Overwhelmed? 487 original scripted TV series helped 2017 set records, in possible late stage bubble
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Overwhelmed? 487 original scripted TV series helped 2017 set records, in possible late stage bubble

It was almost 3 years ago when, speaking at the Television Critics Association (TCA) summer press tour in 2015, FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf discussed the then proliferation of scripted series on television, coining the phrase “peak TV,” predicting that the number of scripted series would surpass the 400 mark, while also speculating that the number of scripted series would reach its apex by the following year, 2016.

It was more of a word of caution on his part, of a potential bubble that he believed would soon burst, as I recall, arguing that there was just too much TV at the time, making it increasingly difficult for TV viewers to find and stick with new series (even if only because they are overwhelmed with the volume), and thus networks having to yank programming from their respective lineups early, thanks to weak ratings.

“There is simply too much television,” Landgraf said during his presentation the TCA. Citing FX research, he predicted that the number of original scripted series on the air that year would “easily blow through the 400 series mark” and probably rise in 2016, before an inevitable and potentially severe trimming begins.

The original scripted TV series business “is in the late stages of a bubble,” Landgraf said, adding, “We’re seeing a desperate scrum – everyone is trying to jockey for position. We’re playing a game of musical chairs, and they’re starting to take away chairs.”

And speaking to what he felt were the broader ramifications of this, especially as the “unbundling” of cable TV as we’ve long known it continues, and *newer* players like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others plant flags, Landgraf said, “It’s going to be a messy, inelegant process.”

Well, I can’t speak to how messy and inelegant the process has been so far, speaking as a consumer, but, almost 3 years later, “peak TV” is even more “peak” than it was in 2015, and doesn’t appear to show any signs of waning. So if we are indeed still in the late stages of a bubble, as Landgraf previously described, it’s a significantly larger one that must be on the verge of finally popping.

According to new estimates from FX’s research team that Landgraf unveiled just last week at the 2018 Television Critics Association’s winter press tour: in 2017, a whopping 487 scripted series aired on broadcast, cable and streaming outlets. The figure tops 2016’s 455, and the 422 that aired by the end of 2015, the year that Landgraf first expressed his “peak TV” concerns.

And of the 487 scripted series that aired in 2017, basic cable claimed the largest share with 175 series, followed by broadcast TV’s 153, the largest number that broadcast has ever seen. Online services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc aired as many as 117 scripted series in 2017, also a record number – a massive 2,825% increase since 2010, and by far the most significant growth of all the distribution platforms during the same time period, and maybe with good reason, since streaming services are still a relatively new thing, compared to how long broadcast, basic and pay cable have been around.

Meanwhile, pay cable accounted for 42 shows in 2017.

See the chart at the bottom of this post for more astonishing data.

Keep in mind that these numbers represent the number of original scripted series, meaning they don’t not include reality TV shows, news, sports, made-for-television movies, specials, daytime or children’s programming. So with 487 original scripted series competing for eyeballs, all in the same year, it really shouldn’t be a surprise when a show you watch is suddenly canceled due to a weak ratings.  This is all quite staggering and maybe almost unimaginable from what TV lineups were a decade (and more) ago, and one has to wonder, as Langraf notes,  whether the television business as it exists today is sustainable.

I must admit that I (and many folks I know) are overwhelmed with the amount of original content that currently exists across all platforms. I can’t keep up and have given up trying. There have been, and still very much are series that I’ve wanted to watch, but haven’t gotten around to doing so, because it seems like almost every month there’s a new crop of series for me to consider, thanks to the additions of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube TV and others that have really crowded the space, but have also challenged the “old guard” networks (like HBO) that were once TV industry behemoths, who may have become somewhat complacent. Also broadcast and basic cable TV networks are arguably upping their content game in part due to the kind of work that the online services are pushing out.

But there really are only a small handful of scripted TV series that I watch with any regularity. And, quite frankly, if I could just subscribe to the shows that I watch, instead of individual channels or cable TV packages, I’d consider doing that. For example, for years I watched Homeland on Showtime, but nothing else on the network. So once Showtime launched its standalone streaming service (I got rid of my cable TV a long time ago), I subscribed just so that I could watch Homeland. But once each season was over, I canceled my subscription; at least until the next time Showtime had something that I wanted to watch. The same goes for HBO and Game of Thrones.

In short, I agree. I think there is too much TV. It’s overwhelming, as I’m constantly having to decide on whether to play catch-up because there are so many shows that I just don’t have the time to watch. Some of them I’ve bookmarked – especially those that trusted sources have told me are excellent – so that I can maybe bingewatch them in the future, but that to-do list is getting very long.

About two-dozen original scripted series for the 207/2018 TV season have been canceled already, and there likely will be more casualties to come in the next few months, as the current season comes to an end. It doesn’t matter whether they are *good* shows; if they don’t have the desired ratings, they’ll be gone.

And if Landgraf is correct about a “late stage bubble” in the original scripted TV series business, the next couple of years (and what results from whatever culling happens) will certainly be worth paying attention to.


FX Research
FX Networks Research