Ever since HBO broke the mould that had defined conventional network television by beginning to produce intelligent, well-written and expensive productions, critics started to proclaim a “Golden Age of Television.” Of course, what one terms a “Golden Age” is inevitably subjective: television as a medium has always been evolving, and with every new generation groundbreaking shows have redefined what the viewing public and critics see as excellence in broadcasting. The most innovative accomplishment of the show that broke the conventional pattern, The Sopranos, was to finally end the quasi-monopoly of the “Big Three” networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – that for all intents controlled the airwaves that had been beaming programming into American homes for so long.
Because they never had to conform to government regulations regarding language prohibitions and sexual content, HBO and subsequent premium networks could broaden the range of human experience in television scripts. No longer were shows produced just for network, prime-time broadcasting. Longer story arcs, realistic depictions of circumstances peppered with profanity-laced dialogue, and comedy shows without the legendary laugh track were offering what many considered the best television content. Able to skirt Federal Communications Commission regulations because they were not broadcast on open and free airwaves, they could offer the kind of risqué content that the networks could not.
In 1987, three decades ago, every single Emmy-nominated drama show could be viewed at no cost, all having been broadcast by one of the “Big Three” networks on free, open airwaves. For drama, these were:
LA Law – NBC
Cagney & Lacey – CBS
Moonlighting – ABC
Murder, She Wrote – CBS
St. Elsewhere – NBC
Cable shows like The Sopranos were not even eligible for Emmy consideration until 1988. There has been an explosion of content providers since then and, with the advent of the newer streaming networks like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, the landscape of television broadcasting companies, whether traditional cable or internet-based, has changed immeasurably. Now the situation is completely reversed. Listed below are the 2017 Emmy nominated shows for best drama. Only one show, This Is Us, was produced by or shown on a major network:
Better Call Saul – Netflix
The Crown – Netflix
The Handmaid’s Tale – Hulu
House of Cards – Netflix
Stranger Things – Netflix
This Is Us – NBC
Westworld – HBO
The current situation was highlighted in 2015 by John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks (Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Atlanta, Louie, The Americans, Legion) and the philosopher-guru of cable television, who stated that “there is simply too much television … (the audience) is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of TV shows.” That year, Slate magazine calculated that taking into account all television available in the United States and most of Canada (network, cable and streaming), there were nearly 400 original series.1 There will be far more in 2018. Perhaps the best term to capture this phenomenon emerged in 2015 when John Landgraf took to the stage at an industry event for TV critics and coined the phrase “Peak TV.”
A lot of this explosion of content has been driven by the new streaming services. As Netflix and Amazon have expanded their customer base, their business model of allowing subscribers to sign up for as long, or short, a period as they wish has given them the incentive – and the cash – to create the kind of original content that encourages paying viewers to remain loyal clients.
However, with the introduction of new streaming services on a regular basis, the market of content providers seeking out new and innovative television becomes more competitive. Creators of TV content are abandoning the traditional networks for the freedom of streaming providers like Netflix, where they can produce series as long or as short as they like, with all the sex and profanity they care to write into their scripts, and without the forced artificial cliffhangers needed to keep viewers hooked during commercial breaks. The freedom to create without the restrictions of network television has become seductive for almost every “A-lister” in the media business today, even those for whom the movies have historically been their only home.
Add to this the mind-blowing budgets that services like Netflix are able to employ and you have a formula for a fertile environment in which to grow startlingly innovative television. In 2016 alone, Netflix spent an estimated US$6 billion on 123 original shows, and expects to have spent more than $7 billion in 2017. The goal, as Netflix’s chief of content Ted Sarandos told GQ magazine, “is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”2 Coinciding with this interview, Netflix accompanied its worldwide launch of House of Cards with the announcement that it was prepared to outspend its competitors.
With little competition so far from upstart streaming sites, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have enjoyed unprecedented access to the living rooms of television watchers worldwide. Much like the “Big Three” of a generation ago, their ability to offer huge funds to the creative writers and producers behind much of the innovative television being made has had an impact on the industry as a whole. One indication is that these three major streaming services took home 32 Emmys at this year’s ceremony and a similar number at the Creative Arts awards the weekend before. This exceeded the total of 26 awards won by the original “Big Three” networks. And the bulk of these wins came from original, out-of-the-box programming. Clearly, as long as significant revenues come rolling into the coffers of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, viewers can expect to continue to be treated to interesting, indeed startling, new television.
But can this new “Golden Age” of television continue? Cut to 2017 and an unheralded batch of cancelled shows and one must wonder if the bubble is on the way to bursting. In an interview in the Guardian earlier this year, former AMC executive Christina Wayne noted that “you have to have enormously deep pockets and have the ability to withstand spending for a very long time before any profit comes in. Netflix are (sic) way outspending what their profit is now.”
What has kept Netflix going in its almost neverending quest to produce original content has been its huge customer base and associated cash flow. In the third quarter of 2017, Netflix had 109,250,000 streaming subscribers worldwide with an annual gross income of $8.83 billion.3 If Netflix maintains its customer base, and the associated cash flow, production budgets can stay stable and potentially even grow. But this is far from certain.
Aside from the original content that Netflix produces, the bulk of what it provides its subscribers is actually made up of rebroadcast television shows and movies that it licenses from other studios. In July 2017, FX Networks announced that it would start its own ad-free on-demand service, FX+, for which it would charge subscribers $5.99 a month.4 The arrival of this new competitor to Netflix and Amazon Prime means, moreover, that they will no longer have licensed access to FX content.
This is one instance of a larger trend among original television and movie production houses to get a bigger piece of the pie by reducing their reliance on big streaming services like Netflix. Last month, Disney announced its intention to take its films away from Netflix in 2019 and start its own streaming service. This will surely not be the last such case. Netflix shares, it should be noted, fell after Disney announced the new service.
Originally, in previous talks, Disney had left the door open to maintaining its contract with Netflix for its lucrative Star Wars and Marvel film series, but Disney has now slammed the door shut. It has decided that it is better served by using movies like Iron Man, Captain America and the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode IX to draw viewers to its new Disney-owned streaming service.
This will inevitably have an effect on Netflix subscribers, many of whom subscribe to Netflix in good part to have access to the Disney catalogue. A reduced client base translates into less revenue and less revenue means less money available for original programming. Given that Netflix’s business model is predicated on sufficient good-quality original content to differentiate it from other services, where does this leave the future of television production?
In this context, we should note that the total revenues of the film industry in 2017 were the lowest that they have been in more than a decade. U.S. box office revenue for the summer of 2017 was down by 11 per cent from 2016, and things are likely to get worse for American studios. BoxOffice Media predicts that by the time final numbers for the summer of 2017 are in, sales will be down by as much as 15 per cent.5
This is a scenario that translates into roughly one in six American moviegoers choosing instead to stay home and stream Game of Thrones. Here’s the bad news for the movie industry: streaming television is much more innovative then movies these days so when kids growing up today become adults they just aren’t going to be there to support Hollywood productions. Labour union contracts have driven up the cost of making movies to a point that excludes small-budgeted, risky film projects. The movie industry is effectively on life support, propped up by a generation that still goes to movies out of nostalgia – and by 17-year-old boys. Appealing to the latter, Hollywood has produced fewer and fewer intelligent, narrative-based films, depending instead on blockbusters, often based on comic book characters.
With the future of television lying in a multitude of competing services, where “cord cutters” replace cable by streaming services that are popping up almost daily, the number of content providers keeps growing. With each increase in the number of options available to the television viewer, each content provider will have less money to produce new shows. I suspect that as this competition for viewers intensifies we will get the kind of vicious circle scenario being played out in Hollywood today: to guarantee a return on investment content providers will produce “safe bets” – the kinds of shows that no longer stretch the boundaries of original content, serving rather to placate the masses. For every Handmaid’s Tale, which swept this year’s Emmy Awards, we can expect two or three or ten Marvel-style comic book–based shows. And humour will slide back down the scale of intelligence, again depending on the laugh track.
Television viewers have been living these last few years in the golden age of “Peak TV,” a period punctuated by some of the greatest shows in the history of the medium. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that we will soon return to the days of Hollywood Squares and Let’s Make a Deal, shows that delivered solid profits and entertained millions but were hardly places where the best and the brightest were welcome. In 1966, humour columnist Art Buchwald wrote, “Every time you think television has hit its lowest ebb, a new type of program comes along to make you wonder where you thought the ebb was.”
So let us take advantage of the current offerings and hope that television is able to continue to meet the challenge, at least in the short term.
1 Slate, December 23, 2015.
2 GQ, January 29, 2013.
3 Statista: The Statistics Portal (www.statista.com).
4 Market Insider (http://markets.businessinsider.com).
5 Fortune, August 11, 2017.