Golden Age of TV Fights to Stay Golden

We spoke an awful lot about Netflix last year—how much people love its originals, and how it finally rivalled, and perhaps has dethroned, HBO as the preeminent awards magnet. While its ratings/viewership numbers remain a mystery to anyone except Netflix brass, we’ll talk an awful lot about the streaming pioneer again in 2016. Speaking to investors late in 2015, chief content officer Ted Sarandos said Netflix will produce 31 scripted shows in 2016—almost double that of 2015. Sprinkle in 10 new feature films, a dozen documentaries and the usual assortment of stand-up specials, and Netflix is even more of a monster.

One could make the case that eyeballs on Netflix come at the expense of HBO, and the premium cable net is one to watch. Game of Thrones continues to pull off the challenge of being critically and commercially adored, but after issuing a final season renewal for The Leftovers, the cupboard is a bit bare. “There’s not a ton of inventory left there,” said Alan Sepinwall, TV critic at HitFix.

But new deals with iconoclasts Bill Simmons and Jon Stewart bring new buzz. ESPN ex-pat Simmons debuts a show this year, while former Daily Show host Stewart’s four-year deal involves short-form digital and a first-look option for film and TV. Stewart possesses one of the sharpest minds in TV; many are curious to see what’s been bouncing around in there for the past five months.

Too Much TV!?!

The quote of 2015 came out of the Television Critics Press Tour in August, when John Landgraf, FX Network president/CEO, said what many are thinking but were afraid to say—this golden age of television, with so damn many compelling original scripted shows on so damn many networks, is simply unsustainable. “My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America,” he said, “and that we’ll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond.”

Will 2016 be when the contraction begins? Not likely. Network chiefs, witnessing how Showtime and Netflix and Landgraf’s own FX, among others, have built their identities on offbeat originals, will stay the course. In the increasingly unbundled channel landscape, the pressure to have a show that people can’t do without—Game of Thrones, Fargo, Narcos—is even greater.

Just as Netflix is increasing its originals output, so too are direct competitors Amazon and Hulu. While early winter is traditionally a wasteland once the midseason finales roll, the streamers have been loading up on premieres, such as Transparent on Amazon Dec. 11 and docuseries Chelsea Does Jan. 23 on Netflix. “It makes sense—people are not coming to the linear platform then,” said Alisa Perren, associate professor of radio-TV-film at the University of Texas-Austin.

Notably, Hulu is beefing up its one hour dramas, including Jason Katims’ The Path and an adaptation of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, both scheduled for early 2016.

Not Very Big Bang

Broadcast TV continues to be left out of the golden-age discussion. Empire started its impressive ratings reign coming out of the midseason in early 2015, but nothing in the early ’16 free-TV bunch seems ready to bust. The nets will continue to play up event TV with live specials, such as Fox’s Grease: Live Jan. 31 and The Passion March 20.

“There’s such great television out there,” noted one frustrated broadcast vet. “You have to be really loud to break through.”

Tried and true works best on broadcast. Supergirl, a bold, outside-the-brand swing by CBS, had a hot start before falling to earth. Yet Chicago Med, the latest procedural from Dick Wolf, got a back-five order from NBC last month after averaging 8.9 million viewers.

“I’m not exactly sure what the networks will do to stay afloat,” said industry legend Fred Silverman, who oversaw programming at each of the original Big Three networks during the 1970s. “Programming costs are so high but the ad rates are not following.”

Still Funny After All These Years

Then again, creative comedies, such as ABC’s Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat and CBS’ Big Bang Theory show that broadcast still has that formula down.

Other dramas will spice up the year. Silverman, for one, thinks this is the year a broadcast net gives Saturday nights back to affiliates. Will CBS get another year, or more, of Thursday Night Football? Has Apple figured out the right recipe for Apple TV this time around? Will Nielsen’s Total Audience Measurement do what it claims? Will Bojack Horseman finally find happiness and inner peace?

Indeed, it all comes back to Netflix.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.