Pasadena, Calif. — In the past few months astute fans of scripted TV have probably noticed multiple TV pile-ups, days when a slew of new scripted series debut.
Gone are the days when TV viewers had to worry about that one night of the week when a favorite show on NBC airs at the same time as another favorite on ABC. Now fans of TV drama have full plates that continue to get fuller.
Netflix’s recently announced plan to revive ABC’s “Full House” as “Fuller House” is just one indication of scripted TV overload: There are more outlets creating scripted content than ever before, whether it’s on broadcast TV (PBS has more scripted drama than ever), cable (even baby networks unheard of by most consumers, like Pivot, are putting on scripted shows) or streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.).
On March 1, three scripted series premiered on broadcast channels (Fox’s “Last Man on Earth,” ABC’s “Secrets and Lies” and CBS’s “Battle Creek”). But that was small potatoes compared with April 5, the premiere date for NBC’s “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” WGN America’s second season of “Salem,” PBS’s “Masterpiece” production of “Wolf Hall,” NBC’s “American Odyssey” and the final season of AMC’s “Mad Men.”
A decade ago, “Mad Men,” had yet to debut (it came on in 2007) and original, scripted series in cable were generally limited to a handful of basic cable channels, (USA had “Monk,” FX scored an early hit with “The Shield,” and TNT was just debuting “The Closer.”)
“The amount of competition is just literally insane,” said FX CEO John Landgraf in January, pointing to FX research that found the number of scripted original series on basic and pay cable grew from 26 in 1999 to 199 in 2014, a 665 percent increase. Add to that 129 scripted series in broadcast TV and 24 scripted streaming series for a grand total of 352 original scripted series airing in 2014.
FX compiled a list of all original content on TV, scripted and unscripted, and it came to a 30-page book of more than 1,700 original seasons of TV programming in 2014.
With all this scripted content, it seems likely there will be a tipping point.
“I do think channels will start to go away or retrench drastically in terms of the amount of money they’re going to be able to spend on marketing and production,” Landgraf said. “I don’t know when that’s gonna happen. Part of what’s happening now is there’s a really aggressive scrum, there’s a sense there’s gonna be a shakeout, and everybody’s trying to grab a little bit of stable ground before that shakeout happens. ... I don’t think we’ve hit the peak but I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back and 2015 was the peak, and then it declines from there.”
Jeff Wachtel, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment president and chief content officer, agreed the tipping point is coming.
“The golden age of television naturally spawns what might be a glut of television,” he said. “We must be at some kind of a peak right now, but every time I say that there’s another interesting network doing an unexpected show, so I’m not really sure yet.”
Discovery Channel president Rich Ross said scripted TV is just taking “a bigger bite of the pie and there is more biting to be done.” He cited the library value and brand value of scripted content as working in its favor.
That appears to be the impetus at several NBCUniversal-owned cable networks that jumped into scripted programming for the first time in the past six months including Bravo (with “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce”) and E! (with “The Royals”).
Bonnie Hammer, chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group, said adding scripted programming ideally helps a network expand its audience by trying something different. Scripted shows, although more expensive to produce than unscripted programs, offer more financial incentive over a longer period of time. And Bravo is not backing down: The network recently announced three new scripted series in development.
“If you’re going to expand your audience, you have to get a little out of your comfort zone,” Hammer said in January. “Scripted series sell domestically and internationally and air differently than reality does. Reality you can air and air on your own channel, but it’s not yet lucrative in terms of selling it in other markets. It gets so attached to your own brand that as far as its financial value, its long tail has yet to be tested whereas with scripted if you have a hit and it gets sold in syndication or to Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, there’s tremendous value there.”
In terms of what scripted series bring to an individual network, executives said it’s all about getting noticed.
“People are trying to get attention and scripted is a way to do that,” said Ross of Discovery Channel, which attempted one scripted miniseries, 2014’s “Klondike.” Ross said he intends to make more scripted programs for the network. “I am building a machine to be able to do that yearly. You can’t just dip your toe in the water and expect consumers to keep coming to your network if you don’t keep providing content.”
That’s why Landgraf has consistently raised the number for how many series he thinks should air on FX. There were two original series when he joined the company in 2004. Now he thinks the network needs 20 scripted shows annually to be fully perceived as a destination network.
“You have to have comedy, drama, miniseries, something relevant on the air at all times in every quarter to remain part of the conversation all year long because otherwise it’s just too competitive to be meaningful,” he said. “You’re struggling to be good enough and big enough that your brand, your logo is worth paying attention to otherwise you’re irrelevant to the consumer. Your shows may be relevant, but you’re irrelevant unless you’re the center of enough excellence that you’re worth paying attention to.”