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. Is Who Killed Sara? the new high school murder show I’ve been meaning to watch? Or Cruel Summer? The Wilds? One of Us Is Lying? The screen swims. I have to shut my overwhelmed eyes.
The condition is not entirely new, and though it only seems to flare up when I’m watching television, it has worsened over time. Which is concerning, because I am a TV critic. It presented, in early 2019, in the form of double vision: two documentaries, from Netflix and Hulu, about the disastrous Fyre Festival. Since then I’ve blinked through dueling originals on fashion design, Wu-Tang Clan, 9/11. Some of them are news-driven (proliferating Britney Spears docs), some seasonal (Baking Impossible, Bake Squad, Baker’s Dozen, Baking It), 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 has spent years stockpiling originals to serve every conceivable audience. Now, other services that led with scripted series are dipping toes into reality and lifestyle, standup, sports and more. 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. What might have begun as a strategy to court cord cutters looking to replace a whole suite of cable channels has escalated into a mandate to be everything to everyone.
It’s exhausting. And now that franchises and other intellectual property (IP), from Star Wars to 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. We may still be deluged with viewing options, many of exceptional quality. But we also have too many shows that feel interchangeable.
Now the consensus among influential people in and around the industry is that we are reaching 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. For viewers allergic to both the thought of 12 monthly subscription fees and the schlock some of that money is subsidizing, a picture of the future is coming into view. And the upshot may be a TV landscape more navigable—for better and worse—than the sagging status quo.
How did we get here?
It would be hard to overstate the sea change that has taken place in TV since the mid-aughts, for both creators and consumers. “It’s not like anybody ever thought Breaking Bad would 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 Better Call Saul and a gripping 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.
That story begins sometime between the launch of YouTube in 2005, and 2007, when Netflix began offering licensed streaming titles. In 2013, Netflix launched its first high-profile original series, an adaptation of the BBC political drama House of Cards, with a two-season commitment signaling that streaming could be a serious 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.”
So, as HBO and other networks scrambled to develop robust streaming platforms, Netflix and its competitors Amazon Prime Video and Hulu built up slates of prestige 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 broke out in 2014 with Transparent, while Hulu leveled up with The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017. 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.
It all made sense by 2019. “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 ways to 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.”
What does the race to become the fifth-best Netflix mean for quality?
To make it in 2021 and beyond, streaming services must distinguish themselves in different ways. Most important is, of course, the desirability of their content. This is where the everything-to-everyone strategy seems to fly in the face of what economists call product differentiation. If Netflix has an edge on reaching every kind of customer in the world, why not do something different? Who wants to be the 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. In the 1990s, this was Friends. A generation later, Mad Men. Part of the difference, now, comes down to scale. The number of scripted TV shows alone has ballooned from several dozen before cable to around 500 since the late 2010s, with recent growth primarily driven by streaming. More services means more content, and more content means more overlap.
To be fair, some streamers have successfully differentiated their products. Now that Netflix has become not just HBO, but essentially a full cable package unto itself, Apple TV+ has embraced the original HBO model: releasing a relatively small, highly curated selection of series with big names and 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.”
With so many streamers pursuing this generalist strategy, viewers who subscribe to multiple services are underwriting a lot of redundant programming. Yet for all the real estate and superhero fluff, streaming TV in 2021 is no wasteland. Netflix made history in September as the first streamer to become the biggest winner at the Emmys with the prestige dramas The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit. Apple’s Ted Lasso and HBO Max’s Hacks split the comedy categories 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 OA or Glow while producing the gimmicky dating contest Sexy Beasts or a sitcom like The Kominsky Method that might fit in on a broadcast network. In 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. The 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? Would the HBO of The Sopranos era have aired Raoul Peck’s unapologetically intellectual docuseries on white supremacy, Exterminate 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 One Day at a Time reboot that centered on a Cuban-American family and began at Netflix before moving 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.
Keeping viewers subscribed with global 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 Foundation is one of the most visually stunning TV series ever 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.
Such ambitious and expensive projects have become not only possible, but necessary for major streamers. 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.
Not that streamers are only investing in sure things. Sera Gamble, the co-creator and showrunner of the massively popular psychological thriller You, 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. The global success was icing on the cake.
Netflix is ahead of the curve in the internationalization of TV. Its most recent quarterly report claimed that 142 million accounts had sampled Squid Game, with Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton and the French crime drama Lupin in second 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.”
A smorgasbord of great scripted shows from every corner of the Earth is exciting news for both creators and viewers looking to escape the endless Fixer Upper clones and ’90s sitcom revivals that epitomize peak redundancy. But whatever its language, the best TV is now spread out among a dozen or so streaming services, each with its own subscription fee. It’s like cable, but more confusing and possibly more expensive.
Failing to deliver a big new hit can result in churn, an industry term that refers to the way viewers keep switching up their mix of platforms, canceling after they run out of new content to watch. Rayburn, the industry analyst, says that churn is a bigger problem than streamers have publicly acknowledged. This might help to explain why Disney+ announced plans last year to create more than 50 Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and Disney shows. 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 Bad producer Johnson. Netflix just acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company; Paramount+ seems to pump out a new Star Trek title once a month.
Still, the increasing prevalence of IP doesn’t necessarily mean that streaming is the place originality and specificity go to die. Kourtney Kang, who created the delightful Disney+ Doogie Howser reboot 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. And from The Underground Railroad to The Leftovers, some of the most ambitious TV of the past decade has been based on that ancient form of IP, the novel.
What does the future look like?
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. She loves watching viewers react to weekly episodes of her Showtime drama The Chi and BET showbiz comedy Twenties; she also values the freedom that she and 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 With Love, a holiday romance that follows a big Latinx family with a variety of gender identities and sexual 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: Halt and Catch Fire and 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 Bad premiered in 2008? “Yes, absolutely.”
Even creators with more traditionally marketable sensibilities, like Kripke, have found a godsend in streaming, with its shorter seasons and 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. Several creators brought up the dearth of transgender protagonists on TV, as well as how rare it still is to see TV characters with disabilities. “I’m dying to see a period piece with Latinos in it,” says Calderón Kellett.
Meanwhile, the boom in scripted series has made headaches for producers trying to book soundstages and hire crews. The rush to pump out content has also led to grueling conditions on some streaming sets; this unacceptable new normal brought film workers to the brink of a strike this fall. There are still limits to the freedom streaming allows creators, too. 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. Yes, in all likelihood, Netflix will continue to be the best at offering everything to 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 Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment.”
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.”
Still, that fifth-best Netflix problem persists. Consumers will need to decide how many subscription fees are worth it to them. 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. But movement in the opposite direction seems possible, too, with streamers doubling down on their strengths. Why wouldn’t Apple TV+ go all-in on comedy to retain the Ted Lasso audience?
However it shakes out, this likely contraction of the streaming landscape does give some creators 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. In recent years, TV has been a refuge for filmmakers like Jane Campion and Steve James, who favor grounded, character-driven stories.
As a professional watcher of television, this is the kind of show I cherish, that reaches for insight into the human experience, rather than papering over it with formulaic genre plots and CG effects. Sure, plenty of IP-based series belong in the former category, but I’m concerned that brilliant, sui generis ideas, like Pen15 and I May Destroy You, will be the first to disappear. Because Marvel and 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 enjoy bingeing The Circle in a half-asleep haze, I would never trade it for art that keeps me wide awake.
But here I go again, relying on my own blurred vision when most within the industry take a longer view. “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. And, perhaps most heartening, she adds, fresh voices are being invited to join 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
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