When I’m old and grey and yet still, in the words of Carrie Bradshaw jetting off to Paris, “impossibly fresh-looking,” I’ll sit my grandchildren on my lap and tell them the story of Peak TV: “Between 2009 and 2015,” I’ll croak, “the number of scripted series on TV practically doubled, from around 200 to just over 400.” To which my grandchildren will respond, “What’s TV?”
In a Vulture cover story that ran last week called “The Business of Too Much TV,” reporters Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez spoke to showrunners, writers, directors, crewmembers, actors, talent agents, and executives in an attempt to understand how “Peak TV” — a term coined last summer by FX president John Landgraf — has affected the industry. As Adalian and Fernandez illustrate, we’re in the middle of a boom time: from line producers to writers to port-a-potty rentals, demand is fast outstripping supply. Movie stars are commanding millions of dollars per episode of the next hot Netflix or HBO or Showtime series. There’s more opportunity than ever for a creator with a strong vision to get her show on the air.
And yet, and yet, and yet: it’s harder than ever for veteran TV actors to compete with those buzzy silver-screen names. A creator with a huge hit on his hands won’t see nearly the kind of payoff from Netflix as he would from a traditional network. The pressure to make TV episodes that look like movies — not to mention the demand for experienced crewmembers — has pushed up production costs.
If you care about television and also fear change, it’s a scary time. On a good day, it feels too good to be true — Peak TV hath wrought Orange is the New Black and UnREAL and Mr. Robot and a Hulu-assisted fourth season of The Mindy Project and myriad other blessings. But the big worry, according to insiders, is that we haven’t yet reached real Peak TV — that networks currently focusing on cheap-to-produce reality shows will turn to scripted series, a stock-market “hiccup” will scare the new streaming giants into cutting costs, and the bubble will burst.
In the past few years, streaming services have come off as the saviors of quality television. A show like Orange is the New Black, with its racially, bodily, and sexually diverse cast made almost entirely of women, would have had a hard time making it to air on a traditional TV network; the same has been said of Amazon’s Transparent, among the most critically lauded series of the moment.
But as one showrunner points out in the Vulture article, Netflix has started to rein in its marketing efforts for some original series. When House of Cards premiered in 2013, Netflix hosted a lavish event in the swanky screening room of a boutique hotel in downtown Toronto, where I was living at the time, providing cab chits for the ride there and back. Now, a Netflix premiere might come and go without so much as a billboard. As Adalian and Fernandez write, for creators, this is the real fear surrounding Peak TV. In the words of a producer, “You know your show exists out there in the ether — but can anybody find it?”
That’s a problem from a consumer standpoint, too: it’s becoming more difficult for viewers to discover new shows, or old ones newly available on streaming outlets. A few months ago, The New York Times began releasing a twice-weekly recommendation newsletter called “Watching” for this very reason, hiring Vulture’s Margaret Lyons, the Quentin Tarantino of TV fanatics, a woman who has watched possibly more television than anyone else on the planet (we’re not worthy!). As frustrating as it must be for creators to watch the TV viewership descend like vultures each week to pick apart the new episode of Game of Thrones — while their shows go unnoticed — it’s a lot to ask of viewers to stay on top of Peak TV. Those of us who watch TV for a living can barely keep up.
The shift from network TV’s relatively flat, manageable terrain to our current Wild West is exciting for some viewers (fuck commercials!) and bewildering for others — wait, so I’m supposed to make my own TV-watching schedule now? How am I going to fit one more “must-see” show into my already overstuffed calendar? We can blame “technology” on this shift, sure, but it’s also based on the changing behaviors of human viewers. Thanks to Netflix, we’ve become accustomed to watching shows without ads, which can make watching TV the old-fashioned way feel tedious. As a result, several networks plan to reduce ad loads in time for the fall season by as much as 50 percent; NBC recently announced that it would run fewer commercial breaks during Saturday Night Live.
But that means selling fewer spots for more money. What happens when that becomes the new normal? It’s fine if you’re McDonald’s or Walmart, but what about small businesses? What will become of idiosyncratic, cheaply produced, hyper-local TV ads? Will TV still be TV without those wonderful, unintentionally hilarious spots? There was an ad for a local phone sex hotline that used to air all the time on Friday and Saturday nights when I was growing up, a nice little reminder of the fact that the demographic of late-night weekend TV-watchers includes both socially awkward 16-year-old girls and sexually frustrated middle-aged men. I felt a kinship with my fellow targets of QuestChat’s ad dollars; when I have trouble sleeping and flip open my laptop to watch Netflix in the middle of the night, the only thing I feel connected to is my computer.
That’s what scares me the most about the state of TV — it’s no longer a useful marker of time. You watch what you want, when you want. Netflix’s first original talk show, Chelsea, releases episodes three days a week at midnight, making it a late-night show you could just as easily watch as you get ready for work in the morning. Pilot season is still a thing, for now, but it’s becoming more and more irrelevant, with new series premiering pretty much every week. Summer rerun season is a thing of the past. The shift in TV distribution and reshuffling of ad dollars and introduction of premium streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon has untethered TV from the calendar year. TV used to be a reliable, steady boyfriend; now, it’s a series of haphazard Tinder dates.
And after a while, that can feel both tiring and alienating. Anyone who’s worked a freelance job knows the freedom of setting your own schedule comes with a cost; the massive popularity of a select few shows like Game of Thrones and The Big Bang Theory — not to mention the enduring appeal of live sporting events, plus the explosion of bars hosting Sunday night prestige dramas as if they were football games — indicates our craving for communal experiences.
It’s nice to think you can step outside “the system” and watch a Monday night show on a Wednesday afternoon, because you do you! But there’s no such thing as a free lunch; according to a 2014 survey, we’d still much rather watch ads than pay for content. And all that content costs money to make. According to that survey, people are much more willing to sit through an online or television commercial if it’s funny or entertaining. But am I wrong to want the truly entertaining QuestChat over an ironic, winking ad masquerading as entertainment? Am I wrong to prefer that Target promote its bounties through a straightforward commercial rather than clunky product placement? And is it really a good thing if such integration is so sly that we don’t even notice it?
No. I want to know that I’m being pandered to. The TV industry may be changing faster than we can keep up with, but nice things will always cost money, and as viewers, we’ll have to pay in one way or another. We may be a fast-moving target, but we’re a target nonetheless.