Have We Reached ‘Peak TV’?

The head of FX thinks a glut of new TV shows “has created a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories.” But might what’s bad for networks ultimately be good for viewers? Atlantic writers discuss.


“My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America and that we’ll begin to see decline coming the year after that and beyond,” John Landgraf, the president of FX Networks, said during the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles. The past year saw more than 370 scripted series on television, he said, including on streaming services; this year, he estimates there will be more than 400. The glut of shows, he says, “has created a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories.” It has also had, he added, “an enormous impact on everyone’s ability to cut through the clutter and create real buzz.”

Is Landgraf right? Have we reached Peak TV? Is the much-applauded (second) Golden Age of TV coming to an end? And will it possibly be replaced with, as the critic Emily Nussbaum half-jokingly called it, “The Caramel Epoch”—an age of shows that are “perfect for a binge” and “suggestively diverse,” and that allow for “equal celebration of comedy, melodrama & varying genres”)? Atlantic staffers Megan Garber, David Sims, Lenika Cruz, and Sophie Gilbert discuss.

Garber: The Caramel Epoch! Oh, wow, I love that. And the basic democratization of quality shows that Nussbaum is describing—ones that aren't necessarily preoccupied with Prestige so much as with being compelling to watch on their own terms—rings totally true. It's the kind of brow-flattening—high- and low- and mid-, all mixed together—that the Internet does so well, applied to TV. Breaking Bad and The Big Bang Theory and old episodes of Boy Meets World and all the others are all bobbing along on this ... the image that keeps coming to mind is one of those all-you-can-eat sushi conveyor belts, but insert your own preferred metaphor here ... and the flattening is productive. And (sorry, the sushi again), delicious.

So, sure, I think Landgraf has a fair point, to an extent, in that television, even crappy television, has high creative overhead: There’s a limited universe of people who have the skills to write and direct and produce shows, and given equipment and budgets and studio space and all of that, there must be a limit, some limit, to the good stuff that can be produced. But while that’s true in theory, I haven't really seen it play out in reality. And, not to take Landgraf too literally, but I don’t see why 370 or 400 or a similar number of scripted shows would necessarily be the peak here—not just because audiences prove willing, again and again, to pay for good content, and not just because the number of people clamoring for jobs in the entertainment industry is the stuff of cliche, but because the new definition of “television”—basically, just serialized video content—seems flexible enough to encompass many, many different types of shows, both costly and not.

Take the serialized Wet Hot American Summer reboot on Netflix, which was clearly filmed around its actors’ other commitments, and which wrote the meta-ness of that into its scripts. Take the fact that the Wet Hot reboot also spawned a documentary about its own making. “Television” is pretty much, at this point, “whatever consumers will watch,” and consumers are pretty permissive when it comes to things like production value. As long as something amuses/horrifies/intrigues/delights/distracts, we’ll at least give it a try. So while, sure, cable and streaming and all the new production outfits that have come on to the scene are going to change things, I don't really see why it would be a peak-and-decline situation. More like a slow evolution—an expansion of how we think about “television” as a medium.

The “real buzz” thing is interesting, too, I think, but not necessary for the reason Landgraf gives. Landgraf's is a very production-centric view, which makes sense given his job, but his definition of “buzz” seems to ignore the role that the Internet—a whole universe of people happy to recap and live-tweet and next-day-water-cooler and fan-fic the shows they watch and hate-watch and love and love to hate—plays in curating and introducing shows to new audiences. Hype may exist in a (somewhat) closed system, it’s true, even if the system, given the audience of potential Internet-streamers, is huge. To me, though, the most interesting questions here are about the social conventions that have yet to be fully shaped, and that will in turn shape that hype. What's the statute of limitations on spoiling, for example—a day? A week? A month? A year? How do you talk about TV when TV is no longer, strictly, “television”? There’s a great Key & Peele sketch that gets into that, featuring a dinner party where literally nothing can be talked about because everything will be a spoiler to someone. And it definitely does remain to be seen what television will become once it’s taken, for the most part, out of time.

David, what do you think? Is Landgraf more right than I’m giving him credit for? And/or are we actually approaching the Nougat Epoch?

Sims: If nothing else, I’m happy we’re transitioning from an entertainment era of cold, hard metal to delicious candy. But the idea of a “Caramel Age” represented by shows like Empire, Jane the Virgin, and How to Get Away With Murder strikes me as more specifically about the new, healthier direction of network television away from trying to ape the gritty, anti-heroic “Golden Age.” For years, the big networks tried and failed to ape their cable competitors with grim offerings that seemed to assume that darkness, chiefly, was what distinguished shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. But then came a new wave of self-aware, heightened serials that know when to have fun and when to double down on the dramatics. These shows are exactly what networks like ABC and Fox need to stay afloat: the kind of “event TV” that you invite your friends over to watch. By the end of its first season run, Empire had a similar share of African American viewers to the Super Bowl. The advertising model may be dead for smaller networks, but there’s still room for it to thrive with a network audience.

Landgraf’s comments about distribution and the growing glut of scripted television reminds me of the parallel question happening in our own industry. The media world seems worried about stories being linked to/hosted on sites like Facebook and Twitter, robbing them of a certain brand recognition, even though those sites have become a vital tool for reaching readers beyond the established base. FX’s programming is among the most widely acclaimed in television and has been for years. The Shield marked a milestone in basic cable shows being taken as seriously as premium networks like HBO, and FX’s continued success has provided a blueprint for stables like AMC and USA. But if you want to catch up on an FX show, most likely you’re going to do it on Netflix. The Americans has been one of the most consistently brilliant shows on television for three years, but one reason it has never struck ratings gold is that it’s not on Netflix for people to catch up on (Amazon has the streaming rights).

That was how Breaking Bad found its audience (its ratings were fairly low until its last couple of seasons, when Netflix binge-watchers joined the party). If a show becomes a hit in retrospect on someone else’s network, does that even matter for FX? As Landgraf says, “As technology evolves and people consume television through different modes of delivery than channels, brands will become increasingly important as mediating filters for the overwhelmed viewing public.” Even more important than ratings or good reviews is FX building up its brand so that viewers will check out its next offering, and having your shows broadcast by a competitor might not help matters on that front. But on the other hand, if FX shows are only available on its own “FXNOW” app, they won’t be nearly as widely viewed.

As you say, Megan, I don’t know that we’re in a “peak” phase as much as a time of expansion, as networks realize the best way to create brand loyalty is to encourage quality. Lifetime’s (brilliant) scripted drama UnREAL didn’t get great ratings, but just finding a toehold in that Internet hype machine is worth it. People can catch up later, check in for season two, or maybe just keep an eye out for whatever the network offers next, now that they’ve been pleasantly surprised. Maybe there will be a problem finding great writers and actors to sustain all this content, but if Landgraf was right about the industry being spread too thin, that’d be reflected in a general decline in quality, which I haven’t really detected. The “caramel age” might be too narrow a term for the big box of chocolates viewers are being offered right now.

Cruz: So, all of us are skeptical of Landgraf’s claim that “too much TV”—even if statistically true—poses a significant threat to the quality we’ll see on our screens in the future. “You take a fixed audience and divide it by 400-plus shows, it stands to reason their ratings will go down," he said. Equally reasonable is that audiences will simply pay attention to certain types of shows, and that will give programmers an idea of what they should be spending their time cultivating—or abandoning. Sure, many of those shows will not be lumped into whatever sweets-themed age of TV we’re in at the time (The Cinnamon Roll Era? The Macaroon Period?). But if given several new shows that feel like familiar ripoffs (prestige or otherwise) and maybe one or two other shows that feel somehow different or special, what will a viewer choose to spend her limited time on? I’m optimistic it’s the latter.

Take USA for example. The network’s “blue skies” brand identity—defined by original shows like Royal Pains and Burn Notice—was challenged by its phenomenal new show Mr. Robot, which USA has been clear is meant to signal a shift toward more creatively ambitious projects. Many skeptics were pretty quickly converted once they actually tuned into the show—critical praise and word-of-mouth have managed to trump 1) the network’s fluffy reputation and 2) the audience’s limited attention. The same goes for Lifetime’s UnREAL, which you mentioned, David—the Internet hype machine is not to be underestimated, or dismissed as not “real buzz.”

Now, I don’t want to naively lean too heavily on the idea of the TV landscape as any kind of meritocracy. But with the growth of original programming in recent years has come another change that’s difficult to write off: the growing diversity of shows like Orange Is the New Black, Fresh off the Boat, Transparent, Black-ish, Community, and Scandal, as well as (like you mentioned, David) Empire, Jane the Virgin, and How to Get Away With Murder. So even if the TV glut forces networks to pay attention to what gets good ratings, they’ll realize that many of those shows have diverse casts. And from an advertising perspective, the buying power of Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans has grown tremendously in the last 20 years, making the viewership of those groups even more valuable. Now that we’ve reached a critical mass of great shows that aren’t mostly populated by white men, TV critics have become more active and sophisticated in the way they critique a show’s depiction of gender, race, and sexuality—and this in turn has helped shape the direction of many shows.

Landgraf hinged his comments partly on the failure of a show he worked on and thought was outstanding—The Comedians, which paired a veteran comic (Billy Crystal) with a younger, less-experienced one (Josh Gad). Landgraf blames the coming of “peak TV” for the show’s cancellation, but critics didn’t seem to like it very much and the premise perhaps didn’t seem particularly fresh to viewers. (Most TV fans are familiar with the difficult task of proselytizing new shows to friends; today, hyperbole can only get you so far.) Or maybe viewers just didn’t feel like watching another show about two comedian dudes unless there was something genuinely special about it. Meanwhile, the terrific, female-led comedy show Broad City caught on quickly with audiences ... but only after its two young creators got the attention of Comedy Central after building an avid fan base with their rough YouTube web series. With successes like these, it’s hard not to be seduced by the notion that a lot of quality TV will be rewarded, sooner or later. And there seems no better time than now for cult-hit shows that fall under the axe prematurely to win a miraculous afterlife in the form of a reboot, or a pickup by a streaming network.

As long as the number of original programming available continues to expand, we’ll see more shows that take creative risks, or carve out new territory. Sometimes that will lead to spectacular successes ... that turn into spectacular failures in the next moment (ahem, True Detective). I like that you both pointed out the reductive implications of the word “peak”: “Expansion” perhaps better captures the multi-dimensionality of what the industry is going through. As a consumer, my To-Watch list is filled with far too many series—shows that my friends, family, and Twitter feed tell me are novel or weird or fun or Actually The Best—for me to be truly worried that these changes signal a meaningful existential crisis for good TV. And in the unlikely event that it does—I have enough shows (Six Feet Under, Halt and Catch Fire, Friday Night Lights, Doctor Who, The Knick, Parenthood, Downton Abbey, Rectify, Lost, my second rewatch of The X-Files, my 50th rewatch of 30 Rock) to keep me busy until the industry figures itself out.

Gilbert: I think that’s really interesting, Lenika, because I too have a similar list of shows to catch up on and it gives me some sympathy for Landgraf. I have never seen Jane the Virgin. I have never seen Broad City. Sometimes an entire workweek goes by when the only television I watch is episodes of Law and Order: SVU at the gym and Friends (as Chad Velcoro says, both of them are always on).

This isn’t a lack of curiosity on my part—I deeply love television, and am ashamed every day about the number of shows I’ve yet to watch. Part of the guilt is because it’s my job (whoops), but part is because there’s so much of a glut of quality programming that it can feel overwhelming. When Netflix and social media and friends and colleagues and Emmy voters are so consistently reminding you that you have to watch one show or that another show is the actual actual best, the pressure can be so intense that the only rational thing is to give up on novelty and watch a Frasier rerun. (Megan, I know you feel me.)

If I were Landgraf, I wouldn’t be concerned about the glut of original programming debuting each season so much as the glut of outstanding vintage television that’s now so readily available. New shows come along with the seasons as reliably as pumpkin-spice lattes and cable-knit sweaters; most of them are forgotten in less than a year. (Remember Selfie? Or Black Box? Or Constantine? Or The Following? Or One Big Happy? Or Allegiance? Or Backstrom?) But there are 76 episodes of Friday Night Lights I’ve never seen, and 63 of Six Feet Under. Every time someone “discovers” a new old favorite on Netflix, that’s 50 or so hours they’ll spend not watching network television, or flipping between channels and accidentally landing on a winner (this is sadly how I discovered New Girl). And this is to say nothing of all the tried-and-tested shows that are so easy to rewatch, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or, yes, 30 Rock.

Five or ten years ago, if people wanted to rewatch episodes of a favorite show, they had to buy them. Now, they’re readily available, and so the impetus to watch, say, The Comedians is less than it would be if Parks and Rec wasn’t on Netflix, or even most nights on FXX.

But I agree with Lenika that the wealth of new stuff is doing terrific things in terms of providing audiences with more diverse shows that move away from old models with stale formats and rote characters. And if nothing else, there’s consistently more originality on TV than there is in film—even the reboots and the superhero-themed projects tend to be more interesting than their big-screen companions. So if “peak TV” means having too many good shows and not enough time to watch, I’ll take it, happily.

As for ratings, I agree with David that perhaps an analogy is traffic in web journalism. Ezra Klein talked recently about the idea that we’re living in a post-traffic universe, where advertisers care more about the kinds of people reading stories than they do about the number of eyeballs. Maybe the same will become true for television, where word-of-mouth and social-media buzz and the demographics of audiences mean much more than just the number of people tuning in. (David, you touched on this recently in your piece about the not-quite-end of Hannibal.) Alyssa Rosenberg points out in The Washington Post that TV is currently suffering from an advertising problem, in that ads are cheap and there are more products than ever to choose from (also sounds like journalism). But if advertisers start to be swayed by factors other than volume, this can only be a good thing for the quality of the TV that viewers end up with.