How Much TV Is Too Much TV? (Analysis)

The explosion of original scripted series means more options, more risks and more confusion but also better quality and expanded viewing platforms.
Kelsey Grammer, "Boss"

As the Television Critics Association press tour winds down -- Friday is the last day -- one mostly exciting but partly troublesome theme has been unavoidable.

There’s a lot of original scripted content looking to get noticed. And the vast volume of it, growing aggressively the past few years, is making it harder for cable channels to stand out and find an audience.

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Obviously we’re in a full-blown 52-week television season with no signs of letup. What that means for viewers is that their options have increased significantly, but so has the sense that they can’t keep track of it as it piles up on their DVRs. Never has it been harder for niche cable channels to plant their flag and capture the attention of viewers. And while it might be a great time to be a voracious lover of television, with options galore, for content providers there’s a lot of money at stake in this original scripted Renaissance.

On Tuesday, Hulu was at TCA touting its streaming options, which include a new Larry King talk show and the continued importing of British series such as The Thick of It, Rev and Misfits, plus the Israeli series Prisoners of War, which Showtime’s Homeland is based on. Hulu also has a travel series called Up to Speed, hosted by Timothy "Speed" Levitch and directed by Richard Linklater.

At the same time Hulu was here, Netflix (which did not present at TCA but likely will soon) was in Las Vegas at the National Association of Broadcasters, touting its original content. The streaming service had Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, who is making Orange Is the New Black, a series about a woman’s time in a minimum-security prison; Eli Roth, who is making the murder-mystery series Hemlock Grove with Famke Janssen; and the cast of cult comedy Arrested Development, which will have a high-profile season on Netflix before making its movie. Arrested Development has generated tons of buzz, as has the 2013 premiere of the David Fincher and Kevin Spacey project, House of Cards.

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Whether any of that works remains to be seen – Lilyhammer, the series Netflix got its feet wet with, is still available on the service, but there’s no truly accurate way to tell how it has performed (reviews were mixed). Nevertheless, this next batch is even more content for viewers to choose from, and this time it’s a lot more high profile.

On Wednesday, back at TCA, new and returning series were presented by BBC America, including the much-anticipated second season of The Hour, plus a new espionage series called The Spies of Warsaw with David Tennant, based on the books of Alan Furst. But the big push for the channel is Copper, its first original drama, created by Will Rokos, the Oscar-nominated writer of Monster’s Ball, who also has written and produced for Southland. The period piece is set in 1864 New York City (Five Points, Fifth Avenue “and the emerging African-American community in northern Manhattan) and centers on post-Civil War cops. It’s co-created by Tom Fontana (who will be the showrunner) and executive produced by Barry Levinson.

HBO also presented at TCA on Wednesday, but the major push was the repositioning of Cinemax, which started a year ago with the launch of Strike Back, a series that garnered a surprising amount of critical acclaim and kicks off its second season later this month.

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Kary Antholis, president of programming for Cinemax (and HBO miniseries), said the plan was to “distinguish the Cinemax brand as a premium destination for entertaining, cinematic and compelling original series.”

It won’t be easy to get out of HBO’s shadow or shake off the old “Skinemax” moniker, but Strike Back was a successful start and the channel will follow in October with Hunted, “a conspiracy action thriller set in the world of corporate espionage,” starring Melissa George (In Treatment) and created by The X-Files alum Frank Spotnitz (who also helped on the first season of Strike Back). Then, in early 2013, the channel will premiere the new series Banshee from creator Alan Ball.

Perhaps to drive home how hard it is to stand out in a crowded field, the pay cable channels Encore and Starz came to press tour Thursday, with the spotlight firmly on Boss, the Kelsey Grammer series starting its second season Aug. 17. Although many critics found Boss to be compelling if uneven, the performance of Grammer was brilliant from start to finish, but he was snubbed for an Emmy (something he noted at TCA).

Starz also made inroads with the Sopranos-meets-Mad Men style of Magic City, a series that really found itself near the end of its recently completed first season. Both Boss and Magic City built on the profile the channel created with Spartacus (it has other offerings in 2013, including Da Vinci’s Demons from creator David S. Goyer).

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The question is, how do these series stand out in a crowded field? How do they reach a viewing audience seemingly overwhelmed with options? There’s obviously a lot of money at stake. BBC America needs to come off as more than just a retransmission service for its Brit parent. Starz has to up its game to compete with HBO and Showtime. And Cinemax has to get more series on its bench to be taken seriously as a separate, worthwhile entity from HBO.

The plus side to all of this is that there’s an incredible amount of quality in the marketplace. More scripted series means more people employed, just as it means a higher profile upon success for each entity producing the shows. But none of this is going to be easy. These channels are going to have to steal audience from more established outlets, which puts pressure on channels such as Showtime, HBO, AMC and FX to keep product in the pipeline or risk losing traction – and relevance – with the viewing audience.

It almost makes you think it would be crazy to get into the scripted game. And it just might be, since sustaining this amount of content will rely on generous advertising budgets, creatively effective promotion and serious online and social media components.

We’re about to find out what the threshold is for how many series dedicated viewers can keep up with. Godspeed, everybody.

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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