As More Networks Develop Series, Is There Too Much TV?
Kevin Spacey | Photo Credits: Netflix
TV viewers have never had it so good — or maybe they have it too good. There's never been more original programming to navigate than at this very moment. Take Sunday nights: Even with the NFL season over, viewing options include The Good Wife (CBS), The Walking Dead (back Feb. 10 on AMC), Girls (HBO), Shameless (Showtime), Downton Abbey (PBS), Family Guy (Fox), Revenge (ABC) and Kourtney and Kim Take Miami (E!). And that's just in one timeslot: 9/8c.
That's a lot of DVR space being filled up week in and week out with must-see shows. "There's definitely more programming that I'm interested in watching than I can actually consume," says Showtime Entertainment president David Nevins.
According to FX Networks president John Landgraf, there were just 35 scripted shows on cable when The Shield premiered 11 years ago; now that number is up to 143. And it's only going to get more crowded, as additional networks get into the scripted series game. Discovery, Bravo, E! and Sundance Channel all have dramatic programming in the works, while A&E has unveiled ambitious plans to drop all acquisitions and run a 100 percent original primetime lineup.
Digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are also debuting their own series, starting with Netflix's House of Cards, which premieres Feb. 1. "I think we're at the saturation point," Landgraf says.
The plethora of programming is also dramatically changing how viewers watch TV (via DVR, on demand and online viewing). In the 1971 TV Guide Magazine article "Why You Watch What You Watch When You Watch," NBC executive Paul Klein introduced the concept of "least objectionable program." He theorized that viewers actually found few programs truly satisfying; instead, audiences flipping around the dial settled for whatever they found least offensively bad.
Today, that concept is mostly obsolete. When a night like Sunday boasts close to a dozen high-quality and/or top-rated options, viewers have to choose which shows to watch live and which ones to time-shift. Viewers might also wait to binge later when entire series become available on DVD or Netflix.
"What will happen is you'll have so much scripted programming that it will make for an even bigger catch-up situation online or on DVR," says The CW president Mark Pedowitz. "It will further accelerate viewer habits changing."
Kevin Williamson, executive producer of The Vampire Diaries and The Following, says he has no problem with viewers watching his shows in this way. "I binge," he says. "Two nights ago I finally caught up on Go On. I had never seen it and now I've seen eight episodes in a row."
In a recent sketch teasing the age of the "spoiler alert," the IFC comedy Portlandia spoofed the idea that we're all watching too much TV — but not at the same time — so any discussion might reveal too many plot points and spoil it for someone else. (Watch the clip here.)
"At the risk of sounding like I'm ready for an AARP membership, there was a time not long ago when you could talk about a TV show after it aired, safe in the knowledge that those who didn't see the latest episode had few options for catching up in a different way," Tampa Bay Times media columnist Eric Deggans recently wrote. "But in a world filled with digital video recorders, online streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix, DVD releases and on-demand cable options, people can howl 'spoiler alert' when you try talking about a show that aired last year."