There's Too Much TV To Keep Up. Have We Hit The Limit?
Maybe you've heard this phrase: "peak TV."
It was coined by John Landgraf, the boss of FX, during an address he gave at the Television Critics Association press tour in the summer of 2015. It was a very buzzy talk, as these things go, and since then, the phrase "peak TV" has gained traction as shorthand for the massive expansion of television through cable and now streaming.
What got the most attention were Landgraf's musings on sheer quantity: He pointed out that he (and critics) not only could barely keep up with all the shows, we could barely keep up with all the outlets that were making shows. (And this was before Disney+, Apple TV+, and HBO Max.) He told us FX estimated that during 2015, more than 400 scripted series would air. That doesn't even count the also-exploding genres of reality and documentary, or sports, or news. He said, in a way that seemed both obvious and darkly funny, "This is simply too much television."
In some ways, the peak TV speech was prescient: It put a name to a phenomenon journalists have been talking about ever since. But Landgraf would admit, I think, that the speech missed the mark when it comes to the arc of growth. The very reason he used the word "peak" was that things had to contract at some point; he predicted 2015 or 2016 would be the top, and then the number of scripted series would start to drop.
That didn't happen. Instead, in 2021, FX estimates that the number was 559. That's something like a 40% increase over what he thought, and what we all hoped, was approaching the peak.
The implications for jobs
The discussion of numbers, though, is not what sticks out most about that 2015 address now. What sticks out most is what Landgraf argued this onslaught was doing to television. One concern was how many people it took to make this many shows and make them well: "For programmers," he said, "this bubble has created a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories."
To be clear, there are plenty of stories and plenty of people, many of whom are underserved and underappreciated and rarely heard. But he's right that finding them (and hiring and choosing and training and especially nurturing and supporting and protecting talent for a good outlet that wants to do those things) does take time and commitment. And while everybody making more stuff should lead to more chances for underrepresented voices to be heard, it can easily lead to the opposite: going back to the same people over and over again because it's easier and faster and it feels safer, and you don't have all day to go beyond your existing Rolodex.
Here's another thing Landgraf said that day: "Brands [meaning networks and streamers] will become increasingly important as mediating filters for the overwhelmed viewing public." His thesis was that a brand a viewer trusts (like, say, FX or HBO) acts as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal that tells them that this show is worth their time. It's perhaps ironic how complicated streaming has been for the FX brand itself (just try to figure out what is on FX on cable versus FX on Hulu versus both versus FXX versus having FX beamed to the fillings in your molars).
But there's reason to believe he was right about this in the broader sense. For one thing, the one streamer that seems to have perhaps overachieved compared to what was expected of it is Disney+ — and that's the one that comes from the most aggressively brand-y megabrand that has a rigidly defined sense of self, and the one that puts out show after show from other lesser megabrands like Marvel and Star Wars. The Disney brand might not be strictly about quality, but it does tell people what they're going to get in a way that Apple (in the realm of content) doesn't.
Could Netflix's recent troubles be the first sign of change?
If you really want to ponder the meaning of brands, think about Netflix, and in particular the reporting that Kim Masters didrecently for The Hollywood Reporter. For a while, when it was launching Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things and Bojack Horseman, Netflix seemed like it had a brand promise for viewers just like the one Landgraf was talking about — not about the specific type of show, but about quality control.
But as Masters writes, once Netflix started blowing up the quantity of stuff it was making, that's when the people in her story suggest the streamer began to struggle in ways that would eventually hurt the business. Netflix is still a powerful brand, obviously, and it still makes terrific work. But that terrific work sits alongside a lot of undifferentiated stuff, and that makes the promise to viewers about original programming quite different.
What resonates the most, though, from that talk in 2015, is the way Landgraf talked about the good and the great. A lot of people who heard those "peak TV" numbers from critics — 400 shows! — groused back that it didn't really matter, because most of it was terrible. Landgraf, on the other hand, was careful to point out that this was not the point he was making. He didn't think the problem was too much bad TV; he thought the problem was largely too much good TV. Or maybe, too much good enough TV. The head of FX, after all, doesn't care about total garbage shows or about how many of them there are; that's not the competition for viewers, awards, or critical attention. (There was a lot of speculation at the time that this part of the speech reflected in part FX's frustration at a lack of awards recognition for The Americans.)
Here's what he said about too much good TV: "There's just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones."
Maybe self-serving? Sure, of course. Landgraf is not an academic or a neutral arbiter; he's a network executive who had (and has) his own business to worry about. But I think this phenomenon does exist, and not just for audiences. As a critic, I do feel overwhelmed by the amount of television — but not by the amount that's terrible, most of which I get to ignore. I feel overwhelmed by the amount that's okay. Perfectly fine. Watchable, but unremarkable. The 10-episode series that should be four; the four-episode series that should be a movie. The A-for-effort project that just doesn't quite get where it's trying to go. The adaptation of true events that's well-made but has little to add to the podcast it's based on. The show that stars very famous people doing solid work and nevertheless doesn't make so much as a ripple.
It's not that nothing is great. There are still exciting new shows out there; Apple's Severance, for instance, is wonderful and innovative, weird and special and provocative. But at times, I do feel like I am kept very busy looking at B-plus shows that look a lot like other B-plus shows, that are nicely made and earnestly executed by talented people and that are perfectly okay if you like the kind of thing that they are.
But with the Netflix news last week, it does seem like perhaps we really have reached peak TV. Maybe things really are going to contract, just a few years behind schedule. If that happens, it may come as a relief to viewers (both amateur and professional), but it will mean shake-ups with implications for jobs and creativity that are still very hard to predict. And of course, when money is hard to come by, it's often the new voices that are sacrificed first.
Or, I suppose, this will all be wrong, and the number of shows will grow for the next seven years like they've grown for the last seven years, and in 2029, we'll be back here talking about SuperPeak TV and the fact that our greatest movie stars are now making shows that exclusively air on those little screens at gas pumps. Nobody ever said it was easy to see the future.