Dearest amigos de television,
When Willa first asked me to join this discussion, I hesitated—not because I don’t love talking television, but because I’m quite certain I don’t watch anywhere near as much of it as the rest of you. I’m primarily a reporter, not a critic, which means I don’t feel duty-bound to be all that religious about keeping up with the never-ending stream of shows now flooding the various pipes pumping content to the masses. I probably watch more than the average Joe (groan-inducing pun most certainly intended), and I try to sample a little something from every major network so I better understand how they’re trying to fit into this overcrowded media universe. But whereas the four of you likely consider it an obligation to watch at least the first episode of Truth Be Told, I, blissfully, felt OK in tossing the screener in the recycling bin. I don’t think this makes my opinions any less valid, but it probably limits my vocabulary when it comes to discussions about the creative condition of the medium we all love (or at least consume) so much. I’ll be heeding Mark Twain’s advice by remaining silent during some of these discussions.
Willa, you asked about Mr. Landgraf’s oft-discussed August speech declaring the advent of “peak TV.” As Margaret noted, it’s very easy to be cynical about his comments because Landgraf is not some disinterested party waxing philosophical about the state of the medium: He runs a massively successful TV company whose business model is taking heavy fire from all these new rivals. What he mockingly, if accurately, described as a “desperate scrum” of digital and linear networks angling for audiences and acclaim represents a very real threat to FX’s bottom line. Landgraf might never admit it, but he’d be very happy if many of his newer rivals simply vanished over the next five years. His job would be a whole lot easier.
Still, the fact that Landgraf’s remarks were self-serving doesn’t make them inaccurate, at least not completely. The “too much” part of “too much television” declaration may be subjective, but the “much” is unassailable. The explosion of high-quality scripted TV content across so many different networks over the past five years is simply unprecedented in TV history, rivaling even the medium’s startup years in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (Much of the early content then consisted of variety and panel shows.) That old New York lottery slogan—“All it takes is a dollar and a dream”—seems to have become Hollywood’s new credo for TV production. Counting only cable, we’ve gone from 63 first-run scripted shows in the final year of George W. Bush’s administration to well over 200 this year. (Thanks, Obama.) Netflix, which offered a handful of originals in 2012, will boast nearly three dozen next year, and digital competitors Hulu and Amazon are racing to keep up. Broadcast networks that used to take the summer off now produce scripted shows year-round.
The idea that viewers are struggling to keep up with all this new content is also pretty easy to defend: Just look at the Nielsen numbers. As has been the case for the past few years, almost every veteran broadcast show returned this fall to a smaller audience (and yes, that’s even when you factor in DVR replays). Cable networks are no longer immune to erosion, either. Massive critical praise for the second seasons of the already modestly rated Fargo and The Leftovers didn’t result in more viewers watching them; even The Walking Dead saw its fan base shrink ever-so-slightly this year. It’s even tougher for smaller outlets to stand out. The NBC Universal-owned Esquire network, available in more than 70 million homes, recently invested millions to produce and market its first original scripted series, the crime drama Spotless. The few critics who bothered to review it mostly liked it. Despite all that effort, Nielsen estimates a mere 123,000 viewers watched the show’s premiere episode within three days of its first telecast. You could literally fit most of those people in a college football stadium.
And yet, while Nielsen data provides plenty of support for Landgraf’s peak-TV line in the sand, viewers today are also consuming television in ways not immediately captured by traditional ratings. People discover shows years after they debut. (Leslie Jones isn’t the only person just now falling in love with Breaking Bad.) Advertisers don’t care so much about this long-tail viewing, but as Landgraf himself noted in August, TV networks such as his are quickly opening up other revenue streams to replace the flow of cash from Madison Ave. Landgraf has (praise Lenin!) found a way to keep The Americans on the air despite ever-shrinking linear viewership. IFC has similarly sustained Portlandia for years even though its weekly audience rarely cracks the 500,000 mark. There used to be straight line between ratings and viability; that’s no longer always the case. This doesn’t make Landgraf’s assertion that there’s too much TV incorrect. It does make it harder to prove.
Ultimately, and with no disrespect for your initial question, I’m not really that interested in trying to figure out if we’ve hit peak TV, or if such a thing even exists. I get Landgraf’s frustration with and concern over the wave of content washing over the culture right now. Some great shows (like The Americans!) might have gotten a bigger audience or more love from Emmy voters were it not for all the programming noise out there. Yet it’s also pretty obvious that just as many, if not many more, wouldn’t have even made it out of their creator’s heads were it not for the influx of new players, digital and linear. Unlike the reality boom of the early aughts, most of these new scripted shows aren’t hastily assembled space-fillers. They’re not all worthy of praise or attention, and Netflix and Amazon are just as capable of greenlighting garbage as any broadcast or cable network. But most of the shows I’m reading about—though not actually watching—seem of relatively decent quality, particularly as seen through the eyes of someone like myself, who grew up in a world where there was one Cheers or Seinfeld for every five According to Jims. I’d have been perfectly happy if the Pop network had stuck to reruns of The Love Boat and Beverly Hills, 90210. But I am not convinced the existence of that channel’s barely-seen Schitt’s Creek—which LA Times critics Robert Lloyd named one of the year’s best new shows—prevented even a single person from checking out Landgraf’s You’re the Worst.
Too Much TV absolutely represents a challenge, even a threat, to big players such as FX. And certainly many of the outlets now rushing to get in on the original programming bonanza will discover even TV’s new math isn’t enough to make their efforts profitable. Of course there will be fallout. But this is Hollywood’s problem, not mine. For now, I think we as viewers should simply enjoy the results of this very unique moment in TV history, and hope that the bar has permanently been raised. Here are ten shows I think did a particularly good job at jumping over that bar in 2015:
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