On Tuesday, May 30, WGN America canceled its Underground Railroad drama Underground, which had earned critical plaudits and generally solid ratings for the network. A few months earlier, it had canceled its rural America-set Outsiders, which also boasted generally good viewership numbers. Each show had run for two seasons.
WGN’s explanation for both cancellations? The network is shifting focus — away from scripted TV. (Whether that means its focus will shift to reality programming or just reruns of shows from other networks remains to be seen.)
That shift in focus is perfectly justifiable, as far as WGN’s business strategy is concerned.
But in the context of several recent developments that otherwise seem unrelated — A&E similarly abandoning the scripted market after Bates Motel wrapped up earlier this year; MTV’s cancellation of its promising (but low-rated) freshman drama Sweet/Vicious; Netflix canceling The Get Down after its first season (the streaming service’s first post-season one cancellation ever) and Sense8 after its second — a natural question has started to rocket around the TV industry: Is Peak TV, the era of so much TV you can’t even keep up with it, over? Are we about to start racing down the other side of the mountain, with little control over the speed of descent?
The answer to that question, as with most questions about the entertainment industry at this moment in time, is “yes and no.”
It’s easy to argue that Peak TV is still going strong
First, let’s look at the case for “Peak TV is here to stay for at least a little while longer.”
The concept of “Peak TV” is quite young, even if doesn’t feel that way. The exact definition of the term dates to 2015, when FX Networks president John Landgraf gave a now-famous presentation at that year’s Television Critics Association summer press tour; Landgraf was defining a business phenomenon — a bunch of new players were jumping into the scripted TV market and consequently driving up the number of shows being made.
But what he said spoke more broadly to an overall trend that TV journalists and viewers felt in their bones. There was too much TV. “Peak TV” suddenly became the most popular way to refer to the 2010s — TV’s latest so-called “Golden Age” had given way to an inundation of choice.
Strictly speaking, Peak TV can’t be over yet, by Landgraf’s own definition. There will be more scripted series in 2017 than there were in 2016, and the odds are very good that there will be more scripted series in 2018 than in 2017. The number of scripted shows crested 500 for the first time in 2016, and it has a reasonable shot at brushing against 600 before the peak is truly reached. (Meanwhile, unscripted shows numbered over 750 in 2015 and continue to climb.)
And if we start scrutinizing the various bricks in the “Peak TV is ending” argument, each can be explained fairly easily. WGN and A&E ventured into an expensive market and found it too rich for their tastes. The Get Down and Sense8 might have aired on loath-to-cancel-things Netflix, but they still cost the streaming service tons of money to produce, and TV shows rarely get less expensive as they go. The same argument — that production costs outweighed the show’s value to Netflix — also largely explained the network’s decision to cancel Bloodline, and basically nobody argued that “Peak TV is over!” after that choice.
The simple fact of the matter is that the networks that are genuinely getting out of scripted TV were super-marginal players, at best.
As one network head pointed out to me, if you look at the 15 or 20 cable networks that produce the lowest number of shows — usually one or two per calendar year — their combined scripted output is close to that of Netflix alone. The streaming boom is driving the current glut, and with Hulu ramping up its own production arm alongside Netflix and Amazon, it seems unlikely to suddenly stop.
That conclusion is only bolstered by persistent rumors that YouTube will push even more into the scripted space (as it’s already flirting with doing), or that Facebook will launch a bunch of series, or that Apple and Google will do so as well. (Apple and Facebook are already dabbling in the unscripted space.) To be clear, it seems unlikely all of these potential players will enter the scripted TV game, but some of them will, and they’ll only inflate numbers further.
The industry figures I talked to while researching this article all agreed that if the TV industry revolved entirely around cable and broadcast television, it would have already reached a peak and be entering a gentle descent, as some networks exited the scripted space while others stepped back their production.
Yet the major players in scripted TV — which include the most acclaimed cable networks like HBO and FX, but also the big four broadcast networks and a bunch of more middlebrow cable networks like USA and TNT — remain committed to keeping their slates mostly stable. When Landgraf predicted, in 2015, that the Peak TV bubble would eventually deflate at least a little, he was probably thinking about something very much like what’s happening in cable and broadcast right now.
But “cable and broadcast” aren’t where the major gains in the overall number of TV series are coming from. Those gains are all a byproduct of streaming networks’ increased demand for original programming, and so long as that demand exists, the true “peak” of Peak TV won’t come. I’d say we’ve got until at least 2018, if not 2019, before it arrives.
And even that might be too early — Landgraf famously predicted the peak would arrive in 2016, and look where that got us.
Still, it’s not hard to look at a bunch of recent cancellations and wonder if they’re indicative of changing tides
Right now, if you talk to people in the TV industry about the current status of Peak TV, you’ll usually hear some variation on this phrase: “I can see where this would look like a bubble, and sometimes it feels like a bubble, but I don’t think it’s a bubble.” And if Landgraf’s initial prediction — that we’d see a steep ascent to a peak, then a gradual decline as the market culls shows that can’t even garner a niche audience — proves accurate, then, yeah, the bubble was more of a market test.
But it’s not hard to look at Netflix ordering dozens of scripted series and wondering when that approach will prove unsustainable. At some point, the network will reach a plateau in global subscribers, especially as it’s proved unable to crack the Chinese market, and then it will have to start tightening its belt. That will inevitably mean the end of some of its more marginal series.
One of the driving factors behind Peak TV was the idea that everybody was getting into the pool. And by extension, the idea that, because viewership can be amortized over lengthy periods of time, it doesn’t really matter if the Twin Peaks premiere only drew 500,000 live viewers. For Showtime, the simple fact that subscriptions to the channel are up because people want to watch the series is the only thing that matters. If you want to watch Twin Peaks and are willing to pay for the privilege to do so, who cares if you want to do so at 9 pm on a Sunday?
This type of thinking has caused lots and lots of networks to test the waters, but few of them have the kind of production arms that will allow them to make money off the shows they’ve been airing, at least not far into the future. Twin Peaks will still be valuable to Showtime for decades because both the show and the network are owned by CBS Television. But that kind of streamlined parentage didn’t exist with Underground, which was itself owned by Sony, while WGN is owned by Tribune Media. Most of the players exiting the scripted TV industry are ones who don’t have natural studio partners in the way that, say, Showtime or FX do.
And yet the gradual decline in the number of networks seeking original scripted programming means that there are simply fewer places to sell scripted programming to, even if Netflix and Hulu are buying up every show they can find.
When discussing Underground’s cancellation with some Vox colleagues, I noted that even a year ago, there would have been a more robust market for another network to pick up the show from WGN and give it a third season (as happened with, say, A&E castoff Longmire, which went to Netflix). In 2017, it’s harder to imagine, because there are fewer networks trying to make a big splash entry into the scripted TV space. (That said, I think Underground still has a solid shot at finding a new home — the bottom hasn’t fallen out of the market yet.)
Peak TV, like everything in the entertainment industry in the digital age, is both built on a sound economic model and a kind of shared delusion. It’s easier than ever to make a lot of money off of even a low-rated TV show because there are so many more places to sell it to and so many more ways to fund any given project. (One increasingly common one: Netflix co-productions where networks retain rights to air a show in the US, but Netflix, its co-producer, airs the program overseas, where its libraries tend to be skimpier.)
But operating within that space, when you’re running a TV network, also requires believing that it will keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and that shows will be able to provide for themselves even when they serve only the nichiest of niche audiences. We don’t have hard data for most streaming shows; we only have the tidbits Netflix and Hulu (and some cable networks with streaming platforms, like HBO and Showtime) care to share.
The whole enterprise feels slightly like a magician trying like hell to keep you convinced that he’s performing real magic, even as you spot his hand sliding a supposedly disappearing ball into his back pocket. The instant you realize how the trick works is the instant it all falls apart. Peak TV isn’t over yet, but it increasingly feels like the slightest jostle — venture capitalists losing confidence in Netflix, or a mild recession, or a major unscripted hit taking over the discourse — could make everybody realize, all at once, that the sleight of hand was always happening right out in the open.