We've Got Hollywood Covered

Peak TV Debate: Is There Really Too Much TV and Is That a Bad Thing?

Fall TV Preview: Why worry about peak TV when there is so much quality programming to enjoy?

A version of this column on too much TV first appeared in the print edition of TheWrap Magazine’s Fall TV Issue.

As the TV industry ramps up for another fall season, this seems a good time to ask: Are we flat-screen fans getting too much of a good thing?

We live in an era of “peak TV,” analysts say. The explosion of programming on premium cable and streaming outlets has led to some of the most acclaimed series in history, such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and FX’s “The Americans,” not to mention massive sleeper hits such as Netflix’s true-crime documentary “Making a Murderer.” But some veterans are sounding the alarm that there is too much TV. Too much for viewers to watch, and certainly too much for networks to keep squeezing out profits. Supply, this argument goes, is about to outstrip demand.

The key proponent of this view is FX boss John Landgraf, who has argued for the past several years that TV is threatened by a programming glut. Speaking at the Television Critics Association press tour in August, Landgraf predicted that the “peak TV” boom would expire by 2019.

According to FX, 419 original scripted series aired or streamed on various TV platforms in 2015, with an all-time high of 46 coming from online services such as Netflix and Amazon. That compares with 389 scripted series in 2014 and just 216 as recently as 2010. That’s a clear trend, as any actor or crew member in the Los Angeles area probably knows. Work is more plentiful than it was just a few 
years ago.

But the boom can’t last, Landgraf says. The competition has already crimped profits of individual shows, a trend that the FX boss expects to worsen in coming years. And viewers can no longer keep up.

“We’ve lost much of the thread of collective conversation of which shows are good, which shows are great,” he told reporters.

But it’s important to note that not everyone agrees with Landgraf’s warning. He’s likely right that a bust is inevitable. That’s because cycles affect every business, and TV is no different. Just a few years ago, production came to a near-halt across town due to a writers’ strike. Now it seems as if there is full employment for nearly anyone who wants to work. The worm will turn again.

Viewing habits, however, have already changed since the days of a “collective conversation.” Fans tend to reserve live over-the-air viewing for special events, such as sports contests or news. They save scripted dramas and comedies — even smash hits like “Game of Thrones” — for some sort of on-demand platform. The binge-watching phenomenon underscores that viewers eventually find the programs they crave. Not overnight, necessarily, but over time.

Landgraf is correct that many shows are unprofitable. But it was ever thus. TV is a hit-driven business and always has been. It’s the smash like “Game of Thrones” that pays for a cult fave like “Girls,” for example.

So go ahead and enjoy the peak TV era. There’s a good chance it might have more than a few years of life left.

See more of TheWrap Magazine’s Fall TV Issue: