TV viewers have never had it so good — or maybe they have it too good. There's never been more original programming to navigate than at this very moment. Take Sunday nights: Even with the NFL season over, viewing options include The Good Wife (CBS), The Walking Dead (back Feb. 10 on AMC), Girls (HBO), Shameless (Showtime), Downton Abbey (PBS), Family Guy (Fox), Revenge (ABC) and Kourtney and Kim Take Miami (E!). And that's just in one timeslot: 9/8c.
That's a lot of DVR space being filled up week in and week out with must-see shows. "There's definitely more programming that I'm interested in watching than I can actually consume," says Showtime Entertainment president David Nevins.
According to FX Networks president John Landgraf, there were just 35 scripted shows on cable when The Shield premiered 11 years ago; now that number is up to 143. And it's only going to get more crowded, as additional networks get into the scripted series game. Discovery, Bravo, E! and Sundance Channel all have dramatic programming in the works, while A&E has unveiled ambitious plans to drop all acquisitions and run a 100 percent original primetime lineup.
Digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are also debuting their own series, starting with Netflix's House of Cards, which premieres Feb. 1. "I think we're at the saturation point," Landgraf says.
The plethora of programming is also dramatically changing how viewers watch TV (via DVR, on demand and online viewing). In the 1971 TV Guide Magazine article "Why You Watch What You Watch When You Watch," NBC executive Paul Klein introduced the concept of "least objectionable program." He theorized that viewers actually found few programs truly satisfying; instead, audiences flipping around the dial settled for whatever they found least offensively bad.
Today, that concept is mostly obsolete. When a night like Sunday boasts close to a dozen high-quality and/or top-rated options, viewers have to choose which shows to watch live and which ones to time-shift. Viewers might also wait to binge later when entire series become available on DVD or Netflix.
"What will happen is you'll have so much scripted programming that it will make for an even bigger catch-up situation online or on DVR," says The CW president Mark Pedowitz. "It will further accelerate viewer habits changing."
Kevin Williamson, executive producer of The Vampire Diaries and The Following, says he has no problem with viewers watching his shows in this way. "I binge," he says. "Two nights ago I finally caught up on Go On. I had never seen it and now I've seen eight episodes in a row."
In a recent sketch teasing the age of the "spoiler alert," the IFC comedy Portlandia spoofed the idea that we're all watching too much TV — but not at the same time — so any discussion might reveal too many plot points and spoil it for someone else. (Watch the clip here.)
"At the risk of sounding like I'm ready for an AARP membership, there was a time not long ago when you could talk about a TV show after it aired, safe in the knowledge that those who didn't see the latest episode had few options for catching up in a different way," Tampa Bay Times media columnist Eric Deggans recently wrote. "But in a world filled with digital video recorders, online streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix, DVD releases and on-demand cable options, people can howl 'spoiler alert' when you try talking about a show that aired last year."
But even with so many platforms on which to watch, "there are only so many hours in the day," says Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly, who adds that viewers are telling programmers, "what you say is worth your time and what I may say are two different things." That means viewers must now be highly selective in making their TV playlist, and that's not a trend that's liable to reverse itself. "I do not believe there is any putting the genie back in the bottle," Reilly says.
In an effort to retain viewers, the broadcast networks are now experimenting with cable-like runs, which might help hold on to people unwilling to make yet another 22-episode series commitment. Fox's The Following, which will air just 15 episodes this season (per star Kevin Bacon's demand), opened with strong ratings. (The network also just announced development of several more limited-run programs.) CBS will employ the same model this summer with the 13-episode Stephen King/Steven Spielberg collaboration Under the Dome.
"We've broken the 22-episode pattern, which I think has been very taxing on the audience," Reilly says. "I think there's something to be said about limits. A big advantage that cable has been enjoying is the compact nature of storytelling, where there's a beginning, middle and end in sight. That keeps the audience very focused. They don't have to go, 'Oh my God, it's still on.' When people marathon shows months later, that can't be measured and monetized."
Bryan Fuller, the former executive producer of Pushing Daisies who is now behind NBC's upcoming 13-episode series Hannibal, says he'll never do a 22-episode show again. "The worst part about network TV is the amount of episodes," he says. "But that feels like it's also changing and adapting. With audience erosion it might actually make sense to have less shows and try to increase retention by limiting how much you're asking of the audience in terms of viewership."
Showtime's Nevins says he's concerned about making sure that his premium service has original programming every week of the year so that subscribers feel they're getting their money's worth. But he agrees that it's getting tougher to cut through the clutter. "Programming is an unlimited resource, but there's a limited amount of really high quality stuff," he says. "The more people that get into the game, the more the pressure is on to really distinguish yourself and be great."
Ironically, in an age of clutter, networks need more good original programming to survive. Already, services like Dish Network and Time Warner Cable are removing, or threatening to remove, small channels that aren't delivering their numbers. Time Warner recently removed Ovation and Current TV (soon to become Al Jazeera America) from its channel lineups.
Creating more original programming is also an economic decision: Even though it requires an increase in expenditures, successful cable networks can charge higher ad rates and demand better subscriber fees from cable and satellite providers. Plus, a full slate of original series can help boost ratings, says Michael Wright, head of programming for TNT and TBS. "The networks that are growing," he says, "are the ones that are offering original or exclusive content year round."
Still, with so much original programming competing for eyeballs, FX's Landgraf says a shakeout is inevitable. "It's just too tough and competitive a business," he says. "You need to find a niche that is underserved. I think we're going to see a lot of failure. Those companies that manage to raise the bar in terms of quality and marketing will continue to find success. But they won't all succeed."