Being a Consumer in the Time of Peak TV

During the Television Critics Association press tour last month, FX president John Landgraf made headlines with his pronouncement that we are experiencing the peak time for television in terms of the number of scripted shows being produced. Estimates put the total number of original shows airing in 2015 above 400, continuing the increases in TV quantity seen over the past few years. It has inspired a slew of articles by critics about the truth behind the statement and their own feelings on the matter, all of which I would recommend to all interested.

They have all made some great insights about the way that having such a bounty of television means that stories by and about different sorts of people are able to make on air when they may have previously been looked over and how small shows have been allowed to thrive on networks just getting into the scripted programming race. 

Rather than simply recap their opinions, I wanted to take a look at what the era of Peak TV means for consumers. In a time when even people who are paid to watching television and share their thoughts with us are unable to keep up with the quantity of good shows, how are the rest of us dealing with Too Much TV and what does it mean for the list of shows we want to watch that I know we all have?

In order to do this, I looked at my own To-Watch list. It’s excessive and contains more shows than I can reasonably watch in a lifetime, especially at the rate that it is growing. So that makes it a good place for me to begin to explore Peak TV in my own life and hopefully some of my insights apply to you as well.  

What I Did

I had a pretty good starting place. My TV Show list is divided into multiple tabs. Each currently watching show has the show name and network it’s originally broadcast on as well as an indicator of episode length (hour-long vs. half-hour). My to-watch list has the show name, number of episodes, and whether or not it has finished its run. All of my numbers were as of Monday morning (8/31/15) because as we are living in a time of Peak TV and I am a show hoarder with a fondness for lists, more shows have been added since then.

For a show to qualify for my Currently Watching list, I need to have been caught up on the show at one point, even if I’m slightly behind now. It also needs to either have some form of continuation planned (either a new season or announced wrap-up movie) or at the very least, have an unknown renewal status.

All shows that I have not been caught up on at one point in time are located in my To Watch list. If a show has already completed its run, episode counts reflect the total number of episodes. If a show has announced that the upcoming season will be the last and provided an episode count, it is considered completed and the episode count includes the unaired episodes. If a show is still airing, episode counts include everything through the end of its most recently finished season.

This includes shows that I am currently catching up on, so the episode count reflects the number for the series as a whole, not the portion of the show I have remaining. There is about a 400 episode difference in the total episode count and the count when I subtract out the episodes I’ve seen of the 5 shows I’m currently catching up on.

What I Found

Currently Airing & Watching Shows

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I currently watch 45 shows, which fortunately are staggered throughout the year. They are also a pretty good mix of more traditional network shows with 22-24 episodes per season and shorter cable/online/import shows which may run 6-13.

Unwatched Shows – Overall Look

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Then we get to my big ridiculous list of all the shows I would like to see. There are a lot. Fortunately for me, half of them have fewer than 43 episodes (at the moment, that number should increase next May when I update my episode counts). That makes it almost seem manageable. Then there is ER, which has 331 episodes and it seems a little more impossible again. There is a very wide range of episode counts per show, with the shortest being Death Comes to Pemberley at 3 episodes and the aforementioned ER at 331 episodes.

Currently Airing & Unwatched

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There were fewer of these than I originally expected, honestly. Once a show gets past a few seasons, it’s hard to try to catch up and I usually don’t. And then there is Grey’s Anatomy that I’ve been catching up on for over a year.

Ended & Unwatched

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And finally, we have my favorite category. I missed so many great shows that I want to catch up on at some point and the shows that fit in this category have been some of the most enjoyable to watch. Sometimes they are the big, critically loved shows and sometimes they are just tinier ones that were recommended by a friend or a random discovery on Netflix but I have had a lot of fun with these. And they don’t come with the pressure of adding another show to my regular rotation.

What I Think

So what does all of this mean in terms of the Peak TV phenomenon? Let’s start with my Currently Watching list. Within these 45 shows, 21 different networks/services are represented. The number shrinks to 19 when I look at the American provider of my two imported shows, rather than their original channels. That is a lot of options for content providers. More people are getting into the scripted programming arena than ever before, which certainly contributes to Peak TV. But as many others have pointed out, it also allows different people to enter the game, which is exciting and needed for the industry to evolve.

When I factor in the currently airing shows that I’ve yet to start, my total jumps to 98 shows, a mere quarter of what is expected to be available this year. This is the number I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. I am approximately at my limit with the number of currently airing shows I can reasonably keep up with. I can’t imagine adding in those 53 shows, let alone any portion of the remaining 300 available to me.

Surprisingly, this makes me feel better. Yes, there is in fact too much television for any one person to consume. But because the number is so extreme, it also feels as though you are no longer expected to be current on all the possible shows someone else may ask you about. We’re all in the same situation of being overwhelmed by our options, professional critics included.

This is the part I find exciting about living in the era of Peak TV. There is so much out there that can speak to us and engage us on both an entertainment level and a deeper emotional level. It may be less easy to find just by flipping channels, but Peak TV also means peak reporting about TV so with a little bit of searching, it’s easy to find something that fits your particular needs. I would rather be overwhelmed with choices than miss out on some of the unique shows and creative voices that we currently getting to experience. I would rather have more shows that are less widely known that I really love and connect with than a few very popular shows that I only kind of like. 

The downside of this is that we lose some of the watercooler discussion aspect of TV that used to be so prevalent (thanks for the discussion on this, Mike!). It’s not that easy any more to find people who are watching (and caught up with) the same shows that we are, especially not in our offline lives. The internet still facilitates discussion within a fanbase and as part of larger critical thought so we aren’t without an outlet for our thoughts on a show, but TV’s use as a topic of casual conversation has gotten more difficult. In general, this isn’t a change that bothers me since I seem to want to talk about TV in a very different way than casual viewers but it is a weird feeling when a coworker asks if I’ve seen any of several different shows and my answers is always “no”. I feel like I watch a lot of TV, and I do watch about 12% of what’s available which is probably a higher than average number, so I always think I should have more in common with others’ viewing habits than I seem to. For what it’s worth, the show that I’ve been able to talk about most consistently with casual TV viewers is The Big Bang Theory. There is still something to be said for the very popular network show. 

In a somewhat inconvenient and somewhat wonderful turn of events, the quality and variety of TV shows today along with the rise of streaming services has led to a renewed interest in shows that have already ended. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime allow us to watch the full run of a show that has been over for several years. While this is wonderful for TV fans, it also makes the problem of having too much TV even worse.

Already ended shows are a steady part of my TV watching habits. Three shows in my Top 5 were watched on Netflix after they ended but I’m better off for having watched them. Since I know there are only so many currently airing shows I want to have going at the same time, if I need something new to watch, I’m most likely to turn to a show that’s already done. I know others prefer to catch up on current things and leave the ended ones for later so this may not be a problem that all of you share. But if you’re like me and feel the need to watch everything, you know that trying to juggle current things with ended classics and ended shows that weren’t classics but still loved and potentially worth watching can be a bit overwhelming. Even when there is little new on TV, I’m never without something to watch and discover for the first time and it is simultaneously worrying and amazing.

Also contributing to the problem is the increased availability of imported TV. Not only do we have too much American TV to watch, we also are able to watch a fraction of the TV that is made elsewhere. Some of it makes it to our traditional (though sometimes obscure) TV channels, like Downton Abbey (UK) on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, Doctor Who (UK) on BBC America, Les Revenants (France) on Sundance TV, and Please Like Me (Australia) on Pivot, and Borgen (Denmark) on Link TV. Others are distributed online through more standard streaming sites, often exclusively, such as The Fall on Netflix and Miranda on Hulu along the growing number of Korean soap operas and telenovelas on both sites. Anime is available to stream from Netflix and Hulu but also through Crunchyroll. More still are available through purchase on Amazon or iTunes and there is still a great number of loved and highly praised international TV that just never makes it over to America due to music licensing issues or perceived lack of interest.

It certainly adds to the problem of Too Much TV but it’s a part of the problem that I love. A subtitled Danish political drama is not going to be for everyone but I like that it’s available for those who want to try a different take on a genre we’re familiar with. I want to be able to experience other cultures in some small way through the content they produce. Even with a similar concept, differences in norms and expectations can lead to drastically different results and those differences are exciting to me. 

It’s very clear to me that we are living in a time of Peak TV. From a business perspective, there probably is too much TV. In a world with so many choices, how do you get viewers to tune in to your show? It means that there are some fantastic shows that never found an audience and get canceled too early. It means that other shows somehow manage to stay on the air despite mediocre numbers at best. I’m sure it’s very frustrating to be a network executive or make programing decisions in the face of that.

But from a consumer and fan perspective, I can’t think of a better time to be a TV fan. Yes, I would have loved more of Selfie, Enlisted, or Bunheads but I loved the few episodes we did get and don’t think the time I spent watching them was a waste. For however brief a time, I got to enjoy them and allow them to enrich my viewing and my life. I love my unusual, little-watched shows like Rectify and Looking that may not have existed in a world with fewer options. The quantity allows networks to take chances and we’re the ones who benefit from those chances. Of course some of them won’t work, but the feeling of finding a hidden gem and treasuring it is worth letting some duds in. There may be too much TV for one person to watch it all but the excess leads to a better overall viewing experience for each of us, limited as it is.

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