TV Long View: Peak TV's Summit Grows Ever Higher

New platforms from Disney and Apple, along with HBO Max and Peacock coming in 2020, put the lie to the notion that scripted programming will top out anytime soon.
Courtesy of Disney+; Courtesy of Apple TV+
'The Mandalorian' (left), 'Dickinson'

Since Nov. 1, a half-dozen scripted series have premiered on streaming platforms that did not exist a year ago — or even on Oct. 31.

Two more shows will arrive on one of those platforms, Apple TV+, before the end of the year. (The second, Disney+, doesn't have anymore scripted premieres until January.)

In 2020, two more big services, WarnerMedia's HBO Max and Comcast's Peacock, will launch in people's living rooms (and a third, Jeffrey Katzenberg's Quibi, on their mobile devices), while Disney+ and Apple TV+ will ramp up their releases of original material.

When FX chief John Landgraf coined the term "Peak TV" in August 2015, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon were the major streaming players and ad-supported cable was on its way to a record number of scripted shows in a calendar year (186). "My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America," the exec said at the time, "and that we'll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond."

That … has not happened. Some cable outlets have indeed pulled back on scripted programming since then — basic cable channels aired 144 scripted shows in 2018, down 23 percent from 2015. YouTube entered and then largely exited the scripted business over the same time period. But in 2017, the number of scripted series (as counted annually by FX's research team) grew to 487 from 455 the previous year. There was another slight uptick in 2018 to 495 shows, and the count will likely pass 500 this year.

Of course, Landgraf likely didn't know then — likely almost no one in the industry did — that three conglomerates with long histories in legacy media would, by mid-2020, launch ambitious streaming platforms that leverage their huge back catalogs, while also producing a host of originals. Nor did Landgraf or anyone else anticipate that a huge tech company previously focused on hardware and ways to deliver other producers' content would start making shows of its own.

But as HBO Max and Peacock loom and Apple and Disney continue to add to their rosters, the peak of Peak TV is poised to make another leap.

Disney+ has announced a half-dozen originals that are set to premiere in 2020, and it's possible that either of its first two shows (Star Wars tale The Mandalorian and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) could return next year. Apple plans to roll out a couple of shows each month, potentially adding 20 or more to the pile over the course of the year. HBO Max has greenlit 20 scripted series aimed at adults, and Peacock has at least seven more.

Not all the Peacock and HBO Max projects will debut the moment the services come online, but it would be no surprise if 12 to 15 shows between the two premiered next year. If all the Disney+ shows slated for 2020 make their dates, and Apple stays on pace with its rollout (and debuts new seasons of any of the shows currently airing), that's an additional 40 or so series.

Factor in a 5 percent growth rate over 2019 from all previously existing outlets, and the number of scripted shows available to American audiences in 2020 could easily top 550 and even approach 600. (That does not count whatever might happen with Quibi, which will specialize in shortform shows whose episodes, or "chapters," will run eight or 10 minutes each.)

It is more than any one person could hope to consume, even assuming that person would pay for each individual streaming service on top of receiving cable and broadcast channels. And as the new players seem to be emulating the Netflix model of offering something for just about everyone, there's no sign of the peak leveling off.

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