Peak TV Is Over. Welcome to Trough TV.
Peak TV Is Over. Welcome to Trough TV.
Streaming’s golden age has been ending for a while, but it’s only now become clear what’s replacing it.
BY SAM ADAMS
MARCH 05, 20237:00 PM
The Nevers arrived on HBO in early 2021 as a high-profile new project from one of the most celebrated TV creators of the past 25 years. Although it debuted under a cloud thanks to the unplanned midseason departure of showrunner Joss Whedon, it was still the best-performing series premiere in the history of HBO Max, and it ended its half-season run with a jaw-dropping twist that left viewers desperate for more. Then, for almost two years, there was nothing. Two weeks ago, The Nevers’ long-awaited return was finally announced, but in order to watch the series’ final six episodes (it had officially been canceled during the interregnum), you’d have to switch over to ad-supported streaming service Tubi—and, adding insult to ad breaks, you’d also have to watch live in the middle of two consecutive workdays. A one-time prestige show was now being burned off via the worst viewing arrangement since the dawn of the VCR.
This isn’t the future we were promised. The transition to streaming was supposed to usher in an age of bottomless variety and infinite availability. Anything you could dream of, and some things you wouldn’t even dare to, would be yours for one low monthly fee, and as long as you (or whomever you shared a password with) kept the dues up, the taps would never run dry. But 10 years after the streaming boom kicked off in earnest with Netflix’s House of Cards, its sense of unlimited potential has ebbed, and even its products are starting to evaporate. Back in 2013, it seemed like a minor miracle when Netflix revived the cult favorite sitcom Arrested Development—proof that the TV establishment was about to be disrupted by new players with open minds and money to burn. But a couple of weeks from now, all five seasons of Arrested Development will vanish from Netflix’s servers, and although the three produced for network TV will be available elsewhere on the internet, it’s not clear where, if anywhere, you’ll be able to stream the two originally made for Netflix.
The age of Peak TV—the halcyon days when streamers would throw money at established creators and new talents alike, and no idea was too strange to try for a season or three—has been drawing to a close for a while: Succession and Ted Lasso both start their final seasons this month, and Better Call Saul and Atlanta wrapped up last year. But it’s only now becoming clear what is going to replace it: a steroidal hybrid of algorithmic insights and old-school showbiz wisdom about what sells, resulting in a flood of bad-idea IP extensions (Velma, That ’90s Show), true-crime schlock (Netflix’s entire Documentaries tab), and Yellowstone spinoffs. Call it Trough TV, when the networks that once aimed for the stars now see how low they can go.
Don’t take it from me. Take it from the person who coined the term Peak TV in the first place. In January, FX chair John Landgraf predicted that the era he defined would soon be coming to an end. In fact, he suggested, it might already be over. When Landgraf first uttered the words Peak TV back in 2015, he wasn’t hailing a new golden age but warning of an imminent saturation point, after which there would simply be more scripted TV series than anyone—networks, studios, viewers—could possibly handle. That was when there were an estimated 370 scripted shows on the air. In 2022 there were 599.
If Landgraf’s alarm bells were ringing prematurely in the mid-teens, there is ample cause to believe he’s right this time, and the only real question is how steep the slope on the far side of Mount TV will be. The record number of shows in 2022 was already a bit of a mirage, a belated gush of content that had been stopped up by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also the end of the brief period in which the last of Hollywood’s major conglomerates launched their own streaming services, overspent massively, and quickly realized that the average household would only sign up for so many subscriptions, no matter how much you offered them. The end of Peak TV was inevitable, even tautological—you can’t define a peak until the numbers start to drop. But it’s only from the peak that you can peer into the trough ahead.
In January, Landgraf described the immediate future as a period of leveling off, as some of the entities that rushed into the streaming wars rush right back out and others prune their budgets and lower their sights. AMC, for example, is cutting spending on new programming by 20 percent, and the former home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad is now developing half a dozen spinoffs of The Walking Dead. This is mostly the TV industry doing what it’s always done—and streaming networks admitting that, as growth slows and purse strings tighten, they are bound by the same principles and playing for the same audiences. But the changes feel more dramatic than a mere course correction. The boom isn’t just ending. It’s imploding, with some of its products being snuffed out or vaporized altogether, and the old winner-take-all logic reasserting itself. Even some of the products of the boom, those nifty, bespoke little shows that played to small but fervently devoted audiences, are starting to go bye-bye as well, and in the post–physical media era, that means they’ve effectively been deleted from the world.
Last year, in a flurry of tax-related cost-cutting under new head David Zaslav, HBO not only axed some series that had already been renewed (along with shelving a $90 million Batgirl movie) but also removed them from the HBO Max platform entirely. Some, like Raised by Wolves and Love Life, can still be purchased digitally or on DVD. But others, like the family comedy The Gordita Chronicles, are simply gone. As of January, according to creator Claudia Forestieri, the only place to watch the show was “on American Airlines and on JetBlue.” Bryan Cogman, a writer-producer for Game of Thrones and The Rings of Power, was recently looking to watch the 2019 HBO series Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta’s adaptation of his novel about the sexual awakening of a middle-aged divorcée. He couldn’t find it. It wasn’t on HBO Max, wasn’t available to purchase or rent, and wasn’t even on DVD. It was, he concluded, as if the show had been “buried alive.” As industry reporter Matthew Belloni recently told Slate, “The madness of the past five years, where these companies were outbidding each other and it was a great time to be a creator—that’s over.”
Not only are networks cutting back on financing new shows, an inevitable and predictable reaction to a saturated marketplace and uncertain economy, but they’re also getting rid of shows they’ve already paid for—in some cases before anyone has even seen them. In the past few months, entire seasons of Snowpiercer, Minx, and 61st Street were shelved despite being at or near completion, as was a limited-series adaptation of the novel Three Women. For a viewer, devoting yourself to a TV series has always been a fraught proposition, especially as serialized storytelling has come to dominate the form. There’s no guarantee the story you’ve invested in will get a satisfying ending or even any ending at all. But for a while, the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that concluding a series, even in a different format, would make the whole more valuable: Better to spend on a wrap-up movie for Looking or Sense8 than lose future viewers unwilling to start a story they knew would never finish properly. Hell, HBO gave even Deadwood a feature-length conclusion, albeit 13 years late.
In recent years, though, the old TV industry thinking seems to be reasserting itself that extending a little-watched series is just throwing good money after bad. Maybe there weren’t enough viewers of The Baby-Sitters Club or Los Espookys or Rutherford Falls or Tuca & Bertie to keep them afloat, or even for providers to feel much of a ripple if a wave of angry fans canceled their subscriptions in protest. But when a passionate fan base is no longer enough to keep a show alive, especially when that fan base is paying the network directly instead of in the secondhand currency of eyeballs and attention spans, it feels as if a contract has been broken, a rosier future smothered by pedestrian reality.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the seemingly unstoppable growth of Netflix’s subscriber base began to flag after the streamer canceled shows like One Day at a Time and GLOW, the latter in the middle of production for what would already have been its final season. But it felt not just as if a bubble had been popped but a spell had been broken, and the company that started out promising to change the way the TV industry did business was suddenly playing by its rules. A few years back, you could hardly tweet a mild criticism of Netflix without getting dogpiled by devoted users evangelizing its commitment to diverse and adventurous programming (not to mention, they had Friends). But do it now, post-cancellations—and particularly post-Chappelle—and you get silence. Stanning Netflix feels like being a fan of the gas company.
That kind of attachment to a streaming service starts to fade when the shows that built it start to go, poof. There’s a good chance that Netflix’s subscriber data showed that no one was watching Arrested Development anymore, certainly not enough of them to make it worth renewing its lease on the show. So maybe it’s more of an imagined loss than an actual one. But the implicit promise of streaming was that everything is available somewhere. People might have been less quick to toss their DVD players if they’d realized that nothing was immune from disappearing. Westworld, which was among the shows cut from HBO Max last year, premiered as a flagship show, with a massive budget and top ratings. Seven years later, despite nearly half a billion in sunk costs, it’s on a slow boat to Tubi-town. As Belloni put it, “We’re going back to a more traditional television business, where you will find these shows everywhere or nowhere.”
There are still plenty of good shows, and the weird miracles of the streaming boom haven’t died out entirely. (HBO not only financed the brain-bending series The Rehearsal but renewed it for a second season.) And the past 10 years have definitely reshaped the industry’s blinkered stereotypes about who watches TV and who’s allowed to make it. But the highs are more fleeting and further apart. For the first time in recent memory, it feels possible to revive the complaint from the pre–on-demand era that there’s nothing good on. No wonder audiences and critics alike have thrown their arms around Abbott Elementary, an old-fashioned network sitcom that provides new laughs 22 weeks out of the year.
Landgraf has called this the “middle innings” of the TV industry’s transformation, and from the point of view of FX, which had major hits last year with The Bear and Under the Banner of Heaven, it’s a good time to keep a steady course, hold on to your lead, and let others make mistakes. But it’s not much fun to watch your team play it safe or to keep milking Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars instead of creating the next obsession, especially when the game lasts for years instead of hours. If a peak is defined by its end, so is a trough, the point where the downward slope flattens out and starts to creep back upwards. Like Peak TV before it, Trough TV won’t last forever. But we’ve got a long way to go before we hit the bottom.
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