It’s nine in the evening, sometime during this endless post-lockdown liminal period, and I’m curled up on the sofa, clicking listlessly through streaming menus in search of my sedative of choice—dark teen dramas—when my vision starts to blur. It’s a blurry vision. Sara was killed by who? the new high school murder show I’ve been meaning to watch? Or It’s a cruel summer? Wilds? One of us is lying? The screen dances. My overwhelmed eyes must be closed.
The condition is not entirely new, and though it only seems to flare up when I’m watching television, it has worsened over time. This is worrying because I’m a TV critic. The double vision presented in the early 2019 form of two documentaries on Netflix and Hulu. They were about the terrible Fyre Festival. Since then I’ve blinked through dueling originals on fashion design, Wu-Tang Clan, 9/11. Some are news-driven, like the Britney Spears Docs. Others are seasonal.Baking is impossible, Bake Squad, Baker’s Dozen, Make it at Home), some the repetition of a microgenre (rich people at a resort in HBO’s The White Lotus, rich people at a resort in Hulu’s lesser Nine Perfect Strangers).
I call this phenomenon—and the new era of television more broadly—peak redundancy. Every general-interest streaming service has a knockoff of every other platform’s breakout title or perennial favorite. But they aren’t just reverse-engineering one another’s hits; they’re also emulating one another’s ever expanding mix of content. Netflix spent many years hoarding original content to reach every possible audience. The other streaming services, which were able to offer scripted shows, are moving into the realm of reality, lifestyle, and sports. Each has at least one prestige murder mystery à la Big Little Lies, food shows, a trashy reality dating show (or five), creative competitions, newsy docs, teen dramas, children’s programs and true-crime fare. The mandate has grown from a simple strategy to appeal to cord cutters who are looking to replace entire cable channels to a comprehensive platform that can be used for all things.
It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. Star WarsYou can find more information here The Witcher, have proliferated on streaming services, it has contributed to my creeping sense that television is moving on from the merely overabundant era FX head John Landgraf dubbed “peak TV” in 2015. Although we may be overwhelmed with options for viewing, some of them are exceptional in quality. There are too many programs that seem interchangeable.
Influential people within and around the industry agree that we have reached a tipping point. Peak redundancy can only sustain itself for so long before streamers start bumping up against the limits of viewers’ free time and disposable income. The measures they’re taking to survive the inevitable contraction of the streaming landscape—from the race to acquire or create valuable IP to the competition to win over international audiences—have their promises and potential pitfalls. The future may be viewed by viewers that aren’t comfortable with 12 month subscriptions and all the sub-sidizing. And the upshot may be a TV landscape more navigable—for betterAnd worse—than the sagging status quo.
What is the secret to our success?
Television has seen a sea change since mid-aughts. This is true for viewers and producers alike. “It’s not like anybody ever thought Breaking BadWould become Breaking Bad,” says Mark Johnson, who won an Oscar for Rain Man two decades before working as an executive producer of the era-defining crime drama that yielded AMC’s excellent prequel Saul is betterAlso, a riveting Netflix film. El Camino. “If somebody had said in the first season that there would be a spin-off, or ‘You’ll make a movie someday,’ we would have thought they were crazy.” In many ways, the trajectory of Breaking Bad—an early beneficiary of the “Netflix bump,” or a spike in audience once a show hits the streamer—has mirrored that of the TV industry at large.
This story began sometime in between 2005’s launch of YouTube and 2007 when Netflix started offering streaming content. Netflix released its first series original, a Netflix adaptation of the BBC Political Drama in 2013. House of CardsThe two-year commitment signals that streaming is a viable market for creators. As Netflix’s CCO and, since last year, co-CEO Ted Sarandos famously said at the time, “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
While HBO and the other networks struggled to create robust streaming services, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu gathered a variety of high-profile programming. “You only need one signature show to become a player in the streaming space,” says Ava Greenfield, a TV literary agent at ICM Partners. Amazon emerged in 2014 thanks to TransparentHulu remained the same, however. The Handmaid’s Tale2017 As the competition intensified, with streamers vying for dominance globally, Netflix spent billions ramping up its originals across genres and languages. Many—myself included—found this frenzy inexplicable.
By 2019, it was all clear. “In the last couple years, a lot of different content owners, broadcasters, publishers, distributors and studios have consolidated their services,” streaming industry analyst Dan Rayburn explains. “You now have large companies in the market offering very different waysYou can find more information here consume their video content.” Studios like Warner Bros. and Disney entered the arena with decades’ worth of valuable IP in their vaults, from Game of Thrones to Star Wars. Competitors that didn’t have the archives, like Apple and Amazon, were among the richest corporations on earth. Netflix—still the only major player whose revenue comes almost entirely from streaming subscriptions—had to quickly build a library to survive, let alone maintain supremacy. Miquel Penella, President of Streaming Services at AMC Networks, whose stable of niche platforms includes the horror-focused Shudder and ALLBLK, which specializes in Black entertainment, says this competition was originally “driven by convenience.” But now that virtually every major studio has its own streaming service, convenience is “not a point of differentiation anymore.”
Is there a race for the fifth-best Netflix quality rating?
Streaming services need to be different in order to make it big in 2021. It is important that their content be appealing to users. This is where the everything-to-everyone strategy seems to fly in the face of what economists call product differentiation. Netflix is able to reach every customer worldwide, so why not be different? Do you want to be fifth best Netflix?
Granted, studios trying to eat each other’s lunches isn’t new. “There’s never been a time when a network didn’t succeed with some genre of show that didn’t then make every other network go: ‘Where’s my This right now?’,” says Katy McCaffrey, a co-head of the TV literary department at the talent agency Gersh. The 1990s ThisWas Friends. A generation later, Mad Men. A lot of this difference is due to the scale. The number of television shows that were scripted has risen from just a handful before cable to over 500 in the last decade. Recent growth was mainly due to streaming. A greater number of services equals more content. More overlap means that there is less.
To be honest, there have been some streaming companies that are successful in distinguishing their product. Netflix is now more than just HBO. Apple TV+ embraces the original HBO model, releasing limited, carefully curated series that feature big-name stars and have high production values. Disney+ is streaming’s family-entertainment monolith. Penella says that AMC Networks has opted to sit out the Netflix horse race because “there’s an opportunity for us to succeed by super-serving audiences.” Its Anglophile streaming service Acorn, for example, is a must for cozy-mystery fans thanks in large part to an unparalleled library of Agatha Christie adaptations. Though AMC Networks’ streaming presence remains relatively small—the company says it’s on track to reach 9 million subscribers across its platforms this year—its most recent quarterly report showed a 24% year-over-year revenue increase, attributable in part to streaming. But for many streamers, going niche isn’t on the table. Tanya Giles, ViacomCBS Streaming’s Chief Programming Officer, whose purview includes Paramount+ and the ad-supported free service Pluto TV, tells me via email, “We believe in order to be a global leader in streaming, you must be a total household product.”
While streamers are pursuing this strategy across many platforms, subscribers to multiple streaming services may be underwriting redundant programming. Despite all the hype and super heroes, streaming TV is a viable option in 2021. Netflix became the Emmys’ biggest streamer with prestige dramas, becoming the first to do so in September. The CrownAnd The Queen’s Gambit. Apple’s Ted Lasso and HBO Max’s HacksSplit the comedy category with SNL.
Many of these shows hit a rare sweet spot: they’re both critically acclaimed and attract relatively large audiences. But they don’t alleviate the fear many have that original content is declining in quality, especially as Netflix cancels exciting or groundbreaking shows like The OAOder Get GlowWhile creating the fun and flirty dating contest The Sexiest BeastsOder a sitcom such as Kominsky MethodThis might work on a broadcast channel. This January Black-ish creator Kenya Barris exited a lucrative Netflix deal because, he later explained, “Netflix became CBS.” (Confusingly, Barris is now at ViacomCBS.) But Netflix’s Global Head of TV, Bela Bajaria, says, “I think it’s an old-fashioned way of looking at it: ‘Are you premium or broadcast? Are you CBS? Are you HBO?’”
She also argues that a wide range of programming generates greater inclusion, which is why much of this year’s best TV feels like it couldn’t have been made at any other time. It Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins’ epic Amazon adaptation of the Colson Whitehead novel, is one of the 21st century’s greatest works of art to date. Even a decade ago, who would’ve footed the bill for it, which sometimes reportedly approached $1.5 million per day? Could HBO be of? The Sopranos era have aired Raoul Peck’s unapologetically intellectual docuseries on white supremacy, Eliminate All the Brutes?
“When you’re looking at disenfranchised voices, we need to make special efforts to lift up those stories,” says Gloria Calderón Kellett, the creator of a critically acclaimed Take it one day at a time A reboot that was focused on a Cuban American family. The show started at Netflix, and moved to ViacomCBS Cable channel Pop TV. Calderón Kellett correctly notes that reliance on audience data has been known to exacerbate racial bias.
Yet in many recent cases, titles on the bubble have become viable thanks to such detailed data—the existence of which has driven the misguided impression that human beings with individual artistic visions are being replaced by some sentient algorithm. In reality, says Walt Disney Television Chairman of Entertainment Dana Walden, who oversees original programming on Hulu, “what an algorithm can do very successfully is make sure, once a great show is executed, that it’s delivered to the right audience.” The next challenge, of course, is figuring out how to keep them tuned in.
Keep viewers glued with international hits and franchises
From the imposing neo-classical architecture of a futuristic imperial capital to the snowy, ice-blue vistas of a remote planet, Apple’s FoundationThis is the best TV series that has ever been made. “It was like shooting 10 interconnected movies, over six different countries,” creator David S. Goyer recalls. Shot at a cost per hour of runtime that Goyer has said exceeds that of some big features he’s made, the initial 10 episodes are only the beginning of a planned eight-season arc. “I want to plant a flag in cinematic ground,” he told Apple. “We’re going David Lean, we’re going John Huston, we’re going Terrence Malick.” The result is a TV epic that Goyer says could not have been made, much like Railroad, at any other moment in the medium’s history.
Major streamers have found it possible to fund such ambitious, expensive projects. After the massive success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, streaming execs like Amazon’s Jennifer Salke have acknowledged the importance of global megahits that can bring in the all-important new subscribers. “I firmly believe this is a hit-driven business,” says Salke. Amazon has teams devoted to developing “global tentpole shows,” like the long-awaited, reportedly $465 million first season of the Lord of the Rings series due next fall.
However, streamers do not only invest in certain items. Sera Gamble was the creator and the showrunner for the hugely popular psychological thriller. Please, which struggled to find an audience on Lifetime before exploding into an international phenomenon upon moving to Netflix, assures me that there are still “homes for shows that have bold people running them, who like to get up in the morning and take a big swing.”
While Netflix has taken its share of risks—beginning with Orange is the New Black, which starred mostly unknown actors of color—Squid Game, the Korean death-game series that is now its most-watched original show of all time, wasn’t one of them, at least domestically. Netflix’s team in Korea, one of around 45 countries in which the streamer produces content, “always knew this was going to be big,” says Bajaria, thanks to a creator with a high profile there. This was just the icing on a cake.
Netflix leads the way in internationalizing TV. The company’s latest quarterly report stated that there were 142,000,000 accounts having been sampled. Squid Game, with Shonda Rhimes’ BridgertonThe French crime drama LupinSecond and third. Most other streamers are, to varying extents, following Netflix’s lead. The often great results of this particular, less invasive and more collaborative form of Hollywood’s typical cultural imperialism, have also expanded the worldview of stateside audiences that might once have avoided subtitles. “Hollywood is still a dream factory,” Bajaria says. “And now what we’re hoping is, there’s a dream factory telling those stories in Mumbai, or Madrid, or Berlin, or Sao Paolo.”
For viewers and creators looking for escape from the infinite, there are many great scripted programs available. Fixer Upper clones and ’90s sitcom revivals that epitomize peak redundancy. The best TV, whatever the language, is distributed amongst a number of streaming services with their own subscription fees. It’s like cable, but more confusing and possibly more expensive.
Failure to produce a major new hit could lead to churn. This industry term refers to how viewers switch between platforms and cancel after running out of content. Rayburn is an analyst in the sector who says churn is more widespread than streams have admitted. This may explain why Disney+ plans to make more than 50 Marvel Star Wars and Pixar shows last year. Franchises don’t just help streamers tap into readymade fan communities; they can keep those communities plugged in indefinitely.
“Long-running franchises are a big part of our future,” says Penella of AMC, the brand behind The Walking Dead and its many spin-offs—which also greenlit a franchise based on Anne Rice’s vampire novels, from Breaking BadJohnson, producer. Paramount+ just bought the Roald Dahl story company; Netflix has now acquired it. Star TrekOnce a month, title
Still, the increasing prevalence of IP doesn’t necessarily mean that streaming is the place originality and specificity go to die. Kourtney Kang, the creator of Disney+ Doogie HowserReboot Doogie Kamealoha, M.D., says the franchise dressing allowed her to make an “oddly personal” family dramedy. “Had I gone in and pitched a show about my family in Hawaii, I think it would have been a much tougher sell,” she says. Eric Kripke, the creator of Amazon’s subversive superhero hit The Boys, notes that an upcoming spin-off originated with the producers, who weren’t ready to let go of the world they’d built. You can also read the rest of Underground RailroadYou can find more information here It Remaining foodSome of the most exciting TV shows of the last decade were based on this ancient type of IP: the novel.
How does the future look?
When Lena Waithe started out in TV, in the mid-aughts, opportunities to tell the kinds of stories she’s passionate about—specifically, ones that center Black and LGBTQ characters—were limited. Yet in an expanded TV universe where, Waithe notes, “there’s a new mandate that does not always center whiteness all the time,” the prolific writer, producer and actor is enjoying both the volume and variety of platforms this era offers. Her Showtime drama is a favorite of hers. She enjoys watching how viewers respond to each episode. ChiBET comedy and BET TV TwentiesShe also appreciates the freedom she enjoys. Master of None creator Aziz Ansari had, on Netflix, to create a poignant season about her supporting character Denise’s marriage.
Just about every creator I spoke with agrees with Waithe that “our business is in transition.” Calderón Kellett’s next project is Amazon’s In LoveA holiday romance that follows the story of a Latinx family, with many gender identities and orientations. While pitching it, she was delighted that “the more I would talk to [execs], the more they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what we need. We want it tomorrow.’”
“The TV landscape is so fertile,” says Johnson, who also helped to make two of the most uncompromising dramas of the 2010s: Stop and catch fireAnd Rectify. “And there’s so many shows that I look at and say, ‘I would like to have done that one.’” Is he more optimistic about the medium’s future now than he was when Breaking BadThis song was first performed in 2008. “Yes, absolutely.”
Even people with more marketable sensibilities such as Kripke find streaming a great alternative. It has shorter seasons and offers flexible formats. “Working in broadcast, I spent my time just trying to stay one step ahead of the ravenous production machine, throwing scripts at it so it wouldn’t eat me alive,” he says.
An atmosphere that’s welcoming to the widest possible range of creative voices is also, of course, good for the broadest possible cross-section of viewers. Not that we’ve reached peak representation. Many creators raised concerns about the lack of transgender characters on television, and how difficult it is still to find TV characters with disabilities. “I’m dying to see a period piece with Latinos in it,” says Calderón Kellett.
Producers are having trouble booking soundstages or hiring crews due to the increasing popularity of scripted series. The rush to produce content has created grueling conditions for some streaming platforms. Film workers were forced to strike because of this new unacceptable norm. The freedom that streaming offers creators is not unlimited. According to Waithe, “there’s always that battle between creative and executives. If you’ve got a roomful of writers, they could be with Netflix, HBO, NBC—they’re all gonna have their gripes.”
The long-term future of TV is shaping up to be a balance—if not a battle—between multinational corporations and singular artists, billion-dollar franchises and quirky pilots. But, happily, this period of unprecedented redundancy can’t last forever. Netflix is likely to continue being the most comprehensive company that offers everything for everyone. “I don’t think that any other company [will be] able to overtake Netflix in sheer number of subscribers or expertise to be able to dig into the data and make plans,” says Rahul Telang, the co-author, with his Carnegie Mellon colleague Michael D. Smith, of Big Data and Future Entertainment: Streaming, Sharing, Stealing.”
But, even as their platforms expand, other big streamers claim to have no interest in competing with Netflix’s volume. Disney’s Walden says Hulu is focused on highly curated originals; Salke says Amazon believes in “targeted content strategies that actually pay off.”
But, Netflix: fifth-best problem persists. The consumer will have to determine if the subscription fees they pay are worthwhile. Most of the experts predict that we’ll start to see more mergers like the one currently in process that aims to combine HBO Max with Discovery+. Giles, the ViacomCBS executive, suggests that we’ll mostly see consolidation among niche streamers. However, streamers could also move in the opposite direction, doubling their strengths. It is important to understand why wouldn’tApple TV+ is all about comedy, to maintain its position Ted Lasso audience?
It doesn’t matter how it turns out, the likely shrinking of streaming platforms does cause some creators to pause. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, five to 10 years from now, we’re effectively back to the big three or four networks,” says Goyer. “I’m a little worried about what that does to the creative world in the distant future.” Just look at the film industry, where decades of mergers and acquisitions have led to a few big studios that pour huge sums into mostly franchise-driven slates. For filmmakers such as Jane Campion or Steve James who prefer character-driven, grounded stories, television has become a haven.
This is what I love about television. It focuses on the humanity of the viewer, not just the plots or CG effects. Sure, plenty of IP-based series belong in the former category, but I’m concerned that brilliant, sui generisThese are some ideas Pen15And I could destroy youIt will disappear first. Marvel is The Walking Dead aren’t going anywhere; neither are all the inexpensive reality shows, even if the end of peak redundancy means fewer of them. As much as I like binging The CircleIn a semi-asleep stupor, I wouldn’t trade this for art that keeps my eyes open.
Yet, here I am again, trusting in my own fuzzy vision even though most people within the industry see a wider picture. “I take great comfort in seeing that, at the very heart of it, people are telling stories they really have an urgency to tell—and audiences are getting excited about them,” says Gamble. Gamble also said that she finds it most encouraging that new voices are being included in the conversation. “Isn’t that the only thing that’s gonna keep us from being bored to f-cking death?”
—With reporting by Mariah Espada