Critic's Notebook: The Downside Of Stupid Money

Sure, the gold rush of overall deals for content creators is great, unless it shuts out new voices.
Left, Axelle/Bauer-Griffin, right, Amanda Edwards, both Getty Images
Lena Waithe and Greg Berlanti are two examples of how the content boom is helping creators and in the case of Berlanti especially, making them very rich.

It might be important to start this column with a firm belief: Everybody should make as much money as they can, so long as they're not breaking laws and/or hurting people in the process. That should cover it. Go, capitalism! 

That said, wow, the insanity surrounding these overall deals in the TV industry is officially ridiculous. And yes, believing that the market for big-name television creators is overheated and unwise is a little bit like complaining about sports stars killing it in the free agent market. It's not your money, why even care?

Well, in the case of the overall deal mania — which just saw Mindy Kaling get "a massive six-year, mid-eight-figure overall deal with Warner Bros. Television" on Thursday (according to The Hollywood Reporter) — it means the industry is panicking about having enough content and is doubling or even tripling down on proven hit-makers rather than doing the harder work of discovering and nurturing fresh talent. Somebody should care about that imbalance.

Translation: TV outlets want one person to create 10 shows instead of 10 people creating 10 shows because that one person they gave all the money to is "proven" and thus a better bet, according to their thinking. But that logic isn't entirely true and very, very relative.

More on that in a moment, but let's do a short recap: 

This mad rush for content creators is great for Kaling, who created The Mindy Project and recently wrote the movie Late Night, just as it was great for Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat) a few days earlier, and before them, Greg Berlanti (everything), Chuck Lorre (everything), Ryan Murphy (everything) and Shonda Rhimes (also everything). 

You could argue that Kaling and Khan are not in the "everything" category quite yet, but cheers to them for nailing down that money. The streaming wars are upon us and have been for a while, which is why you're seeing stupid money from Apple, Netflix and Amazon, WarnerMedia, Disney+ and, soon enough, NBCUniversal. This doesn't exclude Hulu, HBO, FX, CBS/Showtime and others from spending stupid money, of course, it's just that so far others are spending outrageously more. Give it time, though.

OK, back to the logic behind all of this. Content is king. The industry is in a massive expansion mode. In this gold rush comes a need to find that person who not only pans more gold than the prospector next to them but in their spare time also miraculously turns straw into gold. See: Murphy, Rhimes, Lorre, Berlanti. Hell, Berlanti has 15 series on the air (a TV record, plus he recently had three pilot orders). In the summer of 2018, Berlanti re-upped at Warner Bros. Television for a reported four years at $400 million.

What's worse than stupid money? Insanely stupid money? But who the hell knows — maybe Berlanti is underpaid. That's a lot of TV series, after all. Oh, and Berlanti has a separate film deal at Fox. 

His TV deal with Warner Bros. Television came after Netflix gave Murphy $300 million and Rhimes $100 million (their deals are structured differently, with Rhimes able to possibly make a lot more than her base). Lorre has been at Warner Bros. Television forever and makes so much money on the backend it's probably illegal to make it public. His contract isn't up until 2020, the same year that Dick Wolf's deal at Universal Television is up, which is why you can already hear the sound of money being printed in the distance.

And there are plenty of other people who are likely to add to their riches soon enough, with Seth MacFarlane and J.J. Abrams, topping a very long list.

Again, if this wasn't clear before — fantastic for them.

But not everybody on this list will continue to create hits. Making popular television is difficult. Making great television is even more difficult. Fusing the two is, what, a rainbow unicorn? Some of these creators will make shows remarkably similar to the last show they made — and yes, in some quarters, that's precisely what people doling out the money are paying them to do. But television is littered with copies of copies failing. Of styles crashing out of fashion. What brings down a king is often an upstart, a series from an unknown, created with boundless ambition and talent that wasn't keeping one eye and half a brain on the money pile while doing it.

Television success is hard, but maybe the hardest thing of all — impossible, even — is predicting success. And that, more than anything, is forging this expensive desperation. Oh my God you did it once, please do it again! We'll pay you anything!

Of course the biggest hitters on this list are outliers. They are the ones who come up with multiple hits — even when the concept and definition of what a hit really is has shifted from the time when Wolf and Lorre smoked the biggest cigars and drove the biggest cars. That's why all these big names are making this magic money.

Except, well, not everybody listed above has produced at the same level, which is clear without even pointing fingers. But the money still flows.

Beyond this batch? The logic behind the largesse is missing. People all over town are getting sweet-ass glittering deals — all together now — and for what? To make a copy of the bad series they made three years ago? To contribute something marginally interesting to the pile over at Netflix? To get something on a broadcast network that's both redundant and reductive? To reboot someone else's IP? That's where the true crazy resides — and the real worry. Does locking down anybody who has done anything leave new or heretofore unknown content creators on the outside looking in?

That's the deeper concern, or should be. Because at some point gambling on history comes up snake eyes. The networks have created a problem they can't seem to escape, because once everybody started tuning in for a Wolf or Lorre or Rhimes show, then the networks gave them more Wolf and Lorre and Rhimes shows.

But the pattern confirms the bias and then it gets put on top of other creators who might not have the same track record of ratings success — Berlanti's shows in particular are not all demo or total viewer powerhouses. That's not a knock, but when you're approaching 18 series there comes a point where the notion of a "safe bet" ends up potentially locking out new voices, particularly when those "safe bet" shows aren't exactly reinventing the wheel. Everything looks and feels the same because, well, it is. Viewers then seek out something fresher elsewhere. It's kind of a Catch-22 on the overall deals for high profile content providers, aka human factories. But again, that's a particularly broadcast network/mediocre cable problem. 

The question is whether it will become a problem for streamers as the next frontier expands? Netflix is likely to keep buying up all kinds of shows, no matter how many Murphy or Rhimes shows they have, because having more shows is the business model. 

But it's worth watching if overall deals start plaguing platforms with fewer series, where that personal stamp would be more noticeable.  Exclusive rights deals are less prevalent in the streaming world. The bigger issue is more likely that an overall deal would suck a lot of the budget out of the pile for originals and fewer people would be controlling more shows. At this point its hard to imagine a streamer with such a limited budget to make that a real worry, but hey, as more platforms feel panicky and start overpaying for content providers, it's not entirely an irrational thought.

Right now it's good to see lots of newer voices — Lena Waithe being a great example — getting multiple opportunities and lots of money along with it. There are a lot of others like her and they represent the good side of the opportunities available in the content boom. 

Let's hope that what's happening now — and we're still very much in the early days of all this — is that stupid-money mega deals are for the true unicorns and that a whole lot of other people can get their money and their creative freedom and they are not, in the process, shutting less famous or less experienced people out of the party. 

We're in the Platinum Age of television, but television still needs disparate voices, multiple points of view; fresh, twisted, unique, revolutionary, ultra-imaginative perspectives.