Beth Hoppe loves television dramas. Yet even with a digital video recorder and on-demand services that enable her to watch on her own schedule, there’s not enough time to see everything on her list.
As the chief programmer for PBS, Hoppe has a business reason to stay current. So if she’s feeling overwhelmed, how can the rest of us keep up?
For all of the changes in television, none is more profound than the sheer volume of material available now. From NBC’s “About a Boy” to SyFy’s “Z Nation,” there were 352 original scripted series shown in 2014 on broadcast, cable and streaming services. That doesn’t count news, sports, talk shows, documentaries, movies or reality shows.
In the U.S., there were 26 original scripted series on cable in prime time and late night in 1999, and 199 last year – an increase of 665 percent. An additional 25 series were offered in 2014 on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu, services that didn’t exist as original programmers 15 years ago.
The pace is only accelerating: the number of original cable prime-time series alone has essentially doubled since 2010, according to the FX networks, which keeps count of the programs.
“The amount of competition is just literally insane,” said John Landgraf, FX chief executive.
Cable networks could once run a successful business by showing primarily movies and reruns of old broadcast shows. “That’s over,” Hoppe said.
Viewers now can order an old movie whenever they want through a streaming service and not wait for a network to air it, said Alan Wurtzel, chief researcher at NBC Universal. Despite occasional successes like “The Big Bang Theory,” the taste for past-season network reruns is also fading, in large part because of all the fresh material available. Many reruns, too, can be ordered online for binge watching.
Distinctiveness is crucial now. Networks need shows of their own to establish identities. What was AMC before “Mad Men”? IFC before “Portlandia”? FX before “Rescue Me”?
“People won’t become Lifetime fans because it ran ‘Golden Girls’ for a while,” said Tim Brooks, author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” “But when you produce original shows, especially ones that pop, they come back to the network looking for the next premiere.”
Brooks and co-author Earle Marsh updated their book for a ninth edition in 2007. No more, though. There are just too many shows.
Maybe there will be a saturation point, but it clearly isn’t evident. The market doesn’t really punish failure, Landgraf said. Unsuccessful shows disappear, but networks rarely do.
For viewers, there’s almost never a lull period. There’s a series premiere, or season premiere, seemingly every week. All of the action makes true out-of-the-box hits, like Fox has achieved with “Empire” the past few weeks, more and more rare.
A decade ago a television executive could advertise a new program and take comfort that a potential audience would be motivated to watch, knowing they might miss it or miss being a part of the cultural conversation, Landgraf said.
“Now, why should you pay attention to television marketing?” he said. “Because there are too many shows. Most of them aren’t very good. The good ones are going to survive and you’ll know about them eventually. By the time you know about them, you can just go back really easily and catch up. You can save time by just being Darwinian about it. Say ‘I’m not going to pay attention to television, I’ll just wait for the fittest to survive.”
If the crowded marketplace offers one advantage for producers, it’s that it makes executives tend to give shows more of a chance to stick. They often can’t immediately be sure if viewers have rejected a show or simply haven’t found it yet.
The competition forces creators to sharpen ideas, increasing the pressure to make something unique. NBC’s upcoming drama “Allegiance,” for example, starts with a major handicap because critics have suggested its plot about embedded Russian spies in the United States makes it sound like a watered-down version of FX’s “The Americans.”
“We’re at a world where passion rules, where social conversation is so important and where people can watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it,” said ABC entertainment president Paul Lee. “So they’re only going to watch the shows that they really love, that they’re really passionate about.”
TV executives have a phrase for it: They say the time of “least objectionable television” is dead.