure of the public, the marketing or the artist.
For every critic with whom the idea of too much television resonates, there are shows that stayed little that are nevertheless treasured. (Missing you, Trophy Wife. Where'd you go, Bunheads?) They may not last all that long, but they are in part the product of proliferation and competition, of more people with more space to mess around.
There's too much for anyone to see everything, for sure. But there can never be too much of what you really love. Sometimes, you do get seduced.
Coming Tuesday: Consumption methods get complicated.
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