Have we found ourselves at the beginning of the end of the “Peak TV” era? Last year, such a question was unthinkable. In 2016 alone, Netflix spent an estimated $6bn on 123 original shows. But this past June, the streaming juggernaut suddenly and shockingly took a hatchet to some of its most high-profile titles. First to bite the dust was Baz Luhrmann’s hip-hop fantasia The Get Down. Notorious for its exorbitant budget – a rumoured $12m per episode – rather than its stylistic bravado, The Get Down was put to rest after a (two-part) single season. The Wachowskis’ epic Sense8, with its vast sprawling cast, multitude of locations, unbridled sexuality and challenging storylines, made it to a second season but, despite a small but voluble following, was unceremoniously taken off life support (two-hour finale not withstanding).
The very weekend the platform unveiled one of its most engaging shows, the 1980s-based female wrestling comedy, Glow, it slaughtered another sitcom, the aggressively unfunny, Charlize Theron-produced Girlboss after 13 episodes. Even Sophia Amoruso, the feisty businesswoman whose Nasty Gal line inspired Girlboss, shed few tears over the demise of the show. But The Get Down and Sense8 were big, ambitious efforts conceived by visionary directors. Does their sudden death mark a tipping point in the endless accumulation of streaming content?
“There is simply too much television,” John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks (Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Atlanta, Louie, The Americans and Legion) told a TV critics conference back in 2015. The audience “is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of TV shows”.
Indeed, the density of television content available on terrestrial, streaming platforms and online sources is now endless and overwhelming. But we’re no longer marooned in the 90s when Bruce Springsteen bemoaned there were 57 channels and nothing on. If anything, this period of Peak TV is more like the 70s’ much-vaunted golden age of auteur cinema (lovingly chronicled by Peter Biskind in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) when Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola rewrote the rules, enjoying their creative freedom and using it to enrich the medium and make it more satisfying and unpredictable than at any other time in history.
Never mind the quantity: since the first “golden era” of TV in the 90s, the actual content of TV has radically improved over time. In part this is due to the “HBO effect” – the channel’s greatest hits: The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm – won awards, bathed in critical acclaim, dominated pop culture and provided a template for other channels to imitate. Its slogan from October 1996 (“It’s not TV. It’s HBO”) became the era’s mantra.
The first channel to follow in its wake was AMC. “When I was hired, I said to the head of the company, there is no reason for me to stay here unless we’re going to be ‘the HBO of the cable world,’” says its former executive Christina Wayne. “He looked at me like I was insane and said: ‘Yeah right, good luck, sister.’ And then within a year, we were the HBO of the cable world.”
The channel went from showing blockbuster films such as Die Hard and Top Gun to making original content, when Wayne green-lit a script previously passed on by HBO, entitled Mad Men. In 2008, a year after Mad Men had won armfuls of awards, inspired TV critics to pen worshipful theses and made the early 1960s the epicentre of aspirational cool, Wayne launched her next show, Breaking Bad. “We always said we were making one-hour movies every week and hiring people who knew how to do that: the cinematographers, the directors, the writers. We weren’t interested in working with people who came from broadcast TV because they had really fixed ideas of what a TV show should look like and feel like.”
What Wayne achieved at AMC had the effect of demystifying HBO. Her shows scaled critical and popular heights and made the once-fanciful notion of “becoming like HBO” attainable, something that was taken on board by a future TV giant.
“The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us,” said Netflix’s chief of content Ted Sarandos in January 2013. His first method of achieving that goal, the worldwide launch of House of Cards, made two statements. One: that it was prepared to outspend its competitors. Two: by premiering every episode of a season on the day of release, it was actively attempting to change the way audiences watched TV.
Cut to 2017, post a cull of cancelled shows, and has their bubble burst? Wayne cautiously notes that “you have to have enormously deep pockets and have the ability to withstand spending for a very long time before any profit comes in. Netflix are way outspending what their profit is now.”
What has also changed is that shows that would have previously been cancelled are now sticking around. The critical praise lavished on past classics such as Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life and Firefly were unable to save them from premature cancellation. Now, however, shows such as HBO’s transcendent, surrealistic meditation on faith and loss, The Leftovers, and AMC’s dawn-of-the-computer-age drama, Halt and Catch Fire (which, as recently as five years ago, would have been terminated because the only people who watched them were the people paid to write about them), have survived for that exact reason.
“It’s strange these days that a show I love gets cancelled before the people responsible are ready to end it,” says Alan Sepinwall, author of The Revolution Was Televised and a TV “influencer”. “If it gets any buzz, it’s to the network’s advantage to keep it around,” he says. “Halt and Catch Fire is by far the lowest-rated scripted show that AMC’s ever renewed. It’s going to run four seasons. There’s so much content out there that people are pleading with me: be my gatekeeper, be my tastemaker, help me find new stuff; and, as a result, it does feel like I have a bit more influence than I used to. If I turn against a show, it’s not going to kill it, but if enough writers throw their weight behind a Leftovers, maybe it gets to stick around long enough for the story to play out.”
If the number of shows on offer has burst the TV bubble, it’s a situation that is unlikely to change any time soon. The potential rewards make the huge financial outlay worthwhile. Hulu spent six years pumping out original programming to a largely disinterested audience until it released The Handmaid’s Tale. Suddenly, it was a platform with an award-worthy show that was being widely and passionately discussed and debated; a series generating enough frenzied attention that it was forcing viewers to shell out for a Hulu subscription simply for fear of missing out. Finding a show capable of eliciting that kind of reaction is why these giants will continue to flood the market. And that is a good thing for the discerning viewing audience. “We’ve been calling this the golden age of television for at least five years and I don’t see it ending unless the internet crashes for good,” is Christina Wayne’s conclusion.
The days of a show connecting with an entire country, such as M*A*S*H did in the US when its 1983 finale pulled in 105 million viewers, are over. There’s a rosy glow of nostalgia connected to the image of the family congregated around the TV in the living room, all enjoying the same show.
But that’s not where we are any more. The Peak TV era is for small, obsessed communities of viewers, perpetually thirsting for shows that feel strange, uncomfortable and original, just like movies felt in the 70s, during the time of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “Oh my God!” exclaims Wayne when I make the comparison. “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls! I wanted to make that into a series. I tried to make it at AMC. I couldn’t get it off the ground. Hulu just bought it … ”