Has Peak TV Reached Its Summit? Industry Insiders Weigh In

Susan Kelechi Watson, Sam Esmail, Elizabeth Banks, Dan Levy and Dan Fogelman_Split - Getty - H 2020
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During the first few weeks of January, TV networks (and select streamers) presented panels for more than 115 new or returning series at the Television Critics Association's semi-annual press tour. During the two-week marathon, The Hollywood Reporter surveyed nearly three dozen top stars, producers and executives about their own TV viewing habits and whether they thought the Peak TV era has reached its summit.

The short answer: maybe.

"It's an interesting time of transition and change," said Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan. "There's more amazing television right now than there has ever been. There's just so many choices for people. It's a wonderful thing to see that small little shows that wouldn't have had a chance before have a chance now because the bar [for entry] isn't as high."

Susan Kelechi Watson, who stars in NBC's This Is Us, says she's of two minds. "Sometimes I ask myself how much farther can it go? But in some ways I'm like, every actor should be acting. I've been on the other side of this! I remember what that was like — you had about 15 shows you could get on and that was it and I wasn't in that group. So, part of it is that, part of it is the artist in me wants only the great content. But there is a lot of TV and there's no way to watch it all. But I will say the positive thing is that it does afford a lot of us the opportunity to create and have our programming be a part of this wide spectrum of what's happening."

That wider spectrum will allow creators to experiment more, says Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, at TCA to discuss the second season of Amazon's Homecoming.

"We're going to go into an age where we mess around with the format," he said. "Homecoming, we did something with just changing an hour to a half-hour — it seems like such a simple change but it caused a lot of conversation and I think that's just a tip of the iceberg in terms of how we can play around with format, especially with new delivery services like streaming platforms. And I think that hasn't even really started yet in good earnest, but the fact that people are spending a shitload of money on great content and great storytelling, I mean you can't complain about that."

FX CEO John Landgraf famously coined the term "Peak TV" half a decade ago to describe the sheer number of television shows available to viewers. He later went on to admit the golden age he was describing was perhaps a "gilded age" instead, and that was two years ago when the total number of scripted series that aired hadn't even cracked 500. At Landgraf's 2020 executive session, he and his team had counted 532 drama and comedy series that aired in 2019. And, what's more, Landgraf and his research team have stopped measuring TV series by platform (broadcast, cable and streaming) because of the increasingly blurred lines that come with things like FX on Hulu and the ever-changing world of windowing across a company's ecosystem.

That 532 number includes critically acclaimed series like Chernobyl (a favorite of Don Cheadle, star of Showtime's Black Monday, and Alex Garland, creator of FX on Hulu's sci-fi drama Devs), but also more than a dozen broadcast series that ended after one season.

"We're making so many shows and we're making such great TV, but what is the fraction of great TV that we're watching versus shows that are being made? I guess it's a chicken or the egg kind of situation. Are we getting the great TV because we're making so much content or would those shows have existed if we were making less?" said Schitt's Creek creator/star Dan Levy, whose own Canadian show airs domestically on Pop but didn't actually break out until landing on Netflix.

As John Slattery, a two-time 2020 TCA panelist (starring in Fox's Next and FX's Mrs. America), noted, "It's harder to to send out a singular message and it's harder to make a dent in the din of of noise and even all the quality shows, particularly."

This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman — who recently added a second show on Hulu starring Steve Martin and Martin Short — said that just means watercooler shows like HBO's Watchmen — a favorite of Cheadle's, too — will be less prevalent: "We're going to have fewer and fewer juggernauts because I think it's going to become more a la carte, person by person."

Celebs who made those a la carte choices included Esmail, David Simon (The Plot Against America), Elizabeth Banks (Mrs. America), Daveed Diggs (Snowpiercer, Central Park), Awkwafina (Nora From Queens), Margo Martindale (Mrs. America), Loren Bouchard (Central Park), Al Pacino (Hunters), 50 Cent (For Life), Edie Falco (Tommy) and Josh Gad (Central Park) — all said they subscribe to multiple streaming services. While most subscribe to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, a few also name-checked CBS All Access (Esmail) and HBO Go (NBC boss Paul Telegdy).

But while it's easy for industry insiders to subscribe to niche services, it's ultimately prohibitively expensive for the average TV viewer.

"It’s fair to say that while it’s not a zero-sum game, the average consumer will not subscribe to seven different SVOD services," said Nat Geo president Courteney Monroe, who has Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+, Netflix and Apple TV+ in addition to her cable, and plans to subscribe to HBO Max and Peacock when they launch later this year.

Said Gad, in Pasadena to discuss Apple's musical animated comedy Central Park, "The challenge and the fear that I have is are we overwhelming middle class and lower income earning families who don't necessarily have the opportunity to see all of this amazing content. And I hope at some point that the a la carte functionality of all of these services becomes something more affordable to the everyday consumer because I think we're going to lose a lot of would-be viewers if we don't cater to what everybody can afford."

While Levy, Watson and Power producer/star 50 Cent all admitted to cutting the cord, most of the surveyed hadn't — including This Is Us favorite Chrissy Metz, both headliners of Amazon's Hunters (Logan Lerman and Pacino), and Fox reality boss Rob Wade.

Alex Trebek (Jeopardy!), Ethan Hawke (The Good Lord Bird) and Diggs named live sports as their reason for holding on to cable, while Esmail and Eugene Levy (Schitt's Creek) both cited the need for news. Bob's Burgers creator Bouchard named both, and Cheadle blamed laziness while Falco blamed technological ineptitude for keeping her cable subscription. (Rita Moreno, Heidi Klum and Naomi Campbell all blamed busy schedules for their lack of TV viewing at all.)

Seven Worlds, One Planet producer Hans Zimmer is living bi-continentally, so while he does still pay for cable, he has his own system to watch everything: "I have two iPads — one's got an English account on it, one's got an American account on it. Because the dreadful thing is there's so many amazing programs being made in foreign countries that you can't see here, because somebody buys the remake rights, never remakes, so they just sit on some shelf. And because people don't seem to be able to get past subtitles, they miss a whole world of extraordinary storytelling out there."

Garland, too, sticks mainly to iTunes: "I know it's very old-fashioned but it means I can buy it and have a library and I quite like having a library, because you can browse it in the way you can browse a bookshelf. And I find with the streaming services you can't quite do that."

So, what are the stars watching? The most popular choice was HBO's Succession (loved by Home Before Dark's Jim Sturgess, both Levys, Martindale, Lerman and Garland), and other name-checked series included Homeland (both Levys), The Crown (Martindale and Dan Levy), Wu-Tang: An American Saga (50 Cent), Ozark (Eugene Levy), When They See Us (Cheadle) and Unbelievable (Martindale).

Esmail and wife Emmy Rossum love HBO's The Outsider, Apple's Servant, Disney+'s The Mandalorian and CBS All Access' The Twilight Zone, while Metz has recently been bingeing HBO's Mrs. Fletcher and obsessing over Survivor with her publicist. Nat Geo's Monroe has been catching up on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Billions, and watching High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and Cheer with her daughter.

Another popular choice: Fleabag, recently sampled by Cheadle, Dan Levy and the legendary Norman Lear. Said Lear, as he was trying to recall the award-winning comedy's title: "If you saw it, she said 'Cunt.' I couldn't believe it. Fleabag! I had never seen it, I could not get over it. ... It's brilliant. It's wonderfully written and brilliantly performed. After all these hundreds and thousands of hours it's its own thing. It's not like anything else."

Ultimately though, the glut of options was on everyone's mind.

Said Cheadle, the only person to mention Quibi — the actor is starring in a sci-fi series for the soon-to-launch short-form platform, Don't Look Deeper — "It's a brave new world and the ways that we are obviously taking in content now is very different. Quibi shows up and is that going to change things? Who knows. But it's really for me more about the storytelling than anything. I'm platform agnostic."

So how will consumers be able to navigate those choices? Fox alternative president Wade echoed Garland's desire for curation — in fact, it's why he still subscribes to cable.

"I don't understand people who cut the cord. I love flicking through the channels. I love finding new stuff. I want to be told what to watch," he said. "I was just in Ireland on vacation and we didn't have TV and I had my subscriptions. It was great for the first couple of days, but then after that I was like, 'I don't know what to watch.' I wanted someone to say, 'Tonight there's a great new show starting,' and I wanted to trust that person. There used to be, if you went into Blockbuster, all the videos. And then the people who used to work there would have their [favorites] — Dave's choice, Rob's choice. They were curated. Maybe Dave would be an older guy so [he'd suggest] Rambo. And then you knew the personality of these [people]. You need that. You need to know the personality. So I think at a place like Fox, our job is to build a group of programming that people trust and want to come to. ... Yeah, there's a lot of television, and if we want to keep really great TV we need to figure out a way of making that work for everyone."