The phrase ‘Peak TV’ wormed its way into the public consciousness last summer when FX chief executive John Landgraf professed to the world that there was simply “too much television”.
With 1,400 primetime shows airing during 2015 in the US alone - 412 of which being original scripted series - it’s easy to see his point. But as networks and streaming services continually burst at the seams with ‘must-see TV’, is it really only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down?
Originally predicting a decline from 2016 onwards, Landgraf has since revised his prediction to 2019 “at the latest”. “I think we are ballooning into a condition of oversupply which will at some point slowly deflate,” he said at the most recent Television Critics Association (TCA) conference, citing TV budgets and viewership as the crux of his argument.
Having recently gotten back into the original drama game with Mercy Street, PBS programming chief, Beth Hoppe, is taking a more optimistic look at the TV landscape, refuting Landgraf’s claims as there’s “no data to show people are tuning out”.
“There’s a lot of good drama and a lot of average drama and because there isn’t enough talented makers available the market gets saturated with the average,” she explains. “But to say it’s all over is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There will always be a market for good drama, good factual and good reality.”
As the creator of some of the US’ top shows - Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Scandal, Quantico to name but a few - and one of the biggest contributors to the ‘Peak TV’ phenomenon it would be easy for ABC Studios to dismiss the idea. But executive vice president, Patrick Moran, admits to mixed feelings about the statement as from a studio point of view it makes life harder but it's great for viewers.
“From the studio perspective there is more competition and it forces us to be smarter and sharper and more aggressive. But in terms of there being ‘too much TV’ I don’t know if I agree,” he says.
“When I hear about a show through word of mouth that I need to watch, I manage to find the time. I was really busy this summer but when someone told me I needed to watch Stranger Things on Netflix I somehow found 10 hours.”
Expanding on this PBS’ Hoppe mentions that perhaps worrying about ’Peak TV’ isn’t the challenge for executives, its enabling people to find content.
“Honestly, we can no longer consider ourselves broadcasters building a schedule. When we talk about a show now broadcast might lead it, it might not. With some shows we now go out first digitally - it’s about creating buzz and giving people the chance to find it.
“It’s really about windowing, marketing and getting the word out. No one has the budget to market everything so you have to pick those chose piece that are going to matter the most and have the most impact.”
In the US, the cost of making and marketing one hour of television has increased 20 per cent in the past five years to $4m - $5m per hour, according to figures cited by Landgraf. Additionally only the top 20 per cent of scripted series average over 10 million viewers with the bottom two per cent of shows attracting an average of just 380k.
Once thought of as a bit of a dumping ground, Hoppe says being launched on digital or being digital-only is no longer seen as a compromise for content creators, pointing to a Ken Burns 14-hour docu-series for PBS which launched online.
“We released the whole 14-hours online on the first day of broadcast and then did two hours a night for seven days. We found there was a few rabid fans who watched the whole thing the day we released it but most people used it for catch-up and then came back to the broadcast,” she recalls. “It gave people the chance to watch hone and where they wanted but at the same time created an event that was water cooler television, and that’s what I like to see.”
With digital breaking down barriers globally - UK viewers no longer have to wait months to watch US shows and vice versa - ABC’s Moran comments that it has made the world smaller, creating more of a global TV market.
“There’s more opportunities to find more shows on more platforms which, for me, is a benefit. I know I’ve enjoyed watching shows that have an international feel or started internationally and then migrated to the US,” he says.
“At the end of the day, a great story is a great story and people will always find a way to find it.”