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Platform Wars

Yes, There Are Too Many TV Shows, But Don't Blame It All On Netflix

Basic cable, premium cable, and broadcast networks are all airing more originals than they were in 2009. This is what "peak TV" looks like.

Yes, There Are Too Many TV Shows, But Don't Blame It All On Netflix

[Source photos: Jessica Jones: Myles Aronowitz; Stranger Things; Gilmore Girls: Neil Jacobs; courtesy of Netflix]

In the time it takes you to read this article, your DVR will fill up with 500 hours of TV programming that you’ll never have time to watch. Okay, that's a fake fact, but this next one is real: The number of new original TV shows has doubled over the last eight years, and the TV industry is starting to feel the pinch. While the term "peak TV" is bandied about a lot these days, it looks like we may actually be in it.

According to an analysis from MoffettNathanson, 419 new original series aired on broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms last year, compared to just 210 series in 2009. And this year is on track to be even higher, with 322 new original series already in the can. MoffettNathanson analyzed data from FX, whose chief executive, John Landgraf, has been vocal about the dramatic rise in programming and its cumulative effect on content costs. The data, disclosed in a research note this week, reveals the extent to which networks have been ramping up their original content efforts. As competition mushrooms, new entrants flood the market, and audiences demonstrate an ever-growing appetite for more diverse types of programming, networks are facing thinner margins and a strain on their resources. In short, the TV bubble is probably not sustainable.

Naturally, a lot of this has to do with Netflix. The streaming giant debuted its first original series, House of Cards, in 2013 and hasn't looked back. With revenue of $6.78 billion last year, the company has boatloads of cash and is not afraid to spend it on riskier bets that would never see the light of day on a traditional network. That strategy continues to bear fruit for Netflix, whose recent buzzy offerings like Stranger Things and BoJack Horseman ensure that viewers will keep paying their subscription fees, which is the only metric Netflix really cares about.

But while it would be easy to point the finger at Netflix and other streaming platforms, they are not the sole source of the current content glut. The increase in TV shows is the result of much busier programming slates from the Old Guard, in particular basic cable networks, which aired 186 new original series last year, compared to just 66 in 2009. By contrast, online platforms aired 46 last year, although, to be fair, they were at almost zero in 2009.

The rise of basic cable is not surprising given the trajectory of cable TV as a whole. While many niche-oriented networks—IFC, TBS, and A&E, to name a few—began as repositories for reruns and also-rans, they have developed robust programming slates over the last few years. FX has been a leader in this trend with shows like American Horror Story and Fargo that are hits with both audiences and critics.

But analyst Michael Nathanson wrote this week that the increase in competition could push the network to rein in its output and take fewer risks. "As viewership continues to fragment and it becomes harder to launch new shows, we could see a scenario where FX curtails its spending or at least focuses spending on key original series/character universes," Nathanson wrote.

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