Why the so-called Golden Age of TV might be over

Morgan Jeffery
Photo credit: Coco Van Oppens - YouTube

From Digital Spy

Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of TV shows that are now on offer? You're not alone.

Ever since The Sopranos swaggered onto our screens in 1999, critics have been waxing lyrical about the Golden Age of Television: an era of tremendous creativity that's given us smart, slick series like The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, TV shows equal to and surpassing anything that Hollywood can hope to muster.

Yet it's not just a rise in quality that's been cited as evidence of this so-called Golden Age, but a simultaneous rise in quantity. In 2002, there were 182 scripted TV shows on air across all platforms – broadcast, cable and digital. By 2016, this number had risen to 455.

It's a trend that, until now, has only been increasing: in the five years between 2011 and 2016 alone, the number of scripted shows increased by 71 per cent.

Photo credit: Netflix

A big factor in this ballooning is digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu investing in original content. In the past decade, the number of scripted shows streaming online has skyrocketed from virtually nil to literally hundreds.

This, of course, can be framed as a good thing – television audiences have more choice now than ever before. Hence, the 'Golden Age of Television' label.

But not everybody sees it that way. In July of 2015, John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks, famously coined the term "peak TV", suggesting that there was now a surplus of television being produced, a glut of scripted shows that might easily prove overwhelming for audiences.

"Counting TV shows is like counting lemmings," he reiterated in 2016. "You can’t even count the number of TV shows accurately. Hoping they won’t run off a cliff and into an ocean."

Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Landgraf said that while the "peak TV" industry was unlikely to "collapse", he foresaw "a contraction" – and now it looks as though we might finally being reaching the zenith from which the industry will fall.

As Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and their streaming rivals continue to put out more and more content – and despite the appearance of cutting back, Netflix is actually making more new shows than ever before – a variety of new players are now also looking to get in on the action.

Disney's streaming platform, primed for a 2019 launch, is bringing us a roster of new scripted shows based on their Marvel and Star Wars properties. Apple is also preparing to roll out its own service next year, with talent like Reese Witherspoon, Jason Momoa and M Night Shyamalan attached to scripted projects. Facebook, meanwhile, is said to have spent as much as $1 billion on developing original content for its Facebook Watch platform in 2018.

But – and it's a big "but" – it's not as easy as all that to become the new Netflix, and recently we've seen big businesses start to step away from original scripted content, or at least begin to exercise more caution.

For a time, YouTube's ascension to major scripted TV player seemed inevitable. It already had the platform, all it needed was the shows, and the success of Karate Kid spin-off Cobra Kai boded well when it launched on pay service YouTube Red in May 2018. The first episode, posted for free, was viewed 5.4 million times in its first 24 hours online, with Cinema Blend noting that the series "debuted to numbers that should make rival streaming services take notice".

And yet, less than two weeks after launching its most ambitious series yet – the sci-fi epic Origin The Hollywood Reporter divulged that YouTube would be scaling back its scripted output beginning in 2020, citing not just "a serious budget reduction" but also, crucially, a lack of a gap in the market.

Landgraf's biggest concern about "peak TV" was not just that the creative talent might not exist to justify the amount of money being ploughed into scripted shows, but simply that the audience wasn't there for it.

Could YouTube's about-face, then, mark the beginning of the end for the Golden Age of Television? Is this the start of "the contraction" that Landgraf predicted? YouTube might be big business, but if what THR suggests is true, it also knew when it was on a hiding to nothing. Might other business giants like Apple and Facebook similarly struggle to gain traction in the crowded scripted TV market?

Like most of its streaming rivals, Facebook doesn't share data related to how Facebook Watch is performing. But it's interesting that despite the critical success of September's original series Sorry For Your Loss starring Elizabeth Olsen, Variety has suggested that "long term, sports will likely represent the bulk of Facebook’s content spending".

In 2016, Landgraf predicted that 500 scripted shows would be on-air by the end of 2017. He wasn't far off, with 487 such series airing last year. He also suggested that "peak TV" – this ever-growing expansion – would come to an end by 2019, and the early signs are there that this second forecast will prove to be equally on the money.

Want up-to-the-minute entertainment news and features? Just hit 'Like' on our Digital Spy Facebook page and 'Follow' on our @digitalspy Instagram and Twitter account.

('You Might Also Like',)