TCA Journal No. 1: Don't Drown in the Stream

The Television Critics Association summer press tour kicks off. Not surprisingly, there's too much TV. Who will stand out, who will survive and who will get rewarded for the effort?
Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Netflix/AP Images
Ted Sarandos of Netflix

Chief TV critic Tim Goodman will be writing these journals throughout the Television Critics Association summer press tour, offering insight, analysis, counterspin and some snark from the nearly three-week industry presentation.

This is the year of change in a different way than last year was the year of change. You can feel it. You can sense that the change is felt more deeply and more dangerously than ever in the television industry, even if every year it feels like the rules have been reinvented.

This new change is both familiar and proto-untypical. Netflix was the first content provider, or platform, or programming entity — choose your description — to present at TCA this year, taking up the bulk of Tuesday. Everybody thinks they know Netflix like it's been around making waves in the industry for a decade, but Netflix is a lot more fresh-faced than it is familiar. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos opened his remarks by noting, with a hint of surprise, that he and Netflix are, relatively speaking, interlopers.

"It's hard to believe this is only the second time I've been in front of you at the TCAs and only the third year that we've been in the business of creating original programming for Netflix," he said.

Hard to believe, indeed. It was only the second time in front of television critics from across the country and Canada, but the very first time that Netflix had a proper day to itself. "On February 1st of 2013, less than 30 months ago, we only had two shows, just 21 episodes of content, hardly enough to get your attention for very long," Sarandos said. "Today I stand here to kick off our presentation of Netflix original programming for this year. That includes 16 scripted dramas and comedies, nine original documentary features, three documentary series, 12 original stand-up comedy specials, 17 original series for kids. In total, we'll be releasing about 475 hours of original programming in the U.S. this year."

Translation: Change comes at you fast. Just a baby about two years ago, Netflix has 34 Emmy nominations this year alone — one less nomination than Fox, four less than FX but more than every other cable channel out there other than the HBO monolith (which destroyed everyone with 126).  

On Aug. 3, Amazon will present five series to critics: three new ones and two returning series, including Golden Globe winner and Emmy contender Transparent, which is the odds-on favorite to snag the first Emmy for a streaming site.

We've been warned that the game was changing, but it's already been changed. The recent Emmy nominations were the exclamation point on that. Particularly for the cable industry, where niche channels are often distinguished by critical acclaim and awards recognition, both Netflix and Amazon (with 12 nominations) crashed the party in a significant way. It's one thing to be the next wave — a phenomenon yet to come — and quite another to come crashing down on top of everyone in the present. The Emmy nominations were a bracing announcement of streaming's arrival, and the current TCA press tour, with new shows from Netflix and Amazon aiming to steal viewers in the coming season and snatch away Emmy nominations for next year, is a reminder that if other cable channels don't keep pace they'll be surpassed.

But the truly worrisome challenge — for cable channels and broadcast networks who will present later during the TCA press tour — is that advances made by Netflix and Amazon are only representative tips of a much larger iceberg. Making television that gets noticed is harder than it was six months ago and a lot harder than it was a year ago. It's almost inconceivable that more has become more, but it has — and quality has gone up.