Welcome to the age of peak TV: Is there any room left for quality shows?
Let’s start with a test. How many of the following shows have you seen or even heard of? “Rectify,” “Horace and Pete,” “Happy Valley,” “Chewing Gum,” “Case,” “High Maintenance,” “The Americans.” Perhaps you recognized one or two series from that list, but, for the most part, you could not identify the rest. This is only a sample of some of the best TV shows from last year, according to The New York Times. Yet, why have many of this year’s best series gone unnoticed by so many of us? After all, none of these shows have reached popularity levels to the likes of “Orange is the New Black” or “The Walking Dead.” Are we reaching a boiling point in which the television market is saturated?
Debates about the amount of television content are nothing new. For the past years, executive producers and studio heads have opined about the future of the small screen amidst its recent transfigurations. During the 2015 Television Critics Association press tour, John Landgraf, the CEO of FX Networks, coined the term “Peak TV” to mean what he refers as “simply too much television.” He was criticized thereafter about his bleak views on the prospects of television. Television, he argued, is in “the late stages of a bubble. We’re seeing a desperate scrum—everyone is trying to jockey for position.”
Landgraf’s position is admittedly grim and somewhat overblown. We can argue that the dramatic expansion of the TV market has given the chance for new talents to expose their content to more audiences in ways that were previously unthinkable. But, this is a double-edged sword that seems to also be hurting good programming. This is why Landgraf’s statements shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly. A report by FX Networks noted that in 2016, about 455 scripted programs aired, while in 2015, that number was just around 400. Netflix alone has 30 original scripted series up on its website (though, as you read this, the number is going up). That number excludes any international show for which Netflix gets distribution rights (some examples: Iceland’s “Case” and England’s “Chewing Gum”). The streaming service is already planning to more than double its production numbers to create more original content. This is far more than any cable network could ever do.
In this race to create both qualitative and quantitative content for mass audiences, television platforms could potentially be losing audiences’ interest. The problem itself is not simply that there’s too much television. The problem is that there’s too much good television that deserves as many viewers as “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards” but that are struggling to stand out in a sea of programming. “Agent Carter,” a critically acclaimed ABC series inspired by Marvel’s “Captain America” was canceled after a hard-fought second season because people didn’t watch. Most recently, Amazon’s “Good Girls Revolt,” one of the year’s most anticipated dramas, was canceled soon after its first season premiere because it didn’t gather the buzz that studio execs were expecting. “The Knick,” a Cinemax original directed by one of the greatest film directors, Steven Soderbergh, has been a woefully overlooked show that few people are tuning in to. Even the Netflix camp is suffering from this with its show “Bloodline,” which will be ending after its third season run.
The list goes on. Chances are, you or your friends are watching a show that very few people know about. It’s almost as if we could assign a different original, scripted series to every person in the country. That’s how much TV there is. In a platform with so much excellent content, it has become a game of chance for a series to earn the success it deserves. Otherwise, we would all be watching and live-tweeting every episode of “Rectify.”
And if we go to the other side, we can argue that this saturation allows for networks to offer extraordinary opportunities to up-and-coming writers and developers when it comes to the content they decide to produce. But, if that were the case, we would have more inclusive and diverse stories behind and in front of the camera. Variety has reported that 90 percent of showrunners from scripted programs are white while 80 percent are male. If we were to take a peek inside the writers’ room or the director’s chair, we would witness similar percentages. If there’s too much television, why are we still struggling with these numbers?
2016 was a clear example that audiences want diversity. Most of the high-profile, most-watched, critically lauded series were shows that featured minorities at the helm. “Atlanta”— created by, written by and starring Donald Glover—became the year’s sensation. Similarly, “Jane the Virgin,” “Black-ish,” “Master of None” and “Orange is the New Black” continue to expand their successes thanks to inclusivity and a realistic portrayal of what our world is actually like.
Is there too much television? It depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I’d say yes, there is. There is a lot of television that doesn’t include people who look like me or my family. There might be “peak TV,” but there is certainly not peak diversity. This is why, when I have to decide between “Westworld” and “One Day at a Time,” I’m going for the latter. Since we can afford to be selective about what we watch, I choose to select series that celebrate and fight for diversity because there is clearly space and money for minorities to receive equal opportunities in the field. However, in the end, critics don’t save shows from dying as much as they try to. It is up to the audiences to decide what program deserves our time and our praise. If there’s too much television, then let us be (wisely) picky.