Is The TV Boom Ending?
“It’s the Golden Age of Television” – Everybody now, probably
It is generally accepted that we are in the middle of a television renaissance at the moment. The quality of writing on television shows is so far ahead of the majority of film writing at the moment that established film actors are taking television roles at a rate never seen before and directors are taking their ‘passion projects’ to the small screen to bring their most personal stories to life.
HBO likes to tout itself as not being television, but they are the network that we have to thank the most for this current state of affairs. It started in the late 90s and early 00s, and whether it is The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm or even the one that basically kicked it all of Oz, everybody that likes TV, likes at least one of these shows.
Since then HBO has continued to make highly acclaimed television in the form of shows like Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, The Newsroom, True Detective and others while other networks and streaming services have jumped on board with their own cultural touchpoints in the form of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, House Of Cards etc.
These are some of the shows that encapsulate this era of television that has begun to flip the prestige narrative. But take a closer look at the 15 shows I just mentioned and you may notice that only 5 of them are still being made – and that includes True Detective, which hasn’t officially been cancelled, but has been gone for a year with nothing written for a third season yet, as well as Curb which has just been revived after 6 years off the air.
Of the three remaining shows, Game of Thrones is about to start its 7th season, The Walking Dead is in the middle of its 7th season and House of Cards is coming up for its 5th season.
So that leaves me asking, are we really overdue for a new batch of shows to continue this amazing television run or are we witnessing the end of an era?
Cue some sort of sliding doors/alternate universe music here as we split to get hot takes from either side of this scenario.
Scenario 1 – There are a new batch of shows set to take over
The above intro sets a scene of a coming television apocalypse. The insinuation is supposed to be that the last great show made started 5 years ago, so let’s just take a look at all of the shows that have started in the last 5 years that are at varying levels of backable odds to make it onto the list of great shows from the era.
Better Call Saul, Westworld, The Americans, Orange is the New Black, Atlanta, Veep, Stranger Things, Fargo, Girls, Narcos, The Affair, Silicon Valley, The Night Manager, The Night Of, Mr Robot…
Right there are 15 new shows that in 10 years could all be considered in the same list as the 15 shows from the intro.
What’s that? You don’t believe me? Alright then, let’s do this.
The Wire was watched by so few people that it almost got cancelled several times and in spite of being a consensus top 3 show of all time, won no Emmy Awards and only got 2 nominations (both for writing). It wasn’t until years later as word of mouth spread and people began buying the DVD’s that its reputation grew. The Americans may never meet these same heights, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t going through a similar experience.
Entourage was slowly death ridden into the ground as it rode the wave from exciting new show, to peak entertainment, to tired and boring, to punch line. The thing is though, you can’t be a punchline without having cultural significance. That type of thing comes from 8 seasons and a movie. Orange is the New Black is half way there in terms of seasons, and there is NOTHING stopping it from becoming the next generation’s Entourage in terms of cultural impact
Deadwood lasted 3 seasons because it was popular enough, but wasn’t truly appreciated until after it finished. The Night Of is heading down this path.
Boardwalk Empire took an interesting premise, got rave reviews, spent too much money and then lost its way trying to stretch the story further than it was able to go. I am calling early that this will be the fate of Westworld.
I could go on, but I won’t. The point is that the current shows might not be iconic right now, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t be. They might not be at the very top of the TV Show pile right now, but the top shows don’t always start there.
TV is doing just fine!
Scenario 2 – The end of an era
You see the thing is, I am not saying that there are no longer ANY good shows being made. There are plenty of good shows being made, but none of them stand out from any of the others. They aren’t GREAT.
Looking at the 15 shows of the last 5 years that are listed in scenario one – Tell me which one is objectively the best.
What about the top 3?
People might have their favourites, but none of the shows truly stand out. There aren’t any ‘tiers’ within that group of 15 shows where you can draw a definitive line and say “this/these show(s) are distinctly better than this/these shows”.
Without being able to do that to shows within their own peer group, no show can even knock on the door of the VIP room of Great TV Shows, let alone bust through it.
Maybe there is one show in there that is going to reach great new heights over the coming years, but at this point, the odds don’t look great.
Scenario 3 – It’s a bit of both
The real issue here is that the pool is diluted.
In 2009 there were 211 original scripted television shows that were made for the US market.
In 2015 there were 409.
Back in the late 90’s when a show like the Sopranos was being made, HBO was able to stack the deck with writers David Chase, Matthew Weiner and Terence Winter. These days, those guys each have their own show. Back then, there were a lot less good jobs for people trying to create content for television, so only the best and brightest got the good jobs. So if there were, say 20 top level television writers at that time and only 10 top level shows being made, you got 2 top writers for each show on average.
Now, due to the television boom we have an equivalent of 30 top level television writers creating content for 40 shows.
The best analogy I can come up with is that in 1966 when the Boston Celtics won their 8th consecutive NBA Title, there were a total of 9 teams in the entire league. 9 teams! The top 20 players in the league were split between those 9 teams. Every team had a great player, and then the Celtics had more than a couple. The reason that feat will never be bettered in the NBA is because there are now 30 teams and the top 20 players are further split between them all*. The talent pool is diluted because there are more teams than top level players.
What it means is that we have a lot more good shows, but the really great ones are way harder to create.
In the end it all comes down to personal preference. Some may consider this era on the decline due to a lack of superstar shows, whereas other might say this is the best time we’ve ever had because the overall quality has risen and there are more good shows. Where do you fall?
*The Warriors right now have 3 or 4 of the top 20 players in the league right now, but it isn’t sustainable for 9 years, because all of the teams that DON’T have a top player are saving up their money to throw at one of these players to join their team