It’s All Content: Peak TV’s Crash and the New Era of Television

TV Features
It’s All Content: Peak TV’s Crash and the New Era of Television

When the term “Peak TV” began to spread, the inevitable was always waiting. If there’s a peak there must be a crash. It’s time to admit we are in that crash. But the Peak TV crash isn’t a decrease in the number of shows, it’s the way these shows inhabit and have transformed TV as a medium. TV has evolved into something much more sinister than abundance: it’s become merely content.

I. The Rise and Fall of Peak TV

Let’s take a step backward. In his paper “Reasons and Effects of the Peak TV Era” José Borja Arjona Martín explains the beginning of Peak TV. The root is the “Golden Age” of television which began in 1999. Martín writes, “[The Golden Age] provided the televisual product with cultural legitimacy…Similar to cinematographic productions in terms of quality and narrative abilities. The [streaming companies] are placed at the vanguard of this growing situation.” This “cultural legitimacy” created a desire by new and old companies to invest heavily in creative and innovative TV shows. Think The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc. TV received critical acclaim and was taken seriously as an artistic medium. New innovations were made in character-driven serialized storytelling and audiences responded positively. It wasn’t considered pretentious, it was popular. It became good business to make good TV and the growing number of producers inflated the market drastically.

The rise of streaming services and technological innovations also played a significant role. There was a whole new way to watch TV: the binge model. Netflix pioneered making shows that could be watched in one setting, and promoted that ability as a benefit of streaming. Bingeing encourages urgency and moves up the immediacy of online and in-person conversation. TV shows were not just being made to be good, they were also being made to be watched quickly. This necessitates more shows to fill viewers’ time.

But streamers like Netflix also wanted the prestige of the Golden Age of TV. Giving projects to big artists and seeking Emmy gold was just another way to stake a claim in the market. Netflix tried to achieve prestige with House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, even the little-watched Marco Polo. They wanted to be more than just the home of binge-watching, they wanted to be the home of all the innovation in TV.

One of the best innovations in Peak TV is that networks and streamers became willing to take creative risks. This meant that unusual or ambitious series could not only get the greenlight but potentially thrive for several seasons. Shows like Legion (FX), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW), and Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime) were possible because letting creators take control and make something new was viable in a market of inflated offerings.

But as Peak TV accelerated and more streamers got into the mix, it wasn’t enough to have the best show. Now every streamer has several shows that would have been considered some of the greatest of all time 10 years ago. It’s not enough to host great art anymore when there is an onslaught of available things to watch with limited time. Customers were willing to pay for one or two streaming services, but not five or six. Cuts had to be made—and the cutting age is here.

Netflix’s 2022 Quarter 1 earnings report revealed their first net subscriber loss in the company’s history. This continued into Quarter 2. People are turning away, and for good reason. The TV landscape we’re buying into now is not what it was ten, even five years ago. When TV reaches its peak, it becomes impossible to sustain massive amounts of quality programming. And the business has declared its shift.


II. TV as Content

Peak TV broke television production. In her article “Television Is in a Showrunning Crisis,” Katharine Trendacosta describes the drastic changes the industry has gone through. TV has always been a “mix of art and factory work,” but Peak TV ramps up production horizontally instead of vertically. In the old days, a 22-episode season was commonplace. Now 8-10 is the sweet spot. This changes the way TV as a medium works, moving it away from the serialization model that helps build up talent. The focus shifted to having a multitude of shorter series and miniseries.

It’s no wonder this changed mindset changed the way TV works. Now it’s common to hear executives and producers describe their shows as a “10-hour movie.” While there can be some artistic value in that experience (Twin Peaks: The Return and The Underground Railroad are strong examples), the underlying message of this sentiment undermines the very foundation of TV as serialized storytelling. The Boys and Supernatural creator Eric Kripke put his response to the 10-hour movie defense bluntly: “Fuck you! No you’re not! Make a TV show. You’re in the entertainment business.”

But it’s not just episode counts that exemplify the contentization of TV. The best element of streaming was the removal of ads, extending the lengths of episodes beyond a network-standard 42 minutes. But episode limits kept getting pushed, and now a cool 60 minutes has become the streaming standard. Even further, the latest season of Strange Things featured grotesque one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hour episodes. There’s a reason “hour-longs” are what these episodes are called. An hour is the perfect length in a serialized drama. But when the focus of companies shifts to quantity, these barriers start to be broken. It doesn’t necessarily mean the episode is bad, but it isn’t the TV we’ve known. It’s a mindset that maximizes milking every possible minute of watching from viewers.

Changing the way TV works in this way is not an innovation, it is a degradation. It’s changing the format into something that maximizes marketability over the basic hallmarks of the medium. TV becoming more content-driven is not like early changes in TV as a medium, like moving away from the serials of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a business decision from a business that is beginning to falter.

The epitome of the transformation of TV into content can be seen is Disney+’s offerings, especially their Marvel shows. An IGN graphic showing the amount of content in each phase of the MCU, shows just how much more “content” Marvel is getting from these hastily-made miniseries that we’re told are TV series. Phase 3 had 11 films and clocked in at about 25hrs of content. Phase 4 isn’t even over yet and there’s already 50 hours of content, heavily driven by Marvel’s expansion into TV.

A major difference in the production of these Marvel shows is the fact that they refuse to use the showrunner title, replacing it with Head Writer and directors. This decision essentially removes a large amount of creative control in production away from the people who are actually creating these shows. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier director Kari Skogland described it by saying “Marvel is using the features model,” leaning into the six-hour movie idea of TV production. Every show they’ve made has consisted of 6 hours of content, with most having 6 episodes. There doesn’t seem to be any desire to extend beyond this limit, because Marvel isn’t in the TV game, they’re in the content game. But this statement also clearly illustrates that Marvel is inherently uninterested in making series that stand alone, or in giving writers and creators control. Essentially, in what built television as a medium.

When critiquing these MCU shows I often see the reaction that they just exist to get people excited for future content, so that’s why they aren’t very strong. I want to emphatically respond by saying that is a flimsy excuse, and it’s incredibly depressing we have accepted that. Creating content that merely exists to sell future content is the sign of a business that is rotted to its core. The MCU shows are essentially the most expensive advertisements of all time, some with a weaker narrative structure than a SuperBowl ad. While I find the definition of TV as content unfortunate, it is the term that best describes these offerings. It is not TV as defined as a medium of art, it’s only boxes to fill a home screen.


III. Content Is King

Companies cannot afford big creative risks when the competitive market is crashing. Netflix is losing its position in the marketplace, and it is seeking the content to get it out. Recent reports detail Netflix executives’ demands for what content they want on the platform, such as a “female Jack Ryan,” a new take on New Girl, and staying away from so-called “sad coms.” Netflix has also decided that half-hour comedy doesn’t fit into the binge model they’ve developed, and new releases in that market will be hard to find in the coming years. Netflix is essentially deciding content first, then looking for shows to match; a complete reversal of the creator-driven market of the Golden Age of early Peak TV.

Netflix’s shift feels more akin to old primetime network lineups than the innovative new era of TV watching they supposedly ushered in. Every major network has their medical drama or two, a couple different police procedurals, a family comedy, a workplace comedy, and maybe a political thriller. Streaming was supposed to take us away from this model, but it just found another way back to the same TV we’ve always had. Except this time, there are billions more dollars behind these productions and a greater desperation to build a catalog of content that will convince people not to cancel their subscriptions. Primetime networks were battling for viewers for ad dollars; now it is only a battle for shareholder stakes.

A counter-argument from longtime cynics would be that this is the way it has always been, that all media has ever been is content and commercial. And while I see their point, this is an obtuse reading of the past 10 years of TV. It used to be good business to have good shows, now it’s good business to just have shows. And while some streamers are still pursuing a more quality-over-quantity approach to gaining subscribers (Apple TV+ spent loads of money on Foundation, but the high quality and well-written Ted Lasso and Severance are their biggest draws for new subscribers), this way is not as feasible for other conglomerates. Maybe Apple’s comparatively monstrucous net worth allows them to focus more on their quality output than other companies.

But it’s irrefutable that there has been a noticeable shift in the contentization of media. It’s so noticeable because it wasn’t long ago that TV was heralded as the next great artistic medium. Prestige and auteur directors from film even got into the business of TV (Steven Soderburgh’s The Knick, David Fincher’s involvement in Mindhunter and House of Cards, and Danny Boyle’s Trust and recent Pistols come to mind. Even Tarsem Singh directed a TV show with the quickly forgotten Emerald City). Great TV is still being made, but the sheer increase in shows has stripped away the novelty of making TV as art.

In 2018 it was revealed that Netflix would be spending $8 billion on content. That number quickly became passed around as a marker for the peak of Peak TV and the impressive amount of capital behind the mighty streamer. In 2021 Netflix spent $17 billion on content and no one batted an eye. And it’s not just Netflix; analysts predict that content spending will only go up across the board, especially for streamers. Peter Csathy explains this drastic increase by saying “content is used as marketing to increase net promoter score, a metric for customer loyalty, and overall brand ‘stickiness.’”

So where does this leave us? I dislike the idea of fear mongering, of saying that TV as a medium is dying. But an era of TV’s cultural supremacy has certainly passed. The immediate future of TV is content, and the ripple effect this era will have on the medium as a whole has yet to be seen. But to ignore this change, or to accept the erosion of the many elements that allowed TV to have a Golden Age 50 years after its inception, would be a disservice to the medium our society has flocked to. The major companies are watching their subscribers and hoping to retain or move up in the hierarchy. But the audience is watching too, and we are the most important viewers. It stands to reason that there will be a breaking point in this era of content where viewers won’t keep sticking around for the next episode.

Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila

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