Most TV fans have heard of "peak TV," the phrase coined by FX president John Landgraf to describe the current abundance of scripted series and how hard it is for any one of them, no matter how good it is, to stand out.
And at the end of December, FX announced that according to its research department, the total number of scripted series to air in primetime on broadcast networks, basic cable, pay cable, and streaming services in 2015 was 409 — the most in history. That number will only increase in 2016.
But what's often overlooked about that number is that it accounts for only a tiny fraction of the TV shows in existence. It just covers scripted, primetime shows. It doesn't include daytime programming. It doesn't include late-night programming. It doesn't include made-for-TV movies. It doesn't include kids' shows that air in the afternoon — prime kid viewing time.
Most notably, it doesn't include unscripted shows — all those reality and documentary series that fill the lineups of so many cable networks, thanks to how much cheaper they are to produce, on average, than scripted shows.
Courteney Monroe, the CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, offered a tally of some of those "other" types of shows at the 2016 Television Critics Association winter press tour, and the number she gave was staggering: Roughly 750 reality shows aired on primetime cable in 2015 — 83 percent higher than the number of scripted shows.
And, crucially, that number only accounts for series that aired during primetime and on cable. Broadcast network reality shows like American Idol or Survivor weren't factored in, nor were the many documentary programs on PBS.
Why you hear so little about reality TV
The even more incredible point here: Monroe said that around 350 of those programs were totally new in 2015. And, she pointed out, none of those shows were breakout hits in the manner that, say, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty have been in the past.
A lot of television fans and critics tend to focus solely on scripted shows, because that's where their interests lie. Reality shows are so cheap to make that many networks simply flood the zone with them, and you'll never even hear of lots of them.
For example, Nat Geo's sister channel, National Geographic Wild, is launching a show called Animal Storm Squad, about people who rescue animals after natural disasters. If the show hits a certain number of viewers, it will run for years. If it doesn't, it will disappear. Either way, it's unlikely you'll ever read about it in the mainstream television press unless it somehow becomes a Duck Dynasty–level hit, commanding tens of millions of viewers.
Reality TV tends to be low-risk, and it's generally low-reward. The vast majority of reality series vanish without a trace; the ones that become huge hits are frequently demonized as lowest common denominator TV. And to be fair, some of them sink to that level. But many of them are, at the very least, entertaining and well-crafted.
And all of them must still employ production staffs, even if they're just filming animal rescue crews. Many of the people who work on said staffs simply float from show to show, waiting for whatever's next. Those 750 reality series might be nothing more than data points to you, but each one represents a roving community of TV makers, both young and old.