In 2014, the broadcast, cable, and major streaming (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) networks accounted between them for 352 individual original scripted programs — and we haven’t even delved into imports like BBC America, along with the entire lineup of PBS, which has scores of shows running at any given time, not just Downton Abbey. That’s a whole lot of television. Even assuming that most of these programmes have runs between 12-23 episodes per series (and sometimes far fewer as in the case of those like Sherlock), it accounts for hundreds of hours weekly and eats up vast numbers of channels — no wonder even the most basic of cable packages in the US now come with a panoply of channels.
The boom in original programming, though, comes with a silent menace. It’s possible we may have reached a state of peak television, as it were, with too much television on the airwaves and streamed online, and that could be bad news for the industry overall. As counterintuitive as it sounds, a flooded market doesn’t necessarily equate to a better one. While we hail the market shifts that allow original dramas like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black to explode into the popular consciousness, we’re not talking about the dark side of that in the form of the vast numbers of television shows audiences are expected to balance and follow each week — and inevitably, viewers get exhausted.
Even as shows like Bones molder away long past their expiry dates, networks are rolling out scripted programming faster than ever as part of a slow turn away from reality shows. Once the talk of television and the bright hope of a bold new future in the early 2000s, reality shows are starting to become a loser for networks, with ratings that tend to fall off sharply after their opening episodes. They only do well in the summer, when, notably, scripted shows have traditionally been kept off the air, though that’s something that may change if networks want to accommodate their ballooning schedules.
Audiences are flocking to new programming, but at the same time, networks have higher bars for success, and perhaps they have to, as the only way to accommodate their new offerings is to quickly churn through programmes that don’t perform as well as desired, airing shows on the sink or swim model and yanking those that don’t pan out within the first few weeks. Thus, shows like Bad Judge, which might have quietly thrived in the world of half-hour comedies, are kicked to the curb before they stand a chance, while expectations for debuts like The Affair and How to Get Away With Murder were high.
The large number of offerings may be hurting the future of television in a number of ways, all of which are potentially troubling. What seems like a boon in the form of a diversity of shows may end up creating an overload, a glut that ultimately reduces television to the lowest common denominator and doesn’t let innovative and interesting programming shine.
We’re seeing the double-edged sword of a positive industry trend as streaming services begin to compete with their own programmes, on par with cable and broadcast networks and sometimes even better. With fewer restrictions, streaming services can push production boundaries, taking on taboo subjects and taking a risk with new talent, yet still attracting major star power. As streaming takes off and becomes more ubiquitous and more accepted, such networks will find it even easier to bring on big names — which could be both good and bad.
Amazon’s Transparent, just one among many listings on the online video service, provides an almost textbook example. The subject matter is somewhat risky for traditional media, and a female-led production team is also risky (though a trans-led crew would have been both more appropriate and even more so). Yet, Amazon lost out on the opportunity to tap the growing pool of talented trans actresses in the hunt for a big name to anchor the show in the hopes of getting widespread attention to validate it in the increasingly cutthroat game of streaming shows. Consequently, viewers were subjected to Jeffrey Tambor in drag as Maura.
Amazon’s drive to be on top and pushes from big streaming networks to create their own compelling scripted programming is adding to the number of shows for viewers to choose from, but it’s also generating more competition. In a ferociously cutthroat marketplace, indie programming loses out, which usually means that women, people of colour, transgender people, disabled creators, and other marginalised groups are shoved to the side in the interest of what’s selling. What’s selling, when viewers have over 350 shows to choose from, is what’s appealing to the broadest base of people.
Thus, even as millions tune in for generic crime shows, of which there are more every year, programming like The Killing and Gracepoint or The Bridge remains more niche and often gets the axe — and while networks might have been willing to carve out a home for it somewhere on the schedule a decade ago, they can’t afford to now, not with a lineup of new programming banging on the door and pleading for those slots. The firehose of new content is more than most viewers, including full-time critics, can cope with.
Consequently, the explosion in new programming, rather than making television more diverse, has the potential to make television less diverse, narrowing the number of available options through sheer force of volume. It’s harder for viewers to find independent and dynamic programming when they’re sifting through hundreds of channels and competing original programming online, and it’s easy to retreat to the safe and familiar, leaving out the unexpected, the original, and the challenging.
While it might seem like an odd thing to say, it’s possible that we have too much TV on TV.