According to my profile on Trakt.TV, I have spent 288 days and 21 hours watching 218 different TV shows. This isn’t a confession about my latent television addiction; everyone who knows me knows that watching (and subsequently writing about) television is one of the main ways I spend my time.
But I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number of TV shows being produced, I’m overwhelmed by the pressure I’m placing on myself to watch every ‘must see’ TV show, I’m overwhelmed by the race to watch certain TV shows before they’re inevitably spoiled on social media.
At some point in the past decade, watching TV became less of a source of entertainment and a way to unwind and more of a job, and that was before I managed to talk my way into a field that allowed me to write about TV as part of my job.
Every week brings new TV shows you “have to” watch, every day brings more hype on social media for yet another show you’ve just got to add to your list.
This feeling isn’t just gut instinct – the numbers show that the number of TV shows have been steadily increasing. In 2016, 455 scripted TV shows aired across broadcast networks, basic and premium cable outlets, and streaming services; in 2017, it was 487, and last year, it reached an all-time high of 495. From 2002 to 2016, the number of shows increased by 150%, and from 2011 to 2016, they increased by just under half that, at 71%.
FX Networks CEO John Landgraf coined the term ‘Peak TV’ in 2015 to describe what he called an “overwhelming” increase in the number of scripted TV series, and since then, critics have been arguing about whether or not we’ve actually hit Peak TV yet. Semantics aside, nobody could argue that the number of shows hasn’t increased significantly, particularly thanks to the number of originals being produced by streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu.
As a writer who’s interested in culture, trying to keep up with every show I simply must watch means that a lot of my free time is spent watching TV, and in the case of shows like Game of Thrones, watching them as soon as possible so as to not get spoiled on social media (and simply avoiding social media isn’t an option in many lines of work).
When I was in the UK, where the show aired at 2am, this meant either staying up late to watch it before heading off to a job interview in the morning, or watching it in the morning while getting ready and also on the Tube, or watching it on a tour bus on the way to one of the castles from Harry Potter only to not finish it by the time we arrived, so I had to find a dark tunnel to watch the last ten minutes in.
These problems may seem self-inflicted – who is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to watch all this TV? But given we’re living in a ‘Golden Age of Television’, it’s practically impossible to socialise with anyone without a TV show coming up in conversation, and dissecting shows with friends is one of the few remaining television-related things I enjoy doing. But the rush to watch hyped-up shows or new episodes before encountering spoilers is something I could happily do without.
In addition, I can’t help but wonder what the wider implications of all this TV are, and a few questions come to mind, such as “which shows and stories are prioritised by executives?”
While this era of Peak TV means that more shows are being greenlit, and this inevitably means more shows about underrepresented groups are being produced, it hasn’t changed the way executives make decisions about which shows get renewed, or which shows get huge marketing budgets.
The Big Bang Theory is a show that comes to mind – it ran for so long that it became a joke, an example of a show that stopped being funny years ago, if it ever was.
Compare it to One Day At A Time, a show that featured a diverse cast, told stories that are often overlooked by television executives, and was celebrated for its humour and heart.
The Big Bang Theory, with the support of major broadcaster CBS behind it, ran for 12 years. One Day At A Time was cancelled by Netflix after two. The original iteration of the show ran for nine years back in the 70s and 80s, on CBS.
Shows that appeal to what television executives think is the broadest possible audience, like The Big Bang Theory, are the shows that keep getting renewed each year. Shows that they feel cater to ‘minority’ audiences feel like risky bets, so they often don’t even get a chance to catch on.
Look at the shows that have lasted the longest at Netflix: House of Cards, Grace & Frankie, Orange is the New Black, Bojack Horseman, The Ranch. All have sixty episodes or more, all are fronted by white people. Side note, but has anyone actually watched The Ranch? Anyone at all? Bueller?
Of course, that speaks to a wider issue that is by no means exclusive to Netflix, so let’s look at primetime as a whole: The Simpsons, Law & Order: SVU, Family Guy, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, American Dad!, Criminal Minds. Grey’s Anatomy is the brainchild of Shonda Rhimes, but besides that, primetime has the same problem as Netflix.
So executives play it safe, and shows that they don’t feel have the same widespread appeal as these stalwarts get one season to try their luck – two if they’re feeling particularly generous.
Shows aren’t given time to grow into themselves, or catch on with the wider public – if they aren’t immediately wildly successful, they’re cancelled, because there are a dozen shows that could take their place.
And as a viewer, I feel like I’m barely given any time to sit with a show and enjoy it at a relaxing pace. So many shows are released a season at a time now, which sounded great initially, but in reality, it means that it’s easier than ever before to finish one show, move on to the next one, and repeat ad infinitum until you wake from your streaming-induced stupor and realise you haven’t left the house all weekend.
One thing I’m going to try and do is adopt a Marie Kondo approach to my viewing habits: if a show doesn’t bring me joy after one episode, I’ll turn it off. While that might mean I miss out on shows that get better over time, it will also mean I’ll be able to claw some of my free time back, so I think it evens out.
As for what those who product TV should do, I don’t have any easy solutions. But I would like to see them adopt a policy of quality over quantity and give shows telling unique stories the attention and funding they deserve, instead of simply choosing to play it safe.