The Changing TV Landscape: Original Scripted Programming Continues to Expand, but at Some Point the Bubble Must Burst

By | July 1, 2015

This series looks the changes that the television industry is currently experiencing and how this will impact the future of the medium.


A&E’s The Returned is one of the latest casualties of the current glut of original programming

Here are some numbers of interest (sourced from this link):  In 1999, there were 26 original scripted shows on the cable channels.  By 2004, that had nearly doubled to 45 and by 2009 it had nearly doubled again to 87.  Then by 2014, the number ballooned to 199.  Throw in the 129 original scripted shows on the broadcast networks that year, and the total number of viewing options in this category comes to 352!  And then if you look at all of the new programming on television in 2014 (which includes reality shows, talk shows, documentaries, cute kitten shows, etc.) it comes to a staggering total of 1,715!!!

That’s a lot of television to watch (so lamented Hollywood Reporter critic Tim Goodman) and it helps explain why the ratings numbers keep dwindling as all these options fracture the viewing audience.  Sci fi / fantasy shows have also seen a dramatic increase over this time, and currently there are over 65 (!) active, returning, and upcoming genre entries through the Summer of 2015 (you can see the list at this link).  And that doesn’t count the dozen or so new shows scheduled to hit in the 2015-16 season.

Of course all of this leads to the obvious question:   At what point does the bubble burst?  This glut of programming can’t go on forever, and it seems that at some point the expansion of of TV shows must collapse under its own weight.  The broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, and NBC) have been experiencing a notable drop in their numbers for the past few years, and just recently this has extended to the cable channels as well.

For the last two years, the broadcast networks have experienced ratings slumps which have been particularly prominent after the mid-season break, and this last Spring it became apparent that the cable channels were no longer immune as the numbers for their original scripted entries started to slide as well.  Previously solid performers like Bates Motel, The Americans, and Justified returned at lower ratings levels and many of the cable offerings slipped to mediocre or worse levels.  This is quite apparent with the sci fi / fantasy entries (with the exception of perennial juggernauts The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones) and has resulted in some tepid numbers and also made it difficult to predict the renewal/cancellation chances of these shows.  A&E’s The Returned averaged a 0.3 rating in the 18-49 demographic based on the overnights and it was cancelled after its first season.  USA’s Dig was slightly better at a 0.4 rating, but it doesn’t look like it will see a second season either.  Syfy’s new series 12 Monkeys was worse at a 0.2 average, but it got renewed, though that network axed sophomore show Helix at the same level.  Some of the Summer cable entries like TNT’s Proof and ABC Family’s Stitchers have come in at around the 0.4 level, and it’s difficult to get a good gauge on where they stand.  Syfy’s two new space shows Dark Matter and Killjoys are currently at the 0.2/0.3 level, and their futures seem questionable, though not necessarily desperate.  Even some of last year’s solid performers have returned down this Summer with the Season 2 bow of TNT’s The Last Ship off by 42%  year over year (though it did improve in its second week) and MTV’s Teen Wolf slipping by 33% for its Season 5 premiere.  And the Sunday debut of Humans on AMC at a 0.5 score actually seems like a win compared to the numbers we are seeing for the other genre entries of late.  The days when the average cable show is pulling an overnight rating of a 1.0 score or higher seem long gone now as many of these shows just become ratings noise and have to look to other factors to help keep them viable.

In the old model of programming, a television show survived by making enough money through advertising revenue (combined with license fees for the cable channels) and/or lasting long enough for a syndication run (by amassing 80 to 100 episodes or more) where it could then become very profitable.  But this model relied heavily on the Nielsen ratings which focus on the live broadcast to determine a show’s popularity and to attract advertisers to buy commercial time.  But time-shifted viewing and/or watching on other platforms has become much more the norm these days and the overnight ratings no longer appear to be representative of a show’s audience.  And since the old model cannot sustain the costs of production as well any more, studios and networks are looking to other means beyond advertising revenue to pay for these shows.

One way to do this is through international financing and partnerships.  This involves attracting financial backers from the global community who are willing to invest because they have an eye toward syndicating the show to many different countries (examples are NBC’s Hannibal and Dracula).  Another approach is for a U.S. network to partner with an international network to produce a series and air it concurrently (or mostly concurrently) in each country (examples are Humans from Channle 4/AMC along with Dark Matter and Killjoys from the Space Channel/Syfy).  Other means of supplementing advertising revenue is for the streaming services to partner with a network and/or international financers in return for exclusive streaming rights (this is the case with the CBS shows Under the Dome and Extant).  And yet another option is for the cable networks to push for higher carriage fees from the cable/satellite companies to subsidize their original programming content.  So if you wonder why your bill keeps going up, you can thank in part the explosion of scripted programming.

The good news here is that the increasingly outdated Nielsens are becoming less of a factor in determining if a show is successful.  The bad news (apart from the fact that it is becoming more difficult for me to predict the renewal/cancellation status of a show) is that this glut of programming surely will eventually lead to a saturation point for the television channels and streaming services.  There is only so much money that can support these shows and so many people that can watch them, and a mass wave of cancellations could be on the way.  But does that mean that the number of scripted shows available will shrink or could the networks/studios have another wave of shows queued up to follow all those cancellations?

I look at that in more detail the next post in this series.

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