The classic dad joke when cable TV exploded a little more than a decade ago was how there were “so many channels and still nothing’s on!” Good one, dad! Now fast-forward about 15 years and dad’s silly joke has morphed itself into a new meaning with a daunting reality. There’s still so many channels. Only now there’s too much on.
While at the Television Critics Association this past week, TV writers Tim Goodman (The Hollywood Reporter), Joe Adalian (New York), and Maureen Ryan (The Huffington Post) were marveling at, gasping at, and just plain didn’t know what to do with a piece of research that was provided to them by the FX network.
According to the research, there are 1,715 TV series that aired in primetime in 2014. 1,715 TV series.
OK, you might think. Maybe that’s not so surprising. Remember what dad always joked about? There are so many channels! Surely most of what’s airing on those channels is white noise, the kind of programming that nobody cares about: reality TV, docuseries, weird news programs, or sports.
Shockingly, that’s not entirely true.
There are 352 scripted series on primetime and late-night TV. That means there are 352 original comedies and dramas with actual narratives and writing. 352 series that are fully staffed with writers and actors and directors. 352 series that are competing for Emmys and Golden Globes and SAGs and—even more importantly—your attention.
Those 352 series are broken down into 199 series on cable, 129 on broadcast, and 24 on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Those series aren’t further classified into half-hour comedies and hour-long dramas, but let’s, just for the heck of it, assume that they’re half-and-half each. That totals 15,840 minutes of television that were aired in regular episodic installments in 2014. That’s 264 hours. That’s about a week and a half.
Folks, I’m a television critic and reporter. I’m expected to watch as much of the TV—at least the scripted TV—that is available as I can. BUT THERE IS TOO MUCH DAMNED TV.
To give you a sense of how quickly this rise happened, let’s just look at the cable numbers. In 2014, there were 199 scripted cable series. (Again, “scripted”! That doesn’t account for the myriad iterations of Real Housewives, Real World, and Keeping Up with whatever combination of Kardashians E! is hocking at that moment.) In 2009, there were just 87 series. In 2004, there were 45 series. And in 1999, there were just 26 series.
As helpfully computed by Adalian, that means there has been a 665 percent increase in scripted series between 1999 and 2014. Do you even know how big of an increase that is? IT IS A HUGE INCREASE.
Even just taking into account the leap from 87 scripted cable series in 2009 to the 199 in 2014, that increase is jaw-dropping. It is more than double in just five years.
Here’s the thing, folks. 2009 wasn’t that long ago!
We had the same president we have right now. The year-end Billboard chart was dominated by Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, and people were already debating the pop merits of the country music artist. And some of the most popular TV shows of today were already on air: Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Top Chef, Sons of Anarchy, Nurse Jackie, and more. Isn’t a little crazy that the number of scripted series has more than doubled in the last five years, but these shows are still among the most relevant?
There are easy-to-grasp advantages and disadvantages to the unbelievably swift rise in this new television. Of course, more options means it’s more likely that culture consumers will find offerings that match their tastes—and there’s going to be narrower tastes catered to by networks and studios, to boot.
And the more TV series that are produced, the more great TV series we’ll have to watch—something we’re reaping the benefit and the curse of right now. Bummed that Orphan Black (or whatever your favorite show is) didn’t get the love it deserved at the Golden Globes? Well, there are six nominees and, as we’ve just learned, apparently 352 scripted series. Friend, a lot of really good shows are getting snubbed.
And while 352 series already seems unmanageable, with a rise in original content from streaming services, that “352” number is only going to grow.
According to The Wrap, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon will spend $6.8 billion on content this year. That is awesome. And it is absolutely terrifying.
Of course the reaction that the people behind progressive and provocative (and excellent) series like Transparent, Orange Is the New Black, and even The Hotwives of Orlando—seriously—are turning up the dial on their output is, “Yes! More please!” But it’s also a little concerning.
There are obvious issues to do with quality control here, the kinds that normally arise when a producer known for carefully crafting perfection overextends themselves to churn our more product at a faster pace, perfection be damned. We’ve seen this with the rise of scripted series on cable. At first that rise was exciting, because the content was so amazing. But then too much became too much.
Take, as one example, AMC. We all watched agape as AMC’s first dalliances in scripted programming were flawless: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Then we all, well, just didn’t even bother to watch: Turn, Hell on Wheels, Halt and Catch Fire, Low Winter Sun, Rubicon, etc. Expansion and the experimentation it affords is wonderful. Except for when it isn’t.
And so questions are raised about this new frontier of streaming services, especially now that so much energy and enthusiasm is being funneled into its growth. Will expansion dilute the quality of their programming? Are they going to fall prey to the same temptations that have ended up muddying network television, where buzz and big names and the eyeballs that follow controversy supersedes talent and cleverness and the eyebrows that are raised by intelligence and inventiveness?
Apparently, the answer is yes. (Hey, Woody Allen.)
Especially when facing the tidal wave of programming that threatens to drown me as I do my job, the instinct is to roll my eyes at the idea of streaming services like Amazon when they stoop to courting controversial auteurs like Woody Allen in a seeming grab for attention. After all, these services initially appeared as a haven for original content for the kinds of noble and important voices that weren’t being heard on broadcast networks.
But then you look at what’s happening with the film industry, where noble and important voices like Ava DuVernay’s aren’t being embraced by necessary platforms like the Academy Awards. Where talents like Jessica Lange and Viola Davis and Kerry Washington don’t find worthy work, so they take their skills to the more hospitable home of television. Where stories like Sophia Burset’s on Orange Is the New Black or Maura Pfefferman’s on Transparent would never be told with the same reach they have now on Netflix and on Amazon.
You look at those things and you’re happy that there’s this medium that is not only expanding rapidly, but embracing these voices and talents that are necessary for enriching our culture.
Yes, you look at those things. You appreciate them. And then you pray for less of them—or at least a bigger DVR.
Because, as it stands, there’s too much damned television.