Critic's Notebook: The Peak TV Bubble Hasn't Burst, But It's Leaking

Netflix - H - 2017

It's not exactly fair to use WGN America as the poster channel for Peak TV fallout — a phenomenon that is, if you look around, now upon us. Once WGN America passed on its highest-rated drama, Outsiders, you knew something was up, and now its acclaimed series Underground also looks headed either elsewhere or for extinction. Plenty of struggling niche content providers would take those shows.

But Tribune Media is selling WGN America to Sinclair Media Group, and the latter took one look at the numbers that high-end scripted fare is doing, then glanced over at the budget and came up with a pretty firm "Nope" to signal a retreat into perhaps a cheaper world of reality programming.

This comes less than a month after A&E hung an "out of the scripted business" sign on the door just after its own acclaimed drama, Bates Motel, had its series finale. And if you look closely at the pilots many of the other non-gigantic content providers have in the pipeline, there seems to be some contraction afoot.

It was always much more likely that the Peak TV balloon would leak rather than burst, and we're seeing the signs of that now.

But WGN America is interesting because it will forever be a key player in the "What the hell is happening?" movement that saw virtually everyone getting into the scripted game from out of nowhere, or at least the nearby shrouded bushes. When the channel came out with Salem, a period piece on witches in 2014 that not only had a name creator (Brannon Braga) but a pretty big lead actress (Janet Montgomery), it was only mildly eye-opening — a fringe player in the scripted game. But the arrival of Manhattan three months later was a much bigger deal. Manhattan was ambitious. Manhattan was different. And Manhattan was very, very good, a show that looked like it came from an outlet that had been doing big dramas for some time. Which meant that critics had to remind viewers that they might actually be paying, in their bloated cable bundles, for this thing called WGN America, and that they might want to seek it out.

Three years later, we're all drowning in television, and in lunkheaded hot takes about prestige dramas, and only some of us are updating the Golden Age to the more accurate Platinum Age — but, hey, what a glorious playground TV is right now and you can just do your thing in the sand over there and we're all good.

But what appears to be starting (though maybe "continuing" is the truer word) is the long-anticipated rise of market-force sense-making that will readjust the quantity of scripted series — and, yes, the number of outlets that create them — downward. An Esquire or Pivot goes out of business (or goes digital), an A&E or WGN America cuts all ties to scripted and several outlets seem to be reducing their unbridled zeal for greenlighting numerous projects. And there you go — the other side of the peak.

It's not like there was a lack of people predicting this. Some might have been chattering a little louder than others about the bubble being about to burst rather than, you know, the bubble leaking out sadly after bean counters finally had their oft-repeated warnings heard. But coming down the other side of Peak TV Mountain wasn't tough to anticipate. So that's not really the salient point here. What's important is that empirical evidence exists that sagging back to reality is underway.

Broadcast networks will always be in scripted and are not, despite the multitude of challenges they face, big factors in Peak TV deflation. This is mostly a cable thing, with a very important twist from streamers, which I'll address shortly.

I think what we'll see going forward are channels decently but not overly invested in scripted — like Bravo, History, Lifetime, E!, MTV, Spike (which will be rebranded as the Paramount Network in 2018), TV Land, etc. — thinking long and hard about exactly how involved they will be in the coming years. Are existing shows doing well, ratings-wise and critically? Is there a revenue stream here? Is scripted defining our brand? Can we launch new series off our successful shows? Is there an audience for more or are we near capacity? Can we afford this?

There are channels where it's unclear if they see opportunity ahead or whether there's fatigue from being in the game but not dominating the game — like Freeform or OWN, both of which it might be ill-advised to count out too soon.

A lot of these channels will need to think about what it means to be expanding, contracting or staying put. But the answer, at least definitively, may not come for another year or two. I think many of these channels can weather that wait, but I also wouldn't be at all surprised by any number of them pivoting in another direction.

Some, like Epix and Audience Channel, need to either ramp up or get out. And that's not to single them out — other providers have a limited bench and a slow-growth philosophy, but these two seem to be prime examples of dipping a toe in the scripted waters and then hoping something happens. Nothing happens in a crowded field unless you make it happen or have deep pockets to sustain your indecisive business plan.

The ones that aren't going anywhere are pretty clear: HBO, Showtime, Starz, FX, AMC, BBC America, Sundance, Syfy, USA, TNT, TBS. You might keep an eye on the number of pilots/new projects appearing at BBCA, Sundance and USA specifically, but it's a pretty good bet everybody here stays strongly in the scripted game.

Where things get interesting for the future is with the major streaming players in Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and how not only their expansion — which is well-documented — but their ability to co-opt viewers with one-stop ease will play out.

Meaning, all three are in a commanding position for the future. They buy up new and back-catalog content from almost everybody else listed here while also creating their own, but are becoming a kind of go-to choice for the American consumer — Netflix especially.

That will become increasingly dangerous for everybody else.

I've already written (and talked about) how years of fantastic high-quality TV series have created a glut that will be increasingly enticing to people who want to cut the cord and either kill off their clunky cable packages or, inevitably, stream everything. That is unquestionably the future. It doesn't preclude discovery but it lessens the necessity — especially if the economic circumstances of the viewer are a factor.

Television has already entered a realm where there's a lack of urgency in discovering new content because there's already too much excellent content. (And too many people in the industry seem unaware that this is the new world order.)

So, what does that mean for the future? Or now? Well, it's a great thing for the consumer of television, less so for the maker of television. Minus a zeitgeisty hit, ratings will decrease. Production quality can't go down (and thus reduce budgets) because the bar has been set so high for so many years (though, in fairness, sometimes outright entertainment value eclipses production value, as any fan of Stranger Things can attest). Basically, we'll see fewer series being made (and fewer outlets making them) because there's no lack of fantastic new and previously existing options in the marketplace.

This has already begun.

But again, where it gets interesting and undefined, is how streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu may change the American mindset on how to consume television by virtue of their current convenience and the fact that streaming is the future.

Translation: Forget tech-savvy early adopters who knew this ages ago, but most other Americans have been "learning how to stream" to their big-screen TVs (the distinction between phones and tablets is important) the last few years. Netflix, Amazon — where they can conveniently buy the items needed to stream — and Hulu have had time to condition viewers to understand that not only is the technology easy, but that, during this learning curve, they've hoarded all the shows you need to watch.

Now people just assume that great HBO and FX series, for example, will end up on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. And once late adopters are comfortable with streaming, they will look at their cable bills and, well, that's going to be bloody. These patterns and emerging habits are in place. They will be difficult to undo.

Viewers at some point will likely wait for HBO and FX content, for example, to show up on a "viewers also liked" or "similar shows" menu from a streamer rather than seek out those shows from the source.

HBO and FX and some others can survive that (with deals or workarounds). But many of the channels mentioned earlier? They can't. And they will go the way of A&E and WGN America.

The bubble may not have loudly burst, but it's leaking, and a convergence of issues are going to make the fallout spill all over the industry.