I was at dinner recently with executives at FX and in the course of talking about All Things Television, which is what we do, they told me that for their upcoming TCA appearance they had been busy exhaustively compiling some stats to illustrate just how competitive the landscape was.
They weren't kidding.
In a packet containing some really intriguing, thoroughly ambitious research, two numbers really leapt out:
There are 1,715 series (not movies) in primetime. Primetime only goes from 8 to 11 p.m.
Please pause to soak that in.
Worse, for me, because the vast bulk of what I do is review and write trend pieces about scripted television, where the good stuff lives: There are 352 scripted series on primetime/late-night TV.
Of those, 199 are on cable, 129 on broadcast and 24 are OTT ("over the top" — Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu). Oh, I'm sorry, I just crumbled to the ground. Where were we?
And in television, as opposed to movies, there is no two-hour cap to the storyline. I like to say that television is a living, breathing, ongoing story. One episode rolls into the next, one season into another.
But let's focus here: Although there's some variation, in general there are 22 episodes per season for a network series and roughly 13 for a cable series. You'll find the odd six or eight episode season and more "limited" series are popping up. But that is no tonic when the overall total of series in play is 352. For viewers, much less critics, the hours involved in following these shows melt clocks.
The total amount of television is — what's the word I'm looking for? — insane.
What's relevant here — other than I clearly need a raise — is that while we're marinating in All Things Television at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, the stark reality of how any one show can stand out and survive, much less thrive, in this current environment is really Issue No. 1 in the industry.
We all talk so often about this being the next golden age of television, a renaissance of quality that we're almost a decade or more into by now. And that's true. What a great time to be making and watching television!
But the problem is evident: If people have 1,715 choices, then they have too many choices. They are overwhelmed. (And yes, I did appreciate the remarks from John Landgraf, CEO of FX and FX Productions, who said this: "So in this crazy environment, I believe critics play an even more important role. With so much new content, consumers are more dependent than ever for key tastemakers and curators and reviewers and bloggers to guide them to the shows that are worth their limited attention. Word of mouth is important, but many times word of mouth starts with an independent third-party seal of approval.")
Beyond the compliment, what Landgraf is getting at is the core issue of survival, of industry feasibility, of the staggering difficulty content providers face in simply getting their content seen.
If you're a series creator in 2015, you're living in amazing times. But you're working in the end times.
Getting your work produced is an achievement, getting it seen is a nightmare. Keeping people interested enough to watch it every week is — what? Impossible? I do not envy content creators or providers these days, whether it's ABC or Amazon Studios. But in a perverse way it's a fascinating time to be documenting the business. I know this is a topic I'll be writing about regularly, because there are so many ideas floating out there about how to swim against this tide or at least stay afloat. Everybody has a strategy — or at least some wishful thinking.
Among the key issues is the obvious — getting noticed. People need to know a show is coming. There has to be some buzz, a tiny bit of name recognition that comes by any means necessary. Then people need to remember when it's on, record it if necessary (overnight ratings are now essentially useless — it's not the era we're living in), then remember to watch it within seven but preferably three days.
And then repeat the exercise the next week — where audience drop-off is historically in the 15 percent range but is often much, much steeper.
Then watch again in the third week and so on.
Keeping an audience is beyond a struggle. The forces pulling at them, from the distraction of life to other shows to boredom at the original show's continuing storyline, are killer.
What currently fascinates me to no end is the idea of series loyalty between seasons. I mean, look at those scripted numbers. It's a tide that will continue to rise at least in the short term if everything we've seen and heard at TCA is any indication. Now, imagine the show that ends its season, goes dark and then waits a year to come back on the air.
What can happen to the fan base in the meantime is, well, horrifying to all creators and executives in television. At last summer's TCA press tour, I talked to Herb Scannell of BBC America/BBC Worldwide and he had a notion that makes a lot of sense: Series need to continue to connect with their audiences while out of season. Two BBC America series that do that extremely well — and it's indicative of a possibly more fan-obsessed sci-fi genre — are Doctor Who and Orphan Black.
Scannell likened it to successful sports leagues (and teams) that can generate news year-round — the Hot Stove League theory of television.
I think Scannell is absolutely right about this. Sports fans follow off-season news with religious fervor, partly driven by which players are coming and going on fans' favorite teams and partly from the obsession of fantasy sports.
If cable, network and OTT content providers can find a way to harness year-round passion for a show (or the stars of that show, etc.), then it stands to reason they will have better results the next season.
And better results are what keep you alive. Being remembered, having loyalty — that's how you rise above the monumental number of competitors.
Something innovative needs to happen. Something beyond standard promotions. Because I want all the great shows that are hidden in that 352 number to survive. I want the next Mad Men or Fargo to have a fighting chance at not only getting seen, but thriving enough to create more seasons. When faced with the almost incomprehensible fact that there are 1,715 primetime series, you can either fold up your tent and get into another business, or you can start thinking about how to stand out.