'Peak TV in America': Is there really too much good scripted television?
When I wrote my How Much Good TV Is Too Much? piece a few years ago, I feared that it was going to come across as whining from and for a very small and specific subset of the audience: #TVCriticProblems. But my fellow reviewers weren't the only ones who responded with some version of "Thank God someone finally said it!" It turns out many of you were feeling just as overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice in the ever-expanding world of scripted television.
That expansion has only accelerated, and when FX CEO (and unofficial Mayor of Television) John Landgraf came to press tour earlier this month, he was armed with statistics showing that the number of original scripted shows in primetime across broadcast, cable, and various streaming services would top 400 by the end of this year. As NPR's Linda Holmes noted in a piece on this subject over the weekend, you could devote each day of 2015 to watching all the episodes of a different comedy or drama and not have time to finish them all. Landgraf suggested we had reached "peak TV in America," and that over the next few years, the bubble might not burst, but slowly deflate, because this number, and this rate of growth (nearly doubling the amount of original shows made just back in 2009) isn't sustainable.
Or is it? And outside of TV critics who are tearing what's left of their hair out at the thought of trying to stay current with it all, is this really a problem?
After all, Peak TV in America has led to not only an incredible amount of quality, but a diversity in both the kinds of quality shows and the kinds of people whose stories are being told. There's room in this current universe for the widescreen fantasy action of "Game of Thrones," but also for the leisurely, incredibly intimate storytelling of "Rectify," a show that surely wouldn't exist if every channel and service out there wasn't in an arms race to make or acquire as much original scripted content as possible. There are still the familiar white male antihero shows like "Better Call Saul" or "The Knick," but also the diverse voices of "Orange Is the New Black," "Transparent," "Broad City," and a lot more. Hell, there was a window this summer where the best show on TV may have been "UnREAL," which is on Lifetime. Everyone is trying to get in on the act to create an addictive new series that will keep the channel in question essential in some way in an a la carte world.
Landgraf suggested that the abundance of good shows "often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones," and on some level, that's likely the case. Landgraf's own "The Americans" is one of TV's very best series, and almost no one is watching it. Maybe in a TV landscape where excellence wasn't so taken for granted, it would stand out more.
On the other hand, the very fragmentation of the audience that inspired this particular gold rush has also earned renewals for shows like "The Americans," "Rectify," and "UnREAL" that would surely have been much shorter-lived under TV's old math. Unless AMC declines to renew "Halt and Catch Fire," the last Great Show to be canceled early in its run while its creator still had stories to tell would be... HBO's "Enlightened" two years ago? (I liked "The Bridge," which was more recent, but it never quite got to Great.) And even there, "Enlightened" lasted two seasons and ended in such a perfect place that future stories felt somewhat redundant. Even NBC was able to somehow give "Hannibal" three seasons, which will bring the creative team to the end of adapting "Red Dragon." We're closing in on the fifth anniversary of the premiere of one of FX's best series ever, the private eye drama "Terriers," which Landgraf canceled after only a year due to microscopic ratings; a while back, I asked him if he felt the show might have survived longer in these strange new atmospheric conditions, and while he said he didn't know for sure, the fact that it had become uncertain for him speaks to how much more nurturing an environment TV is at the moment.
How long can that environment sustain itself? That's unclear. The way the audience consumes television — and, in turn, the way TV shows make money — is changing faster than anyone can keep up. To a degree, this flooding of the marketplace with content is everyone's best guess on how to survive those changes, and eventually some outlet is going to recognize that there simply isn't enough cash to be had — whether in ad dollars, subscription fees, downloads, or anything else — to justify the existence of many of these shows.
Will that happen in the next couple of years, as Landgraf predicts? Maybe we'll see a bit of pruning here and there, but it feels like it'll take some drastic event — like a significant channel/service either going out of business, or at least getting out of producing its own originals — for anyone else to catch their breath and ask if this still makes fiscal sense.
There are some ephemeral downsides to living in Peak TV in America, but nothing that should require anyone to slow down and stop producing so much stuff. It's harder and harder to find points of conversation about the best shows, because our attention is scattered across so many of them, but that genie's been out of that bottle at least since so many past and present series became available for streaming. (As I type this, someone is just beginning to watch "The Wire" for the very first time and would really rather you not tell her what happens to Bubbles.) It makes my job harder — not just for my own edification, but for keeping my readers aware of the great and potentially great new shows that are out there — but in a way that's difficult to complain too much about. Yes, I'd like to have time to catch up on "Humans," "Orphan Black," "Vikings" and many others, and the thought of narrowing down the best shows of this year into a top 10 list makes me cry like I just watched an episode of "Friday Night Lights," but if this isn't the best time in TV history to be a reviewer of it, I don't know what is.
There have been years on this beat where I've had to put some pretty sketchy shows in my top 10, and where I've struggled at various times of that year when someone asked me to recommend something good, or preferably great, to watch. Now, if I freeze on that question, it's simply because there are so many options — which, again, include easy access to most of the best shows ever made (writes the man who spent much of his Sunday watching old "Columbo" episodes on Netflix) as well as our current bounty — that it's hard to isolate one or two.
Maybe the bubble slowly leaks. Maybe it bursts altogether. But I think back to the start of the reality TV boom, and all the doomsday warnings about how "Survivor" and "The Bachelor" were going to put scripted TV out of business, and I laugh. And I can envision a future where the economics have flipped again, many of these players have gotten out of the game, and suddenly I'm sitting around a table at press tour with a bunch of critics sadly lamenting how good we had it back when it was Peak TV in America.
How's everybody feeling about this whole matter? Are you feeling anxious about the abundance of choice, or delighted that there's a good show for practically every demographic and taste profile?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com