FX Networks CEO John Landgraf lobbed a hand grenade into the midst of the Television Critics Association last week, warning that a glut of programming was drowning viewers and that the economic model supporting the golden age of television was not sustainable.
Langraf’s manifesto followed earnings reports from a number of media companies last week that suggested an accelerated pace of cord-cutting by consumers — Disney’s sports jewel ESPN lost a reported 3.2 million subscribers in a little more than a year, and shed 7.2 percent of its subscriber base since 2011 — and led to a stock sell-off that damaged the share price of top media companies including Disney, Comcast, Viacom and 21st Century Fox.
In the midst of this, Landgraf used his executive session at the TCA summer tour not to merely tout his network’s fall fare, as is usually the case, but to warn of a “bubble” in television programming that poses a major risk for all companies, especially smaller ones.
“This is simply too much television,” Landgraf said. “My sense is that 2015 and 2016 will represent a peak in U.S. TV, and afterward we’ll see a decline.”
That decline, he predicted, will have victims, particularly among smaller networks unaffiliated with conglomerates. “I don’t think that independent channels are going to fare particularly well in the future,” he said, adding that he anticipates “a culling of the herd” among networks, with larger groups such as HBO, AMC, and, of course, FX, best positioned to survive.
Landgraf predicted that 2015 will see more than 400 original scripted series across broadcast, cable, and streaming — up from 371 in 2014, and roughly double 2010’s total of 213. (See chart below)
The growth of that content bubble is due in part to streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, which accounted for 26 original series in 2014 but only four in 2010. But basic cable has also seen big gains, growing from 70 scripted series in 2010 to 164 in 2014.
Landgraf has a reputation as one of the smartest folks in television — a reputation he enhanced by using his TCA executive session to drop an hour of data-driven knowledge rather than talk ad nauseam about how great his shows are.
By laying out a vision for a future television landscape in which there are winners and losers, he provided a handy framework for the press to apply to the remainder of tour, and thus positioned himself as the tour’s thought-leader supreme. It appears to have worked.
On Sunday, the first day of post-FX sessions, Landgraf’s specter loomed large. Even Freddie Wong, creator and star of Hulu’s “RocketJump: The Show,” was asked about how a content bubble might impact his show.
Stan E. Hubbard, CEO of family-owned Reelz network, seemed to concede Landgraf’s point. “Independents are an endangered species,” he told reporters Sunday morning. “It’s giants verse giants and it’s all about shaving at the edges, and the independents are the first to go.”
Though there are no more streaming services presenting at TCA this week, expect more questions about the notion of a content bubble and its potential effects. How long can broadcasters like NBC and CBS aspire to reach broad audiences in an era of niche programming and media fragmentation? Can The CW’s continue to evolve as the younger audiences it focuses on abandon linear viewing? Can Showtime sustain the volume of high-quality content necessary to transform itself into a digital brand? Are NBCUniversal’s many cable brands overextending themselves by venturing into scripted programming?
But beyond the end of press tour, Landgraf’s presentation will linger as followers of the TV industry ponder a basic question: Just how long can this golden age of television last?
Spending on scripted shows cannot continue to grow unchecked while ad revenues decline and other forms of revenue have yet to mature. If the overwhelming wealth of quality shows everywhere from Netflix to HBO to WGN America to Crackle is the unsustainable product of an industry on the verge of contraction, then we are in the golden age’s latter days.
That doesn’t mean that great TV won’t continue to be made. But very soon there undoubtedly will be less of it. And the much ballyhooed creative freedom that comes from big budgets, widespread experimentation, and an expanding competitive landscape could give way to tighter reins and more calculated decision-making.
Four days before Landgraf addressed the critics, another, less likely doomsday prophet took the stage — actor Ron Perlman, who will star in Amazon’s upcoming series “Hand of God.” His message was similar to Landgraf’s, but more blunt.
“This is the most exciting period I’ve ever seen in television,” Perlman said. “Probably the most exciting place to be if you’re a storyteller is television, because of that very factor. Ten years from now, it’ll all be fucked up. But for right now, it’s a beautiful place.”
The Scene at TCA: Funny, Frank and Flippant Quotes From Summer 2015 TV Press Tour (Photos)
“The Olsen twins cried a lot, so it was hard to get a take, that’s pretty accurate,” he said. “So I said, ‘get rid of ‘em.’” -- John Stamos revealing he almost got Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen fired from "Full House"
“Unlike that girl, who apologized and resigned, we wanted to bring our queen bee character to some sort of awareness about her behavior.” -- "Scream Queens" creator Ryan Murphy revealing that Emma Roberts' character was inspired by viral sorority email
“Every single actor in every single scene at some point is given one direction, which is: ‘OK, now do the scene as if you’re the killer,'” -- "Scream Queens" star Jamie Lee Curtis on the plan to reveal the killer
“She’s a star. She’s an iconic ABC star. We think the entire world will be talking about [her].” -- ABC President Paul Lee on "Quantico" star Priyanka Chopra
“It can be tough to work with your ex … Especially when your ex is a pig.” – Kermit the Frog after announcing his split from Miss Piggy
“We won’t be getting into arguments over politics and current events, but we might be getting into debates about the politics of hair.” -- "FABLife" host Tyra Banks on how the show differs from "The View"
“I love the idea because I don’t see enough of that on the air any place … and I think it’s a rich idea.” -- Norman Lear on his plans for a reboot of "One Day at a Time" featuring three generations of Latina women
"Everything that I portrayed during filming has happened to me as far as dancing, or everyday life. It’s completely authentic. There’s no frills to it.” -- "Flesh and Bone" star Sarah Hay on the series' depiction of ballet
“One of the pleasures of my career is to connect people of whom I am a fan, and I’d been a fan of Patrick’s for a number of years and of Jonathan’s [Ames] work.” -- "Blunt Talk" creator Seth MacFarlane on star Patrick Stewart
“I can’t really tell you [much], but I think when you see what she’s up to in the show, you’ll appreciate what a clever idea [it is].” -- "Doctor Who" showrunner Steven Moffat on Maisie Williams' role
“We’re not about violence and we’re not about gore. And if any torture is involved, we don’t show that. What we do show, is the consequence of the crime.” -- Sara Kozak, Senior Vice President, Production of Investigation Discovery
“I think the beauty of the bravery of Nat Geo is actually that they’re letting us de-sanitize the story of Thanksgiving and that whole part of our history." -- Actor Raul Trujillo on his TV movie "Saints & Strangers"
“Let me put it this way. If a person has 9,000 tweets and five of them are not to your taste. What I heard is, ‘This person has 8,995 tweets that weren’t offensive.'” -- New 'Daily Show' Host Trevor Noah on his Twitter controversy
"“MTV brought us up and said ‘Hey, it’s lunchtime.’ We had no idea what to do! They gave us a lunch break and everyone was freaking out, like ‘We can’t sit down. We can’t take lunch.'" -- YouTube star Todrick Hall on his new MTV show "Todrick"
“My own community ostracizes me and thinks of Nelly Fags and Butch Lesbians are sort of the pariahs of the community.” -- Lea DeLaria comparing her life story to that of her "Orange Is the New Black" character
“I don’t think anyone else needs to hear me bitch about E!” -- Chelsea Handler, host of an upcoming four-film Netflix documentary series
“Playing a trans character on a show being shepherded by Lana Wachowski, I knew I would be protected and represented in a way that trans people have never been represented before on TV,” -- "Sense8" star Jamie Clayton