Where once TV was all about quality, now, thanks to the Netflix model, the focus is on quantity. After the glory days of The Sopranos, is there anything worth watching anymore, asks Ed Power
Remember when television was more than simply a way to pass the time? When it was considered an art-form that could potentially supersede the novel? Of course you do. It was just a few years ago. But now that era is without doubt at an end. TV isn’t art any longer. It’s product. And we’re about to get buried up to our nostrils in it.
Television’s so-called “Golden Age” is generally agreed to have begun on January 10 1999. That was the day episode one of The Sopranos aired for the first time on America’s HBO network.
Picking an end date is trickier. We can, however, state confidently that the sun began to set somewhere between September 29 2013, when Breaking Bad faded into the blue, and May 17 2015 and Mad Men’s ascent to the great cocktail lounge in the sky.
Since then, television has reverted to its older tradition of quantity over quality. There is still great, boundary pushing TV out there. Russian Doll on Netflix, for instance. The Boys on Amazon Prime. But these are curios. Quirks in the system that get through by happenstance and are certainly not intended as punts for prestige. They are happy accidents.
Instead, it’s all about infinite content. That is the model pushed by Netflix which, as Golden Age shows were petering out, was positioning itself as the future. Netflix, as subscribers will know, doesn’t just want to be another TV channel. It wants to be all the television you could ever need.
The price of this is quality. Instead of a few very good shows we have lots of slightly better than average ones. The model has been embraced by Netflix’s rivals. So Amazon Prime throws cash at big name adaptations. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, for example. And the forthcoming Lord of the Rings series, on which it spent $250 million for the rights alone.
ITV and BBC have meanwhile set aside decades of competition to unveil a joint streaming platform. BritBox recently launched in the US. A $6.99 monthly fee buys you access to East-Enders, Emmerdale, Holby City, Blackadder and more. All of this jostling, meanwhile, precedes the entry into the market of the Mouse that Roared.
Disney + comes to the US at the end of this year and Europe in 2020. It brings with it a flood of new Marvel and Star Wars shows. Jon Favreau’s Jedi spin-off The Mandalorian is, all on its own, rumoured to have a $100 million budget. For Netflix and the rest, the Death Star is about to drift into view.
The driving force all this change is obviously technology. The internet has made it possible for companies such as Netflix to attract tens of millions of subscribers with the promise of infinite content. Netflix and competitors such as Apple (about to roll out its own $1 billion slate of original programming, including a morning TV drama starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon) are products of Silicon Valley and its winner takes all culture. Their ultimate goal is utter domination.
Just as Facebook monopolises social media and Google internet search so Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. are each determined to be the only player that matters. For this strategy to work the services must attract and retain subscribers. From where they are sitting, this is essentially a zero sum game.
Mastery of the streaming universe means appealing to everyone. Industry buzz and critical acclaim counts for far less than market share. That’s a huge change. Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos were never ratings juggernauts. Their worth lay in the prestige they brought to their networks. They were credibility enhancers. Mad Men saw HBO establish itself as the home of premium programming in the US. Mad Men and Breaking Bad put AMC on the map.
The sheer number of shows that networks and streaming platforms are pumping out, though, means this push for greatness is now a fading memory. In 2002, there were 182 scripted dramas across all platforms (broadcast, cable etc) in the US. By 2016 that figure had risen to 455. In the five years from 2011 to 2016, the number of shows jumped by 70 per cent.
“Counting TV shows is like counting lemmings,” FX chief executive John Landgraf cautioned in 2016. ”You can’t even count the number of TV shows accurately. Hoping they won’t run off a cliff and into an ocean.”
“The way the audience consumes television – and, in turn, the way TV shows make money – is changing faster than anyone can keep up,” wrote critic Alan Sepinwall in Uproxx in response to Landgraf’s warning.
“To a degree, this flooding of the marketplace with content is everyone’s best guess on how to survive those changes, and eventually some outlet is going to recognise that there simply isn’t enough cash to be had – whether in ad dollars, subscription fees, downloads, or anything else – to justify the existence of many of these shows.”
Tech companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t care what the media thinks. They are more interested, it is true, in awards season prestige. Hence the disappointment when Hulu pipped the competition to become the first streaming service to win the Emmy best drama for The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017. And hence the millions Netflix pumped into its Oscar campaign for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.
Yet it’s about cranking out as much material as possible. Last year, Netflix spent $12 billion on original content, producing an estimated 700 original shows. That gives it a huge head-start over Disney etc. Rest assured they are doing everything they can to catch up.
“Internet television is going to very transformative,” Netflix chief executive Reid Hastings told me when bringing the service to Ireland in 2012 (with a launch price of €6.99 per month).
“It’s like the mobile phone compared to the landline. We’ve had broadcast television for 60 years now. With the internet you click and watch. Over the next 20 years everything is going to become click and watch and on demand – sports, news, TV shows. We’ll still have broadcast – after all we still have land-lines. It just won’t get used very much.”
Twelve months after the Irish launch, Netflix got into original content for the first time with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Both shows were in the prestige tradition. House of Cards featured big-name stars (Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright) and Hollywood’s David Fincher as producer. And OITNB aimed to tell textured and empathic stories about women, particularly from minority backgrounds.
House of Cards, though, concluded last year. And OITNB came to an end with its recent seventh season. There are no natural successors. Instead Netflix has something for everyone. The “p” word (prestige) isn’t in its vocabulary.
Others have taken note. HBO’s new boss, John Stankey, recently told staff that from here on the focus would be quantity as much as quality. That’s a huge re-alignment. When even HBO, which has always positioned itself as custodian of high-end TV, is rethinking its position you know change is afoot.
“It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month,” Stankey announced to the troops. “We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”