Why TV’s Content Bubble Is a Good Thing for Creators (Guest Blog)

“There is a lot of video out there right now, muddying the waters, but out of that mud grow beautiful flowers — some of the best content we’ve ever seen,” Nate Hayden, VP of Originals and Branded Content at AOL, says

The start of fall is when I find myself beginning to look ahead at the year to come. Though perhaps premature, now is the time to plant the seeds that give us the flowers we all look forward to after a long winter (metaphorically, of course, as I’m writing this from Venice Beach, California).

Looking ahead, however, also requires you to look back. This year has given us more video content than ever. So much, in fact, that some have argued that there is simply too much of it. FX’s John Landgraf has theorized that we are at “peak TV” and that the content bubble is primed to burst. Others look at cultural phenomena such as “Game of Thrones” and recent hits like “Mr. Robot” and call this the “Golden Age of TV.” But why can’t it be both? Call it a Golden Bubble. Yes, there is a lot of video out there right now, muddying the waters, but out of that mud grow beautiful flowers — some of the best content we’ve ever seen. At the same time, it is inevitable that this content bubble will burst. Here are a few ways in which content creators can stay afloat.

Content creators need to reconsider the level of risk they are willing to take. A cursory glance at the television might lead you to believe that it is rife with “risky” programming, but is anything really new? Many shows suffer from catatonic “creativity” — one-dimensional characters, predictable plot points and tired narratives. Consider the perennially popular crime-drama genre, which has spawned innumerable copies of itself, each purporting to be pushing the envelope. There’s simply not that many envelopes that need pushing. Even reality TV, once the most risk-taking of the genres, has found itself in similar ruts. If you want to survive the content bubble, you have to stop being so risk averse.

If reiterations of yesterday’s “risks” are not truly risk-taking, how do you get risky? Even in this bubble, there are a few golden examples of scripted that we can learn from. Not coincidentally, many are digital. These programs push real boundaries and tell the stories of the marginalized, under-represented groups. They breach tough topics and revel in ruffling feathers. Amazon’s “Transparent” pushes the envelope and has earned a dedicated viewer base and critical acclaim not just because of its timeliness and storytelling, but also for its fearless tackling of previously-untouched issues surrounding gender identity and society’s collective (mis)understandings of the transgendered community. On the traditional side, The CW’s underdog “Jane the Virgin” survived the muddy waters because it wasn’t afraid to bring a Spanish-speaking family of flawed women to primetime and tackle political issues like immigration reform. Audiences have reacted to this risk-taking very positively. If you want to survive a burst of the content bubble, consider the risks when it comes to whose stories you are telling, and how you are choosing to tell them.

Beyond the actual content, digital gives us the ability to take risks in how we distribute that content. It’s become obvious that digital has destroyed the concept of “primetime” or even set schedules in general. It means the consumer gets to choose when, where and how they interact with the content. It also means that we have to adapt, analyze and predict these patterns, and use that understanding to get creative with our windowing and scheduling strategies. As a content creator, you need to ask yourself not only what your audience responds to on digital, but what windowing strategy is most appropriate to the content itself? Not all content was created for binge watching, and when considering the ubiquitous nature of mobile the idea of digital appointment viewing is intriguing. What will be the “House of Cards” of mobile? What will shake up the way we’ve done distribution? This question becomes even more relevant when we consider that there are no longer rigid relationships between formats and devices. I often find my niece on the couch watching a long-form show on her phone — with the 50-inch flatscreen turned off five feet in front of her.

It may also be time to reconsider standard content lengths. The 60-minute drama is Hollywood gospel, but what does a 30-minute drama look like? A 15-minute drama? Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” has been featuring 15-minute scripted shows for years. On the flip side, binge watchers have proven that 60 minutes is not the ceiling of our attention spans, and one stereotype I’d love to break is the idea that mobile-first means shorter. The possibilities are truly limitless. Live streaming services abound, but have yet to be creatively utilized in scripted narratives. We are also able to create new narratives in a multichannel environment: characters can have their own social accounts, Instagrams, and YouTube channels to supplement (or even replace, in some instances) a main storyline. These possibilities create an environment for even more golden television, and those that don’t capitalize on them, will be the ones whose bubbles burst.

With so many options, it is astounding that we keep repeating ourselves. No one can watch all 400 of the scripted shows produced in 2015, but that doesn’t mean they were a waste and that we can’t learn from them. Quality will always win over quantity, but we also should celebrate the advances that we have made in scripted during this boom while being ready for the reckoning that looms.The bubble will inevitably burst, but in its aftermath the survivors will be those with the strongest content that will push us to evolve even further.