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We can’t seem to stop watching TV – but how much of it is mediocre?

With streaming giants Netflix and Apple spending billions on new shows, viewing habits continue to evolve. How does today’s landscape compare to a decade ago?

We can’t seem to stop watching TV – but how much of it is mediocre?

(Art: Chern Ling)

On New Year’s Eve, I became gripped by a debilitating migraine that would keep me in bed for two weeks. Each morning, with the lights off and curtains tightly drawn, I opened up Netflix to see what the TV and film streaming service was promoting to me that day. As I slipped in and out of sleep, I watched everything.

There was Spinning Out, a teen drama about a bipolar figure skater; Virgin River, a romance about a Los Angeles woman who moves to a rural cabin for a “fresh start”; You, in which a former teenage pin-up plays a sociopathic stalker who locks the women he dates in a glass cage. Nothing was beneath me.

(Photo: Unsplash/Mollie Sivaram)

It turned out that my enforced Netflix spree, with endless gloomy days spent in sweatpants, was a harbinger of what was to come for the population at large only weeks later. 

The coronavirus pandemic has taken hold of everyday life so quickly and completely that things suddenly feel like a science-fiction film, albeit one in which being a couch potato is part of our civic duty.

Steven Soderbergh's 2011 thriller Contagion has shot up the charts once again. (Photo: Contagion)

Unsurprisingly, people are turning to their screens for connection, or to regain a feeling of control in a world where little is available. Young people in China, barred from leaving the house to socialise, are holding online streaming parties with full DJ sets.

Worried Americans are glued to cable TV news for coronavirus updates, spiking viewing figures by 50 per cent, according to television measurement provider Alphonso. Contagion, a nearly 10-year-old Steven Soderbergh film in which Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law fight off a deadly virus, was a massive hit on Netflix.

TV WAS MADE FOR MOMENTS LIKE THIS

In a sense, television companies have inadvertently been preparing for this moment for years, making more TV than could ever have been conceivably justified by consumer demand. Even if I had spent every single day of 2019 watching the full season of a release, there would still be hundreds of shows I wouldn’t have time to get to.

Last year, the industry in the US made 532 original scripted TV shows, doubling the 266 shows made eight years earlier. After years on the sidelines, giants such as Disney and Warner have joined Netflix in pouring billions into a battle for the future of TV. 

A smartphone with displayed "Disney" logo is seen on the keyboard in front of displayed "Streaming service" words in this illustration taken March 24, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic/File Photo)

Amazon and Apple, two of the richest companies in the world, are doing the same, resulting in a perfect storm of endless television. Hollywood spent an estimated US$120 billion (S$171 billion) on original programming last year, with Disney alone splashing out US$28 billion to build a content war chest for its planned Netflix-killer, Disney+.

As a business reporter, my immediate task has been to probe whether these investments will pay off. But as a viewer, I’ve increasingly been wondering how the infinite choices of television shows are affecting culture at large.

When HBO’s Game Of Thrones concluded last year, some media pundits postured that this was the end of an era, after shows such as The Wire and Mad Men had ushered in critical acclaim and cinematic quality for the small screen.

TV writer Brett Martin wrote in 2013 that television had become “the signature American art form” of the first decade of the 2000s, “the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola and others had been to the 1970s”.

A scene from Game Of Thrones. (Photo: HBO)

I’ve spent much of the past year asking Hollywood executives about television’s new world order. As Silicon Valley upstarts and legacy media companies do battle over our screens, whatever happened to the golden age of television?

ENTERING AN AGE OF ‘MASSIVE MEDIOCRITY’

In the past, TV networks were confined to a broadcast schedule that gave them a finite number of hours to fill. Producers knew exactly how much programming to make, and had no incentive to create more than that.

But the streaming giants have no such schedule: they can make as much TV as they want, throw it online and see what happens. This means taking bets on hundreds of hours of programming that “maybe nobody is watching”, said Jonathan Taplin, an Oscar-nominated producer. “The audience is fixed . . . you’re not creating new people.”

One former chief executive of a major TV company put it bluntly: “It feels like we are entering into an age of massive mediocrity . . . there is an unbelievable amount of ‘just OK’ out there.”

This echoes something I noticed during my weeks-long Netflix binge. Apart from a few widely watched docu-series – the Texas cheerleading chronicle Cheer and, more recently, the exotic-cat true-crime show Tiger King – no one else was watching the shows I was watching. Or had even heard of them.

“Development is getting lost because there is a real premium on quantity at the moment,” said Cyma Zarghami, former president of children’s TV channel Nickelodeon, who recently opened her own production company. “It used to be: you made 20 episodes, then 40 episodes, and then T-shirts and toothpaste followed. A hit was born. How a hit comes to be in the streaming world is not yet clear. Everyone is just throwing stuff against a wall, hoping to see how it will work.”

Tiger King is a true crime documentary on Netflix about Joe Exotic. (Photo: Netflix)

Look, for example, at the programming slate of Quibi, a new service backed by US$1.8 billion from Alibaba, Goldman Sachs and several top Hollywood studios. 

Its debut schedule includes: a home-renovation show that “removes the stains” from houses where murders were committed, transforming them from “morbid to marvellous”; a cooking contest in which competitors are smacked in the face with mystery food fired out of a cannon; and a reality show about customised dog houses, called Barkitecture.

DISNEY’S BIG STREAMING SERVICE PITCH

Last month I was supposed to fly to London for yet another extravagant Hollywood streaming launch. Hundreds of journalists from across the world were to convene in a sprawling event space to witness Disney’s big pitch to Europe. But the planned rollout was cancelled; the pandemic relegated the world’s largest entertainment company to promoting its new streaming service, Disney+, through social media posts.

In chronicling US media companies for the FT, this would have been the sixth splashy streaming launch I would sit through in under a year. The presentations have been strikingly uniform, held in venues dripping in Hollywood nostalgia, reminding us of how long these companies have influenced our culture. 

For its US launch, Disney chose the soundstage where The Sound Of Music was filmed; NBC Universal opted for the Saturday Night Live set; and Warner Media took journalists on a golf-cart tour of its Warner Bros studio lot, with a guide pointing out sets for Gone With The Wind and Friends.

Over the course of hours, high-level executives would then roll out PowerPoint lists of every TV show or film on their upcoming streaming service, and how many millions of customers they expected to sign up – but only after planned losses of billions of dollars over the next several years. Bigger budgets lead to a higher stock price for these entertainment behemoths, a reward for all this fiscal extravagance.

(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Files)

This upside-down system traces back to a decade of low interest rates, which allowed a start-up called Netflix to borrow billions in junk-rated debt that financed a spending splurge that every other media company would eventually mimic. 

The dawn of today’s gold rush is almost unanimously traced back to 2013, when Netflix paid US$100 million for two seasons of the political thriller House Of Cards. The show’s widespread acclaim put Netflix on the map with audiences and Hollywood, and laid bare the strategy that the company would pursue for years: spend big to outbid rivals.

Netflix spent US$15 billion on content last year, while burning US$3.3 billion in cash and taking its long-term debt to US$14.8 billion – a dynamic that the streaming service has promised investors will improve over time as subscriptions rise.

NETFLIX CHANGED EVERYTHING

It would take years for the media incumbents to realise that Netflix was not actually a friendly new distributor, but rather an existential threat to their business. Disney finally sounded the alarm in 2017, announcing that it would pull its movies from Netflix, and over the past few years other old media companies have followed suit, causing a mad dash to build new streaming services.

The ethos of excess has also hit the production ecosystem. Get Out producer Jason Blum recently explained that because streaming companies pay creators a percentage of the budget, rather than sharing future profits with them, producers are actually incentivised to spend more money. “What the streamers are telling us, in the way they pay us, is to make TV series and movies as expensively as possible,” he said. “If you have a movie for US$15 million and make it for streaming, you make it for US$40 million. Why wouldn’t you?”

(Photo: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo)

As Eli Holzman, creator of hit shows such as fashion contest Project Runway, said: “This perverse incentive is very hard to legislate out of the business” – there is a “sea change” in how wealth is distributed in the TV business right now, as Netflix has torn apart the historic model of sharing profits.

Netflix offers large sums of money for shows, but the streamer typically holds ownership of the intellectual property, meaning creators won’t profit much if their programmes end up scoring success. While a hit like Seinfeld has allowed producer Larry David to earn millions of dollars in royalties decades after the show ended, “that money is now being kept by the [streaming] platforms”, said Holzman. “Privately, we all say, people won’t strike it rich off of a few shows any more, the way [Cosby Show producer] Tom Werner and Aaron Sorkin did.”

REMEMBER TV DURING THE 1990S AND 2000S?

Television has come a long way over the past century, from the introduction of colour in the 1950s to the advent of cable, which spawned the bloated TV packages of hundreds of channels that infiltrated American homes – only to be dismantled now through streaming.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion of television options as prestige programmers such as HBO and Showtime ramped up their output, and when breakout series such as Sex And The City reigned supreme. 

This revolution would persist through the 2000s, as sophisticated shows such as Mad Men made TV a cultural force that was increasingly regarded as the creative equal of film. But all that pales in comparison to the number of shows – and sheer dollar spending – of today.

Sex And The City. (Photo: HBO)

Among longtime Hollywood executives, no one can point to a reliable precedent for this era. The closest comparison is the early days of cable TV, when viewers were suddenly inundated with dozens more channels to watch and networks such as Discovery and A&E scrambled to fill hundreds of hours of television.

Tim Brooks has spent his four-decade career working for TV networks including NBC and the USA Network, where he oversaw a surge in original programming as the channel sought to move beyond sitcom reruns.

But unlike today’s streaming wars, Brooks said, the cable revolution was “financially stable”. At USA Network, new shows “rarely made money on the first showing, but you could rerun them a lot and it would make the money back that way. You would pay US$10 million for the first batch of shows, and eventually you have to make US$10 million back,” he said. “Whereas for the streaming networks, it’s about: can you get subscribers? This is a bubble.”

WHAT HAPPENS TO NEW SHOWS NOW?

Five years ago, John Landgraf, chief executive of FX, the TV network behind Atlanta and Fargo, declared that we had reached the top of peak TV and the bubble was about to pop.

“This is simply too much television,” he announced at the widely followed Television Critics Association summer tour. “My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America, and that we’ll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond.”

Since then, however, the number of TV shows has ballooned by another 37 per cent. And Landgraf, the outspoken cable network boss, is now working for the streamers he previously disdained; as part of Disney’s blockbuster Fox acquisition, he is tasked with funnelling shows towards Hulu.

The production bonanza has come to an abrupt halt in recent weeks as governments have ordered their populations to stay home in response to the coronavirus pandemic. New seasons of hits ranging from HBO’s Succession, Netflix’s Stranger Things and newer fare such as Apple’s The Morning Show will be delayed as Hollywood lots have gone dark.

(Screengrab: Stranger Things/Netflix)

Analysts who weeks ago predicted that we would see another record year for television production are now anticipating that the number of new shows will at least halve, as studios brace for the possibility that they won’t be able to make anything new for a long time.

But oddly enough, the lockdown might be a temporary black swan to prop up new streaming services, particularly the ones with a large back catalogue that doesn’t depend on new productions. As stocks across the world have plunged in recent weeks, Netflix shares are up. Abruptly forcing daily life to pause is bad for most of the economy, but it’s good for those in the business of selling in-home entertainment.

Netflix has shut down all of its productions, part of the social isolation mandate. So far, investors are confident that the company’s years-long, no-holds-barred spending spree means that it has plenty of fresh programming in the pipeline to last months, without making anything new.

At some point, “shutting production will be an issue for Netflix”, said Rich Greenfield, partner at media research group LightShed. “But if we get to that point, we will probably have far bigger problems.”

By Anna Nicolaou © 2020 The Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

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