Are There Too Many Good Shows On TV?

Are TV subscribers in the middle of a programming renaissance?

Not too long ago, there were too many channels but nothing was worth watching, as immortalized in Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 classic, “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On).”

But as more Hollywood talent pours in to create more original series on even more networks, today’s cable viewer is faced with an almost daunting supply of the best TV entertainment available in the history of the medium, with hundreds of quality, scripted series on basic and premium cable.

And the shows have never been easier to find, with the aid of interactive guides with recommendation features, video-on-demand and DVRs.

Even with all this new technology, viewers face a paradox of unlimited choice — but not enough time to see it all. This phenomenon has affected the TV industry in unprecedented ways, forcing changes in TV ratings, navigation and viewing patterns, not to mention increased competition among networks.

More than anything, though, it has improved the quality of on-screen content, as evident in better writing and direction, as well as layered plots and complex characters.

Consider the choices that were available this past Sunday night at 9 p.m.: the finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones; AMC’s The Killing; the season premiere of TNT’s Falling Skies; Lifetime’s Army Wives; and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.

Basic-cable networks now offer some 125 scripted series — that’s nearly double what was offered just five years ago. And networks that weren’t typically purveyors of original scripted fare, such as History, VH1, BET, Starz, Hallmark Channel, OWN and Sundance Channel have jumped into the space, joining the likes of USA Network, TNT, ABC Family, AMC, FX, HBO and Showtime.

And viewers are watching: 59 scripted cable shows garnered 2 million or more viewers on a live-plus-seven-day basis in 2012, compared to only 16 shows in 2007, according to Nielsen.

Despite this, television viewing hasn’t increased precipitously over the same period. Viewers watched an average of four hours and 53 minutes of television per day in 2012, compared to four hours and 38 minutes in 2007, according to Nielsen.


“Time is a problem, but for some people they stretch it by using a tablet or a personal phone; they marathon it … it has changed the consumer’s viewing habits, ” said Gary Lico, CEO of CableU, an online service that analyzes cable-network performance and programming. “People are still watching a lot of television — they’re just watching, as we predicted, in different spots … that’s how they’re cheating time.”

Long gone are the days when a majority of TV viewers sat around the TV in huge numbers to watch the premiere of an episode of M*A*S*H or The Cosby Show. Viewing today is so fragmented in part because technology has advanced to a point that appointment viewing is becoming a thing of the past.

As a result, viewers increasingly are watching episodes of their favorite shows three or four days after their premiere, or even years later — binge-viewing whole seasons of shows. A recent Frank N. Magid Associates and Vubiquity survey of video-on-demand users showed that 76% of respondents watched three or more episodes of a TV show consecutively in one sitting, with 40% indicating that they do this more often now than they did a year earlier.

VOD usage has also led to the viewing of scripted series on-demand, as programmers offer more episodes of their premium shows to cable operators for VOD distribution. Cable juggernaut Comcast recently reported that it delivered 2.4 billion hours of VOD across all categories in 2012, up from 2.1 billion a year earlier. Much of that is attributed to VOD viewing of TV series, which now represent 41% of all on-demand viewing for the MSO.

On-demand viewing for TNT shows like Falling Skies and Rizzoli & Isles was up 35%, or 7 million views, in 2012 compared to 2011, said Michael Wright, head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. And it’s growing incrementally, he said.

“VOD is becoming a huge player in the space,” Wright said.

Given TV viewers’ limited time, technology that has allowed for storage and on-demand binge viewing has also improved ratings for series as they get older. There’s evidence that on-demand viewing of some series actually helps boost viewership over a show’s life cycle.

Typically, as a series matures, its ratings decline. But a Nielsen report showed that for Showtime drama Dexter, viewing is up 235% from its first season to season seven among the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo.

Other shows showing similar triple-digit increases in the demo include AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, HBO’s True Blood and FX’s Sons of Anarchy.

“Good shows work, but the availability of shows on-demand on all platforms have helped linear viewership,” AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan said. “But the show has to have enough heat and urgency that people get sufficiently motivated to watch it on linear.”

With big ratings also comes major interest in working in the medium from Hollywood’s heavy hitters. At the recent cable upfronts, networks announced a virtual Who’s Who of entertainment star power set to develop original scripted content in the near future, including Steven Spielberg (TNT scripted series Portal House and Peter Gunn); Frank Darabont (TNT drama Lost Angels); Sylvester Stallone (TNT’s The Last Cop); Denis Leary (USA’s Sirens); and Guillermo del Toro (FX’s The Strain).

Add to that the star power over-the-top players are bringing to bear in their originals. Netflix has launched three original shows this year — political drama House of Cards, horror series Hemlock Grove and the resurrected Fox sitcom Arrested Development. Amazon last month announced it will launch five scripted series later this year as part of its Amazon Prime online service.

All of that creates a very competitive landscape for networks as they look to secure eyeballs for their scripted fare. Network executives say consumer demand for more quality programming is forcing cable services to launch even more new shows to satisfy appetites — and remain relevant and competitive in a multiplatform world.

“From the network’s perspective it’s great in that all these new distribution platforms give us new ways to bring content to the viewer,” TNT’s Wright said. “The challenge it presents is there’s nowhere to hide — this is a 12-month-a-year, seven-day-a-week contest. It’s fun and invigorating, but at the end of the day what suffers is passive viewing, and what prevails is engagement viewing.”

For networks trying to establish a foothold in the scripted arena, such as History, it’s a risk worth taking. The nine-episode drama Vikings, History’s foray into scripted series, drew an impressive 4 million viewers in its freshman run. History and H2 executive vice president and general manager Dirk Hoogstra said the network will look at all multiplatform opportunities to keep viewers engaged and aware of the Vikings franchise prior to its return for season two next spring, although he would not offer specifics.

AMC Networks’ Sapan believes that technology — new platforms, VOD and DVRs — is what has spurred cable’s creative renaissance on cable TV.

“I personally think that it is fundamentally the technology which enables and invites the opportunity for storytelling that has more advanced craft — the writing is more nuanced, the character development is better and less obvious, and deeper,” he said. “The technology of watching on-demand in a certain sense replicates a cinema mindset; what’s associated with that is the need to pay a fair amount of attention to watch a movie by a great director.”

Sundance Channel looked to virtually replicate the cinema experience by previewing all six episodes of its first scripted series Rectify in 16 theaters across the country two weeks prior to its debut on the network. While Sundance is not rated, Sapan said the offering helped build interest in the series.

“We wanted people to consume a lot of the series and get hooked or get engaged with the series in the hopes that they would recommend it to their friends,” Sapan said. “I think we will increasingly use those techniques so the cable platform, in this instance, was really our ally, and using on demand as a place in which we kicked up the fertility of the interest in advance of the premiere.”


Some network executives, though, expressed concern that the proliferation of time-shifted viewing will eventually lead to an erosion of premiere ratings for series, which advertisers still weight heavily.

That’s why networks want to make sure that all of those eyeballs are counted, which makes Nielsen’s C3 (viewing three days after the premiere of the debut) and live-plus-seven- day (viewing between the premiere and DVR viewing up to seven days later) metrics, as well as on-demand viewer measurement, among the most important issues facing the programmers going forward.

“I think the biggest issue continues to be measurement on these other platforms,” History’s Hoogstra said. “At some point, you’ll add all of that viewing up. I don’t think there’s any lack of people finding shows or watching TV — the industry has be able to measure it all and to continue to be successful businesses.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.