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The State Of Television Part 4: When Will The Bubble Burst?

March 5, 2020
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4 min read time

When John Landgraf stood onstage at the 2020 TCA Press Tour in January, he had an updated number of scripted shows on American television. That number was 532, a new record. And while Landgraf no longer divides up the number by cable, broadcast and streamer — because then he’ll have to admit that FX’s upcoming shows Devs, Mrs. America and The Old Man are actually Hulu shows — the number is still staggering.

In 2020, that number will increase again with the launch of HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi, though it’s unclear if the short-form series launching on Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile-only service will count. If they do include Quibi, there will easily be 100 shows added in 2020 from these three services alone. Disney+ plans to increase original programs to avoid churn and keep its large subscriber number happy and services that stayed away from original programming like Tubi, Sling TV, Roku and Pluto TV could very well start producing their own shows as the competition in the AVOD space starts to heat up.

But when does it stop?

For an issue of Fast Five on this site I decided to sit down and do the math to finally figure out how much original content Netflix was releasing. I discovered that in November 2019, the service released 165 hours of original programming. That’s around 5 ½ hours a day. That’s more hours of programming per day than HBO airs in a week and it’s a number that’s simply not sustainable. Netflix took a massive lead in the streaming war because it didn’t have any serious competition, but it just had its lowest quarter in history for U.S. growth, adding only 420,000 subscribers against the launches of Disney+ and Apple TV+. This year will bring several major streaming services and see rivals increase their own spending, not to mention Netflix is more than $12 billion in debt. Netflix has been adding content like crazy this past year to fill its catalog because it knows Comcast, Disney, Fox, Discovery and AT&T will begin hoarding shows and films for their own services. Eventually Netflix's own shows will make up for the loss of content from the studios and the service will need to start paying back that debt. What’s the easiest way to do that (besides turning off account sharing)? By cutting back on content spending. Netflix is set to spend $17 billion on content in 2020. If it drops that number in 2021, it can still make a lot of shows while paying back some of its debt. But that will lead to a decline in the number of shows for a network that has already started to cancel most after two or three seasons.

With the fierce competitive dollar being spent by these new streaming services, what happened to those cable networks that desperately wanted their own version of Mad Men? Well, they’ve been abandoning scripted originals altogether. In 2018 Peter Olsen, executive vice president of advertising sales for A+E Networks, told Adweek, “Too many people got into the space, and it got too hard to create a hit.” WGN America stopped producing originals like Salem, Manhattan and Outsiders in favor of cheaper acquisitions from Canada like Carter, Pure, Bellevue and Shoot the Messenger. Bravo moved Dirty John, its final scripted series, over to USA Network in advance of its second season premiere. Now the network that was known for Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce has no scripted shows on the air and has put all its focus on unscripted franchises like Real Housewives, Million Dollar Listings and Top Chef. Lifetime also canceled all its scripted shows, allowing zeitgeisty You and UnREAL to go to Netflix and Hulu, and E!, another network with a similar demographic, canceled all its scripted shows in 2018.

YouTube made the bold decision to move all its original shows out from behind the paywall, finding that most YouTube Premium subscribers were using the service for picture-in-picture, ad-free viewing and offline music, but not to watch TV. AT&T shut down Audience Network in order to roll its programming into the upcoming HBO Max, which was the same reason it shut down the streaming service FilmStruck.

And the most recent TCA’s brought news of two more buyers announcing that they too are getting out while the getting’s good: Cinemax will finish up with its current slate of scripted series, which includes Warrior, Strike Back and the upcoming Gangs of London, and then will stop ordering new series. Facebook Watch then canceled two of its best-reviewed shows, Limetown and Sorry for Your Loss, and will now focus on unscripted series and lifestyle talk shows.

And the cable channels that are still trying to compete have found that their sibling studios are not giving them access to the best material, choosing to save buzzy shows for their own streaming services. One cable executive recently told Digiday that, “With the emergence of all these huge mega-platforms… They’re pulling back content for their own platforms.” With cable providers more willing than ever to drop channels from their lineups that aren’t performing, it makes it even harder for these cable networks to compete with the new streaming giants.

So the bubble is already bursting for some, but the industry is moving so fast that the new players are buying enough to compensate for the old players who got out of the game. But what will the state of television look like in the future? Despite what doom-and-gloomers tell you, there will always be a market for high-quality scripted series; we just have no way of knowing what the distribution method will look like. Quibi may change the industry in 2020 and five years from now, we may be watching everything in VR. Sure, network television as we know it may be gone within the next decade, but people will never grow tired of strong storytelling. Stories have been written and performed from the very second a caveman wanted attention and it won’t stop anytime soon.

However, there is a limit to the amount of content a consumer can actually consume and with budgets spiraling out of control, it’s getting to the point where a massive audience is required to justify the continuation of a series. People have too many options and the audience has been splintered in so many directions that those cultural phenomenon shows that everybody in the world watches simultaneously are getting hard to find. 

At some point the number of shows will drop, but not long after that there will be a brand new way of consuming content and every media company in town will be more than eager to develop for it.

Then we start all over again. 

The wheel will keep on turning, we just can’t figure out what it’s turning toward.

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