The Labor Pains Of Peak TV

Everyone wins,at least at first blush, in this era of peak television. The consumer, foremost, benefits from the seemingly endless amount of choice available. Television itself benefits from its elevated esteem, able to attract the best and brightest auteur types with their passion projects. And the worker bees who bring these many, many scripted shows to life—the writers, the casting directors, the performers—have never had so many work options available.

Yet as pilot season gives way to the up-fronts, that last piece of the win-win equation is presenting considerable agita for studios and networks. With such a vast array of networks cranking out original programming, it raises the question: Are there enough capable bodies, from A-list stars to hourly grunts, to staff the shows?

One TV vet deems it a “high-class problem.” But it’s a problem nonetheless. “I can’t imagine anyone is having any fun trying to staff so much scripted original content,” says Garth Ancier, who in a quainter era ran entertainment at Fox, NBC and The WB. “If you’re a good writer with a ‘voice,’ I would imagine your options would be fairly limitless right now.”

Some Real Gold, Plenty of Fool’s Gold

All this talk of so, so many scripted shows finally got a number late last year, when FX conducted an exhaustive study that found a record 409 scripted programs on the air in 2015, nearly doubling the total from six years before. Weeks later, FX admitted it missed a few, and updated the number to 412. After cable networks such as FX showed that bold original shows go an awful long way toward establishing a brand and winning carriage cash from multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), the subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) players built their own ambitious originals slates.

Major streaming services, including Netflix and Amazon, produced 44 scripted shows last year—triple the number from three years before. Netflix is spending $5 billion on a P&L basis ($6 billion in cash) on programming in 2016, a stratospheric number the streaming platform zealously defended last week on its quarterly earnings call. A report from RBC Capital Markets pegged Amazon’s content spending at $1.7 billion and Hulu’s at $1.5 billion. Broadcast and cable networks have heavied up in response, throwing many more billions on the table in search of their next Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.

Every programmer—broadcast, cable, streaming—is more focused on year-round programming, and that brings us to 412 and beyond. New York City tallied $8.7 billion in production spending in 2015, a TV-fueled 21% rise from 2011. Last week, the nonprofit FilmLA Inc. reported total shoot days in L.A. hit an all-time high of 9,703 in the first quarter of 2016, up 11% from a year earlier, again largely thanks to the TV boom.

And so, good luck finding a great line producer, or production coordinator, or story editor. “Everybody who makes scripted television these days is experiencing a shortage of top-tier talent,” says one network programming chief. “You’re relying on more and more up-and-coming talent.”

The crisis is not restricted to the creative side of the business. With pilot season reaching a frenzied level of activity this spring, show chiefs cited a dearth of construction workers on one Atlanta production, and a Vancouver shoot was held up for lack of a truck driver. “You have to cater to the craft services people to get them,” says one industry vet. “No pun intended.”

Multitasking Mavens

One byproduct of the massive expansion of original programming is the rise of, or at least return of, the uber-producer. While Norman Lear and Stephen J. Cannell routinely juggled a half dozen series in the broadcast-only era, there’s been a resurgence of the practice with the likes of Shonda Rhimes (ABC’s TGIT block), Greg Berlanti (Supergirl, The Flash, etc.) and Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel, Colony, etc.) calling the high level shots on many series at once. (Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order and Chicago Fire/P.D./M.D. franchises, bridges the past era of mega-producers with the present one.)

At the TCA press tour in January, John Landgraf, FX Networks CEO, spoke of mega-producer Noah Hawley’s workload. “He created and has been running one show (Fargo) for us, and now he’s creating and about to start running a second show (Legion) for us, and he has three or four other projects in active development,” says Landgraf, who acknowledged that such a haul “does change the timing” for the multitasking producer—and the network.

It means a number of No. 2s in the program pecking order suddenly getting the keys to the kingdom—some who are ready and able, and some who could probably use a few more years of writers room seasoning. Said one prominent L.A. talent agent: “There’s a difference in how you write a show and how you run a show. Some can do it, but running a television show is a very, very hard job.”

The pressure to make good on a massive series investment from the network is monumental. When HBO’s highly touted, and mightily marketed, Vinyl did not capture viewers’ hearts and minds, cocreator Terence Winter, who boasts one of the best pedigrees in the business (HBO’s own The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire), was let go before season 2 began production. One can only imagine the stress on a showrunner with a lesser track record.

Place Your Bets

The glut of TV series posts to fill is changing the way show business is conducted. One veteran producer mentions booking stage space without knowing for sure it will be needed—but believing it’s a safer bet than being ready to shoot, and finding all studios booked except for the leaky warehouse by the highway. “You put it on hold and roll the dice that you’ll have a show in that city,” says Justin Falvey, copresident at Amblin Television.

Studios are also placing bigger, or at least earlier, bets on creative talent. Patrick Moran, executive VP of ABC Studios, mentions a “strategic shift” in aggressively going after overall deals with A-list producers. “If we identify a great piece of talent, we’ll lock them in exclusively earlier in their career,” he says. “Great talent is in short supply—if you identify someone who’s exceptional, who’s a great fit here, you hope to lock up their services.”

And while developing writing and producing talent from within has always been the ideal model for studios and networks, such a practice is at a premium amidst what Landgraf referred to in January as the “Moneyball” era of television economics. At AMC, former Breaking Bad writer Sam Catlin got the showrunner spot on Preacher, the comic book fantasy that debuts May 22. Corinne Brinkerhoff, who toiled on The Good Wife and CW’s Jane the Virgin, is creating CBS summer series American Gothic. “You look at your writers and ask, are these the showrunners of tomorrow?” says one network chief.

All Over the Map

The increasing amount of productions happening outside of Los Angeles, fueled by states’ enticing tax rebates, has alleviated some of the strain on Hollywood’s TV types. New Fox drama Houdini & Doyle represents a somewhat unique coproduction between the U.K. and Canada. The show is shot in Manchester, England and Toronto. The writers room is in Los Angeles, but the writers are either British or Canadian. Atlanta, for its part, proudly counts The Walking Dead and CW virus drama Containment, among other series, as its own, while Richmond is happy host to AMC’s Turn.

But even the less traditional TV production markets are becoming logistically sticky. “If you’re one of the later shows in, you suffer,” says Darryl Frank, copresident of Amblin Television. “When you run through your budget, you ask, how many shows are already in that city? It’s become a real part of the conversation.”

The challenges are mounting; producers speak of assembling a wish list of five actors for a key role and finding that each one is booked. Actors with offer-only deals when a few years back they’d read for it, like everyone else, and A-list talent dictating season lengths. Arranging a marriage between a talented but green exec producer and a warhorse EP—and hoping they can make it work. Settling for B-list talent above and below the line, and hoping they bring their A-game to the pilot—and beyond.

To be sure, not everyone is feeling the labor pinch. TV producers who came up as indie filmmakers, along the lines of Edward Burns and Steven Soderbergh, keep staffs lean by wearing multiple hats on set. Networks with reputations for being light on notes while having a relatively high batting average—FX and Netflix and AMC, among others, come to mind—continue to draw top talent by virtue of their reputations. For some networks, offering broadcast-length seasons helps secure commitments in a world where 10 episodes is becoming commonplace. “It is more challenging now, but I find we have a benefit because we have 26 episodes,” says Mindy Kaling, creator and star of Hulu’s The Mindy Project. “I think it’s appealing to people [to have] so much continuous work in one place.”

Brett Weitz, executive VP of original programming at TBS, says the creator types who learned to write, shoot, direct and produce in the digital world expand the TV talent pool, and assimilate quickly to cable TV comedy. “There’s a wealth of talent out there that wants to work,” he says. “We haven’t been in a position where there’s no one available.”

If there’s one thing we know about peaks, it’s that they don’t stay peaks forever. If the laws of gravity are to be believed, the escalating number of original scripted productions has to at some point level off, and perhaps even decrease.

But it won’t likely be in time for the next pilot season. “We all know who is capable of executing at a very high level,” says ABC Studios’ Moran. “And those folks are in short supply.”

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.