TV Critic's Notebook: 1,715 Shows and One Question, "What to Watch?"

The total number of series (and distribution platforms) has soared, leaving audiences drunk on choice with primetime, broadcast, cable and streaming TV offerings: "It goes almost without saying that qualitatively, television is off the charts today."
Christopher Saunders/USA Network
'Mr. Robot'

This story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Five years ago, there was no House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black. Amazon was shipping products, not signing Woody Allen to make television. Nobody thought Jerry Seinfeld, creator and star of one of TV's greatest series, would make a show for the Internet.

Around that time, I was hired as THR's chief television critic, and I would like to think that I knew big changes were coming to the industry — but maybe not this big.

As we burst out of the Golden and into the Platinum Age of Television, the total number of series (and distribution platforms) soared, leaving audiences drunk on choice. It goes almost without saying that qualitatively, television is off the charts today — even with two of the best dramas, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, no longer on the air. There were a total of 213 scripted series in primetime (8 to 11 p.m.) in 2010, broadcast and cable combined, according to data provided by FX Networks. Now there are more than 400, counting broadcast, cable and streaming. Throw unscripted into the calculation, and in 2014 there were a staggering 1,715 shows in primetime. Who would want to sit at a desk and count how many more appeared in 2015? When is it all too much?

What can't be overstated about the giant swell in TV offerings is the stress it has put on both creator and audience. It's a gold rush out there for content creators. Everybody wants content. There are more people willing to distribute it than ever. And there essentially are no constraints on what can be depicted.

The downside? Viewers can handle only so many new shows. While they're certainly expanding their DVR playlists, they're also less likely to watch in a timely manner and more likely to give up on a show quickly because there is no lack of shiny new options everywhere they look. What this means is you can create a gem like Manhattan, but that doesn't mean viewers will seek it out it on WGN America. And you can hatch an off-kilter little drama called Fortitude — Michael Gambon! Stanley Tucci! Christopher Eccleston! — but try finding people who've ever heard of it, or of the cable channel, Pivot, that airs it.

Still, as much as it worries me when I discuss great series with people who are TV-savvy and yet have never heard of the shows I'm talking about, I have to remind myself that the very existence of those shows is wonderful. Someone will discover them one day, regardless of whether they were canceled before their creative prime. In the future, discovering little TV gems will be like discovering great bands you'd never heard of and now want to share with all your friends.

For every disheartening "never heard of it" moment, there seems to be a heartwarming, zeitgeist-y counter moment. This summer, it was USA's Mr. Robot, a series that proved that living in the Too Much TV era didn't mean you'd already seen everything. Visually daring and freshly told, the show offered new twists on old tropes and featured an Emmy-worthy performance from star Rami Malek. Hell yes to still being surprised. (By the way, as the revamped THR's first issue came out five years ago, I was busy tracking a tiny show over on poor, ignored PBS called — what was it now? — oh, right, Downton Abbey.)

Meanwhile, the struggle for broadcast networks these days is real. How many of them wish they had a time machine so they could travel back to 2010 and make the changes necessary to not be dysfunctional dinosaurs in 2015? That's a trick question — the answer is "probably none"; they don't do change well in broadcast television and, well, the results are kind of disturbing. Unless you really like to write about failure a lot (who, me?).

That said, given the cable explosion, the advent of streaming and the changes in how people watch stuff, you can put a nice "we're still here" spin on broadcast networks. Especially worthy of our admiration are triumphs like Fox's Empire and the well-oiled machine that is CBS.

Another thing to celebrate these days is recent improvement (however late) in diversity on the small screen. Today, a powerful African-American showrunner like Shonda Rhimes can influence an entire network (ABC), and excellent shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat are considered essential viewing for many TV lovers. At Amazon, Transparent explores issues of gender and sexuality with a new sophistication that surpasses even the best of independent cinema.

That brings us to perhaps the most significant development over these past five years: Netflix, Amazon and Hulu getting in on the business. They weren't making TV five years ago; these days, we look to them almost as magicians pulling high-quality shows out of a hat. While none of them yet has the consistency of either HBO or FX, all have found great shows created elsewhere and made them available, and all of them have created original, game-changing series of their own. Netflix's Orange Is the New Black has made an even bigger splash than the site's poster-series, House of Cards. A deal with Marvel was a coup, as was letting Aziz Ansari create Master of None (a move that mirrors what FX did with Louie C.K.). Hulu, meanwhile, has given us one of the best of all recent shows in Jason Reitman's Casual.

We're living in amazing times, indeed. And the change is still underway. Strap yourselves in.

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