When John Landgraf says something, TV reporters listen.
The president of FX Networks has become a kind of guru of what's coming in the medium he works in. Landgraf isn't just a TV executive. He's a major TV fan who devours seemingly all of it, from obscurities like Rectify to behemoths like Game of Thrones.
His most famous proclamation came in summer 2012, several months before Netflix launched its first original series, House of Cards, in February 2013. He warned TV reporters that Netflix was fundamentally going to change the idea of what a "hit" show was by refusing to report ratings, no matter how they were asked.
And, indeed, that's exactly what's transpired. Netflix says all of its original shows are hits, but it never tells anyone who watches them. The streaming service was inventing the game of perception meaning more than quantitative data, one that's begun to take hold in significant ways. (In fact, many traditional TV networks — including FX — have stopped reporting overnight ratings in favor of ratings that factor in three days' worth of DVR viewing.)
So when Landgraf speaks, people listen. And this time he was saying, from the way many of us reported it, that TV was about to die.
There's "arguably too much television"
Landgraf tells me, when I catch up with him a few weeks after his presentation at the 2015 summer Television Critics Association press tour, that he feels like what he said was blown at least slightly out of proportion. What he was talking about wasn't the impending collapse of the American television model. Instead he was talking about a relatively mild contraction, but one that might feel like a collapse.
There's "arguably too much television," he tells me, and every bubble eventually bursts. Except Landgraf just thinks this one will deflate a little bit. After all, people always want to watch TV, right?
Landgraf puts this in terms of raw numbers. In 2009, there were 211 primetime scripted series on television. That number steadily climbed until in 2014 there were 371, an increase of 160 shows. FX expects the number to top 400 in 2015. (There are already 267 series, and that's before the glut of shows that will debut when the fall TV season begins in late September.) And if it somehow doesn't this year, it almost certainly will in 2016. (Keep in mind, that's just scripted programming. Once you factor in reality shows, talk shows, and every other manner of program, the number climbs north of 1,000 — it was already at 933 in May 2015, the last month FX has data for.)
The majority of this growth has come from basic cable networks like the ones Landgraf runs. In 2009, basic cable accounted for 66 scripted series. In 2014 it accounted for 164, an increase of 148 percent. (Pay cable, by contrast, grew from 21 series to 35, a growth of just 67 percent.) But the biggest growth, at least in terms of percentages, comes from streaming services, which barely existed in 2009, programming only two original series, but had grown by 1,250 percent in 2014 to 27 series. (They are already at 23 for 2015.)
Landgraf's thesis was that this kind of growth is unsustainable, that there will be a contraction, which will lead to there being fewer scripted shows out there. He thinks the number will ratchet back to somewhere between 250 and 300 — higher than in 2009, but lower than right now. Hence the phrase he coined that headlined many a trend piece: "peak TV."
Too much choice can be as bad as too little choice
Part of the reason this phrase spawned think piece after think piece is the simple fact that TV reporters and critics can feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of television there is to cover. In the job I held before this one, I headed up a TV section that aimed to cover as many major television series as possible, and we realized somewhere in 2012 that we were constantly playing defense. So many new shows were popping up all over the place that we simply didn't have the resources to look at them all.
And that was at a publication with a staff of freelancers that usually hovered around three dozen. Now think about how most publications treat TV — with a staff of two or three main critics and maybe a few pieces from other reporters. It's simply impossible to write about everything of interest when there are that few people trying to cover that many shows. Landgraf's argument here is that the good — because there's a lot of good TV — can crowd out the great.
When he spoke with me, Landgraf framed it in terms of the paradox of choice, an idea coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz in the book of the same name. In essence, the paradox of choice argues that when people have to choose between too many options, they eventually freeze up.
"No choice has an obvious set of problems, a lack of opportunity or a lack of variety, but too much choice creates a whole different set of nontrivial emotional problems," Landgraf told me. "When people are forced to make choices between too many options, they become confused. It's difficult for them to parse those options and find the best choice, and any time they make a choice, they have a sense of giving something perhaps equally valuable or more valuable up. The sense of loss that goes with any choice in some ways overwhelms the pleasure in choices people make. I think it's a very insightful piece of research about some of the malaise in American society in general."
Landgraf also frames this in terms of consensus. Whereas many critics (including me) have argued that the sheer breadth of good programming available now — and the fact that there's no clear consensus as to what TV's "best" show is anymore — is what's driving the boom (or glut, depending on your point of view) of quality television, Landgraf argues that the loss of consensus, the loss of the idea that everybody knows which are the top four or five shows on at any given time, has only added to the feeling of too many options. And when there are too many possible good shows, it starts to be a little understandable to root for the herd to thin just a bit.
"I feel as though when you have more work than you can possibly do, you start to root as much for failure as success," Landgraf told me.
In some ways, what Landgraf is arguing for is the return to TV being seen as a truly mass medium, instead of an ever-growing collection of niches. The problem with this idea — which NPR's Linda Holmes explains beautifully here — is that when TV is considered a mass medium, it becomes easier to shut out the diverse voices and forms of storytelling that have begun exploding across the programming grid in recent years. But Landgraf doesn't believe that the idea of TV's mass reach has to be incompatible with diverse storytelling, citing Roots as perhaps the medium's foremost example.
That's all well and good, of course, but I've buried the lead a little bit here. I don't think Landgraf is wrong, per se. There are going to continue to be more and more new TV shows.
But I don't know that the process is going to stop in the next 18 months as he argues it will. It will expand, and expand, and expand, and eventually explode. It will take a number of players, mostly smaller ones but also a few larger ones you wouldn't predict, with it. TV (at least as we know it) is veering toward its apocalypse.
Maybe all those initial reports on Landgraf's speech were right. TV really is dying. Sort of.
How 1970s film predicts the current TV business
To understand why, let's take a brief detour to the 1970s movie business. Often considered one of the best decades for American film ever, the '70s also hailed the definitive end of the old studio system.
So many great movies were made at such a high level of budget because the skeleton of that studio system was still present, here and there, but it was increasingly patchy. That left loopholes for filmmakers to exploit, loopholes that resulted in some brilliant, personal films, like Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, or even The Godfather, that only could have been produced in an environment where everything was falling apart.
Obviously, people at the time were aware the studio system was in trouble, but there were still hopes that it could be salvaged in some patched-together form. Many of its biggest issues only became obvious in hindsight, and what saved the movie studios wasn't some sort of patchwork quilt of solutions. It was Jaws and Star Wars and the blockbuster model movie studios increasingly use (and abuse) to this day. And it was those studios being purchased by outside companies, an early part of our era of mass media consolidation.
The similarities between '70s Hollywood and this millennium's TV, then, are surprisingly resonant. As TV ratings collapsed in the face of dozens of new places and ways to watch TV, cracks opened up in the previously impregnable wall that kept out some of the weirder, more personal series that were made in the 2000s and 2010s. And as the broadcast TV model seemed increasingly in peril, more and more cable networks and streaming services started tossing original stuff onto their own airwaves, creating more places for interesting TV to be made.
TV even has its own version of the blockbuster model, with The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones proving there's a huge potential upside to high-concept genre series that tell their stories in compelling ways. Other networks have yet to successfully replicate this model, but the fact that most of them are trying (including FX, with The Strain) suggests they realize how much money there is to be made in that direction.
The way this model made sense was that most networks entering the original content game took short-term losses on their original shows, in the hopes of long-term gains. Advertisers were more interested in putting ads on networks with original shows, as opposed to just rerun packages (and those ads then mostly played in the rerun packages). There was money to be made on DVD and streaming sales. And the most useful weapon in convincing cable companies to pay more money to carry your channel is a bunch of angry fans who can't watch their favorite program.
But all of that (and, indeed, almost all of television) is built atop an economic model that makes less and less sense with every year. Paying a significant amount of money every month for a large cable package makes no sense to many American viewers. And while they're a minority of the viewing public right now, their numbers are growing. The current solutions to this are many, including the rise of streaming services and smaller cable packages (the so-called "skinny bundle"). But those solutions completely disrupt the current model.
That economic model accounts for $48 billion every year. Making a TV show is not cheap, but your cable bill helps pay for those shows. Advertising does, too, but that share of revenue has plummeted precipitously. It will probably pick up again in the future — when it can be more personally targeted just to you — but for now, it's quietly sinking away.
"When I took over running FX [in 2005], 55 percent of our revenue was advertising," Landgraf said in his address to TV journalists. "It’s 32 percent of our revenue this year."
That creates a terrifying situation for everybody in the industry. There's a cliff somewhere in the future, and not everybody has a parachute. As many people are trying to get their parachutes on as possible, but eventually, everybody will go over the cliff, and not everybody will survive.
No less a TV expert than CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, the man whose network is the sole remaining channel to regularly pull in more than 10 million viewers a night, expressed this idea to Vulture's Josef Adalian in a recent interview. He said:
I believe there are, honestly, a lot of places that are getting into original programming, and I don’t know how they’re going to be able to afford to do it. Netflix has one model — but they have 65 million subs. Some of these smaller places aren’t going to be able to afford to do [programming]. There are too many places doing original content. I don’t know how people are going to find them. There are cable channels nobody’s heard of. And the skinny bundle clearly is something that’s beginning to happen. We are a company that is not against that because we have two major brands — CBS and Showtime — and in every skinny bundle, they will both be part of it in one way, shape, or form. [But] basic cable is challenged now, and you’ll find that with certain online sites as well … [it] may not be sustainable to spend that kind of money without the return.
The future looks promising, but nobody knows how to get there
I've talked to dozens of people within the industry about this over the years (and several all over again just for this article and its companion piece on pricey cable bills), and even if not everybody would characterize what's coming as a cliff, everyone agrees some sort of tumultuous change is on its way.
Even Landgraf, when I brought it up to him, argued that the change will be less catastrophic than I'm suggesting but will lead to an incredibly messy transition period, coupled with an eventual contraction. He just thinks that contraction will be milder than I do.
And most will agree on some version of what will eventually result from all of this — a world where pretty much everything looks like a streaming service, and you order episodes of shows you want to watch one by one or pay some sort of subscription fee for them. It's a world where if there are ads, they're probably so specifically targeted that you'll only have to watch a handful of them, or maybe even just one before the program begins. And it's a world where networks don't matter nearly so much as branding, where you watch an "ABC show" because it's a certain type of show, not because it's on ABC.
But we're not in that world yet, and we won't be there for quite some time. Everybody knows something is coming, and they don't know just how they'll get from here (the current model) to there (the future model described above). It's the middle that has everyone at least a little bit nervous.
And once you start considering everybody in television as operating from a position of outright apocalyptic thinking, so many things about what's happening right now make more sense.
Why is every network on Earth making its own original content and creating the conditions that have led to peak TV? Because having a hit show (or just a show beloved by a very vocal niche of fans) is the very best parachute you can have. Why doesn't Netflix release ratings data? Both because it doesn't need to and because the Netflix brand essentially has nothing to do with ratings so much as catering to ultra-specific audiences of subscribers. Why doesn't every network put its content on Netflix? Because on some level, they recognize that Netflix is a formidable future competitor and want to expand the marketplace as much as possible in order to have more outlets to sell to.
Netflix isn't going to save the day
It's tempting for TV fans, I think, to imagine that the whole industry is going to transition seamlessly from where we are right now to a world in which everybody is on some Netflix-like service. But it's important to remember that Netflix isn't some new alternative model — it's a luxury hotel built atop the existing one. After all, most of the content that drives traffic to Netflix originally had its home on other networks. Without other networks producing that content, Netflix is just as screwed as everybody else — which explains its ever more aggressive moves into making shows of its own.
And even if the industry somehow transitioned to everything being available on a handful of streaming sites, which sites had which content would very quickly become too confusing for customers. (There's some argument that this is already happening and is slowing the transition from the cable model to the new one by some small amount.)
And if streaming becomes the primary economic force in the industry, why wouldn't gigantic content providers, like Warner Bros. and Disney, start up their own Netflix competitors? (There are good reasons, but good reasons are often ignored in the face of money to be made.) The solution to a world of too many streaming choices would likely involve something very like the current cable bundle.
That's why, ironically enough, the companies in the catbird seat in this world might just end up being the cable providers, which have bought up much of the country's broadband network. The so-called "cord nevers" — young people who live on their own but have never purchased a traditional cable package — still need the internet to gain access to their favorite streaming services. And by and large, that internet is provided for them by a cable company that hopes to convert them to a more traditional customer once they have kids (the most common time to become a cable subscriber).
The sky is not yet falling. Everyone will remind you, hastily, that there are still a ton of people watching TV the old-fashioned way — making sure they tune in when their favorite show starts and watching all of the ads. And there are still lots and lots of people who prefer the ease, convenience, and value of the traditional cable bundle to anything else out there. These people are not going away, nor are they suddenly going to convert to cord cutters.
But with every year, there will be fewer of them, whether it's because they decide to ditch their cable bill or switch to some other service or just pass away. And eventually, there will be so few of them that the old model will start to crumble in earnest. What happens then? Nobody knows, but for two things: It's coming, and not everyone will survive the fall.
This is the first in a three-part series on TV's past, present, and future. Up next: the life, death, and rebirth of the multi-camera sitcom, a cornerstone of TV's past.