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The State Of Television Part 2: Everybody Wants To Be A Madman

February 20, 2020
4 min read time

When John Landgraf originally said there was too much television, Netflix was only two years into offering original programming. His main focus was the rise in basic cable originals. Every network wanted the prestige that came with a successful premium drama and almost all of them had at least one scripted show on the air. And it was all caused by a network — one that only aired classics from American cinema — and a show starring a former drama teacher that no other network would touch.

When Mad Men aired on AMC in 2007 it was a huge gamble but an instant critical hit, becoming the first basic cable drama to win the Emmy® Award for Best Drama, a feat it accomplished every year for its first four seasons. The success of Mad Men led to AMC ordering Breaking Bad the next year and a game-changing series in 2010 called The Walking Dead. In three short years the channel formerly known as American Movie Classics had completely rebranded itself and become home to one of the decade’s highest rated TV series. And while the critical success of having a flagship series is great, the financial success of a hit series is even better. In 2011, riding a hot streak of hit shows, Cablevision Systems spun off AMC Networks and went public with the new company. AMC was able to command higher carriage fees from cable and satellite providers and finally had the leverage it needed if it wanted to force providers to carry its sister channels WEtv, IFC, BBC America and SundanceTV. Unfortunately this success came with controversy, leading to a dispute that caused Dish Network to pull all AMC channels in 2012 and a lawsuit from Canada's Telus when AMC decided to pull its own channels in an attempt to renegotiate a deal it signed before its massive success. But that's all par for the course when you transform yourself into one of the highest-rated channels on cable television.

After AMC's spectacular growth the head of every network in town was saying to themselves, “If the place that showed old, black-and-white movies can rebrand itself, then so can we,” and a new gold rush was underway as every basic and premium cable network wanted its own hit show. 

One year before Mad Men aired, several networks had already jumped back into the world of scripted television. It was that year that Turner's TBS got back into original comedies with 10 Items or Less and My Boys, and TNT took a gamble on new original drama The Closer. Spike TV also took a swing with Blade: The Series, which would not see the success it hoped for and caused the network to focus on reality TV for the better part of a decade. In 2007, we saw the premiere of Army Wives on Lifetime. In 2008, two networks launched scripted slates: A&E aired The Cleaner and Starz pushed to compete with other premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime by launching Crash. TV Land developed Hot in Cleveland in 2010 and Cinemax started airing British co-productions like Strike Back in 2011, the same year BET returned to scripted with a renewal of The CW Network’s canceled The Game. BBC America premiered Copper in 2012 and the next year saw OWN, Hallmark Channel, History and Cinemax all air their first original series in The Haves and the Have Nots, Cedar Cove, Vikings and Banshee, respectively. That same year, several networks finally got their own flagship shows as Orphan Black began airing on BBC America, Being Mary Jane aired on BET and Bates Motel started on A&E. Now that other networks were seeing success there was no slowing down.

The next two years saw the debut of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce on Bravo, Klondike on Discovery Channel and The Royals on E! before 2016 saw National Geographic test the waters with scripted/documentary hybrid Mars as OWN branched out from soaps with hit dramas Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, and Spike came back to a genre it abandoned after Blade was not the hit it expected, debuting The Shannara Chronicles and The Mist. The next year saw two new players as Epix aired Berlin Station and Graves, and former TV Guide channel Pop TV premiered Hollywood Darlings and Return of the Mac.

Every basic cable channel wanted to have its own premium drama to transform it the same way Mad Men transformed American Movie Classics into AMC, and the end result of this push was John Landgraf taking to the stage at the TCA’s annual press tour in 2015 and declaring that there was just too much television.

As if they didn’t care about his advice, telecoms tried to lure in new subscribers by producing original content for their cable and satellite providers. DirecTV’s Audience Network started producing Rogue and Kingdom before AT&T’s acquisition in 2014 and continued afterwards with Mr. Mercedes, Loudermilk and Condor. Charter’s Spectrum Originals picked up L.A.’s Finest after it didn’t go ahead at NBC and ordered new seasons of Mad About You and Manhunt: Deadly Games.

In five short years the number of scripted television shows available to American audiences almost doubled. There were new scripted divisions launching every week, not just at networks but at production companies, digital media ventures, social media networks and smartphone apps. Hell, even Red Bull was producing scripted shows. And somebody needed to take these high-paying development jobs, so film executives migrated over to a side of the industry they once looked at as film's bastard stepchild as the entire industry jumped into television without checking to see if the water was shallow.

And the competition to make a show capable of standing out from the other 500 had unintended consequences as spending began to spiral out of control. In a five-year span, the budget of an average drama jumped from $3-4 million to $5-7 million per episode and comedy budgets doubled from $1-1.5 million an episode to $1.5-3 million.

And the main cause of this overspending had spent the beginning of the decade waiting patiently in the wings. As basic cable networks spent 2007 to 2012 planning their emergence as dominant forces in the television industry, little did they know that three streaming services were about to be their biggest competition.

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