Could there be such a thing as ‘too much good TV’?

US network executives say the industry is approaching ‘peak TV’ and have the stats to prove it

Keri Russell (left) and Matthew Rhys star as Soviet spies in FX Networks show ‘The Americans’.

Keri Russell (left) and Matthew Rhys star as Soviet spies in FX Networks show ‘The Americans’.

 

The idea that there is “too much TV” will seem like heresy to anyone who grew up in an era when the amount of available TV was so finite it was possible to form a meaningful attachment to the test card girl.

It still seems like a strange notion in a country where you only need one hand to count the number of home-produced dramas in any given year. But lately the suggestion that there is a counter-productive volume of television being made is gaining traction in the US.

This is a market where the television industry is so flush it can afford to make 200 pilot shows each season and cast aside more than half of them before they make it to air. The ones that do get picked up compete with those that avoided the chopping block, forming a double-pronged glut of new crushes and old favourites. Throw in the shows that arrive on-demand by the series rather than by the episode, and it’s television overload.

According to figures from FX Networks, so far in 2015 US viewers have been presented with 267 new and returning scripted television programmes (excluding children’s and non-English language shows). FX predicts the final total for this year will easily exceed 2014’s tally of 371, which was itself a record.

The numbers prompted chief executive John Landgraf to posit that either 2015 or 2016 will “represent peak TV in America”, and that the volume of scripted television will then go into merciful decline.

Showtime president David Nevins has since echoed Landgraf’s remarks by conceding “there may be too much good TV” – though he smoothly added there was “never enough great TV . . . and we’re trying hard to make great TV”.

Showtime, for the record, is the maker of Homeland (highs and lows), The Affair (started out well), Billions (starts January), Penny Dreadful (not seen it, filmed in Ireland) and Masters of Sex (not seen it, feel like I should have done).

And FX Networks is the network behind Louie (no), American Horror Story (no), Fargo (sorry), The Strain (never heard of it until just now) and 1980s-set Soviet spy show The Americans (yes – may it run until the last vestiges of the cold war’s dramatic possibility have been wrung dry).

Too many kings

About a decade ago, Ardal O’Hanlon had a bit in his stand-up set about how overwhelmed he was by the number of “must-see” films critics insisted were out there. “There are hundreds of must-see films on, and I haven’t seen any of them. And apparently I must see them,” he fretted, Fr Dougal-style terror in his eyes. It was all bad news for his must-see wife and must-see kids.

For viewers, the “too much TV” phenomenon has two consequences. We have to work harder to choose the programmes we watch and the services we buy. And we have to live with a permanent cultural FOMO (fear of missing out) , knowing that there are not enough hours to consume all this joy-inspiring, soul-enriching art (and trash). We know we can’t commit.

None of this could exactly be termed a “problem”. It just takes some adjusting to. When I feel a catch-up binge is more about ticking something off a “to watch” list than indulging in craved-for drama and comedy, I start to think that maybe I’m doing it wrong. The shows we do watch are, like the books we read, reflections of our personal tastes, and now those tastes are more likely to be satiated. That’s excellent news. I never have to watch gangsters argue again.

Recently, I was in Tesco buying a bottle of wine and a tub of chocolate ice-cream. “Orange is the New Black?” inquired the young man at the checkout. “Um, no. The Good Wife,” I laughed, feeling like a cliche. “I was close,” he said accurately, then he added, again accurately, “if it was Game of Thrones, you’d need gin.”

The way 2015 is going for the US industry, the makers of some “good” TV, even some “great” TV, are going to be crying into their gin come Christmas. Because if it’s true that supply is exceeding demand, the business is only going to get more cut-throat.

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