John Landgraf’s comments arrived like a thunderbolt.
There’s a malaise in TV these days that’s felt among executives, viewers and critics, said Landgraf, the chief executive of FX Networks. And it’s the result of one thing: There is simply too much on television.
The glut, he said at a Television Critics Association media event earlier this month, has made it hard to “cut through the clutter and create real buzz” and has presented “a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories.”
On the face of it, the assertion seemed absurd. After all, critics and viewers alike have hailed this as another golden age of television, where shows as diverse and popular as “Game of Thrones” and “Empire” have become an indelible part of the culture, elevating TV from second-class status to a medium attracting top actors and film directors.
But Landgraf’s comments were not dismissed as absurd or hyperbolic. Instead, Landgraf ignited a serious conversation, and no small amount of self-reflection, about how much is too much, and whether something is seriously out of whack in TV land.
“I hear it all the time,” said Michael Lombardo, the president of programming at HBO. “People going, ‘I can’t commit to another show, and I don’t have the time to emotionally commit to another show.’ I hear that and I’m aware of it and I get it.”
Lombardo and other executives say it is harder than ever to build an audience for a show when viewers are confronted with so many choices and might click away at any moment. As a result, executives say, it’s hard to make money off that show.
The success of scripted shows such as “Modern Family,” “The Walking Dead” and others has set off something like a land grab. The number of scripted shows produced by networks, cable networks and online services ballooned to 371 last year, according to statistics compiled by FX. Landgraf believes that figure will pass 400 this year, which would nearly double the 211 shows made in 2009.
“What I’ve seen for years and years and years, when we go out and talk to audiences, is that television is less precious to them because there’s so much of it,” Landgraf said in an interview. “Television episodes, television shows, television programmers are all a dime a dozen.”
“There’s a mismatch right now between the capital allocation of making and marketing TV shows and the audience they’re generating,” he added.
The hand-wringing and cautionary words come at a time of transition for many television companies. Media stocks tumbled earlier this month over what analysts said was a lack of confidence in cable bundles that had become too bloated and expensive. Consolidation has taken hold in the industry as media companies try to grow and gain more leverage.
Diminished ratings in television have been a reality for some time, but that has largely been credited to technological challenges and changes in viewing habits. Landgraf, counterintuitively, attributes declining ratings, in part, to too much choice, no matter how good the show.
For programmers, the challenge is a creative one: Is there really that much talent to go around? And for cable channels and the networks, it’s another problem: They have ad-supported businesses, so what happens when people can’t find their shows?
“Why should I start a new series that John Landgraf creates on FX when I can go start ‘Breaking Bad’?” said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with BTIG. “I may get to John’s show, but I may not get to it for three years. And for companies where a huge part of the business model is built around TV advertising, if you don’t watch it in the first three days, it’s worth nothing from an advertising standpoint.”
Showtime’s president, David Nevins, however, said he thinks viewers are hardly troubled by the extensive menu of offerings.
“No matter how much they like whatever show they’re watching right now, they’re saying, ‘What else should I be watching?’ “ he said. “They want more.”
Charlie Collier, the president of AMC, was even more forceful. “ ‘Too much TV’ sounds like surrender,” he said. “Actually, the answer to too much TV is and has always been the next great series, the one that makes viewers drop everything and show up for the event.”
Others also point out that the explosion in programming has created more opportunity for shows with diverse casts and topics, such as “Jane the Virgin,” “Transparent” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Marti Noxon, the showrunner for Lifetime’s “UnREAL” and Bravo’s “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” said there’s been a “sea change” in the last five years.
The boom has been spurred by several factors: The television season is now a year-round event, with new shows coming on the air even in summer. And the number of programmers, whether on cable or streaming services like Amazon or Netflix, has risen tremendously. (“This year, I finally lost track of the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted-programming business,” Landgraf said at TCA.)
But streaming services such as Hulu aren’t just producing new shows, they’re also salvaging old ones. “The Mindy Project” was rejected by the audience, and Fox canceled it after its third season. But Hulu, which relies on paid subscriptions, picked up the show, and its fourth season will debut on the streaming service next month.
“It’s not a glut of programming, it’s a glut of choices. And we are happily part of that,” said Craig Erwich, Hulu’s head of content. “One of our values here is we put the viewer first and we want to overwhelm them with choice and let them decide what they want to do.”
Another complication is that shows not only compete against one another, but also against old series that live on in the archives of Amazon, Hulu or Netflix. So a new season of “Scandal,” for example, is also competing against old series such as “The Wire.”
Landgraf said he thinks a contraction is coming. He predicted the number of shows would slowly return to about 325 over the next few years, in large part because scripted television is expensive.
Landgraf, whose network has created successful shows such as “Louie,” “Fargo” and “The Americans,” said there’s a “fussiness” among viewers that is making it more difficult for them to become loyal to great shows.
Some shows take time, he said, for the producers to learn how to make, and for the audience to learn how to watch.
“Some of the best things — ‘Seinfeld’ would be an example — are shows that people don’t get at first, it’s just too radical an idea,” Landgraf said.
Shows like that no longer have the luxury of time, he said.
“The ‘Seinfeld’ of today,” he continued, “would have a lot of trouble of getting past the filter of audiences.”