TV’s ‘Golden Age’ Won’t Last Because You’re Not Watching Enough

Elizabeth Hurley in "The Royals." Photographer: Tim Whitby/E! via Bloomberg

The entertainment industry will air more than 400 original TV shows this year, lavishing hundreds of millions of dollars on top talent and exotic locations in the hopes of creating the next “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones.”

The gusher of quality programs has prompted TV critics to proclaim a Golden Age of Television. But as any viewer knows, keeping up with all the shows is impossible. You’d have to watch TV 24 hours a day for at least eight months to catch every scripted series that aired last year, according to a Bloomberg calculation. With too many shows chasing too few viewers, say industry executives, most original programs lose money and half the shows now running probably will disappear by next year.

“The market is flooded with too many people chasing the same prize,” said Jeff Wachtel, president of NBCUniversal’s cable unit, which includes the USA and Syfy channels. “What used to be the golden age of television has now become a gold rush.”

With production costs soaring and shows being canceled with increasing frequency, executives say many niche channels will vanish as networks with the most popular shows swallow rivals that fail to create enough hits of their own.

Of the 352 scripted series that aired last year, 199 -- up sevenfold from 2000 -- came from basic cable channels like AMC and from pay channels such as HBO. Another 129 ran on broadcast networks like CBS and NBC. And 24 came from streaming services such as Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime.

Even E!, best known for “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” has a scripted show, “The Royals,” starring Elizabeth Hurley as the queen of England. The broadcast networks introduced a blizzard of series this month at the upfront presentation to advertisers. NBC’s lineup includes “Blindspot,” about a tattooed woman found naked in Times Square with no memory.

Dwindling Audiences

Programmers are pumping out ever more shows even as audiences dwindle. The number of coveted 18- to 49-year-old viewers watching cable TV live or on-demand within three days of a show airing has fallen 11 percent this season compared with the year before, according to researcher MoffettNathanson. One reason: viewers ditching pricey cable-TV packages for cheaper online alternatives such as Netflix or Hulu.

It typically costs about $3 million to make one hour of scripted television, according to a cable network executive. Cable networks pay about 70 percent of that, or about $2 million, for the rights to put the show on TV. They recover their costs in two main ways: selling ads and charging fees to the likes of Comcast or DirecTV to carry their channel.

To generate enough ad revenue to recover what the cable network paid the studio, a show must average about 3 million viewers in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic within three days of airing, the executive said. Of the 199 original series on cable TV last year, only six averaged that many viewers after seven days. They include AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.”

Making matters worse, viewers increasingly binge-watch weeks or months after a program originally airs. Advertisers don’t pay for that viewing, leaving networks with fewer ad dollars to invest in more original programming.

Cable networks can turn a profit by raising the fees they charge pay-TV services to carry their channels. But to make those hikes stick they need bona fide hits. The cable networks also can recoup their costs by leveraging shows made in-house -- selling reruns, international rights and series to Netflix or Amazon. (Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Showtime are less affected by the content glut because they make most of their money selling subscriptions and largely use original programming to attract and retain viewers.)

Limping Along

With audiences thinning and fragmented as never before, dozens of cable shows limp along in relative obscurity. Though critically acclaimed, FX’s spy drama “The Americans” ranked 46th among scripted series on cable TV last year, drawing about 1.3 million viewers in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic. USA’s “Satisfaction,” about a couple trying to rekindle their marriage, ranked 90th with about 900,000 viewers aged 18 to 49.

Cable networks keep such shows on the air, hoping viewers will eventually find them on demand or in a Netflix afterlife; in some cases they renew poorly performing shows because they fear blowback from viewers who’ve invested in the characters.

But the cracks are starting to show. In 2000, 10 percent of original series were canceled. Today, more than half are not picked up for another season, says Liam Boluk, a media strategy consultant at the media newsletter REDEF.

AMC, home of cable TV’s most popular show “The Walking Dead,” canceled cop drama “Low Winter Sun” in 2013 after one season. TNT’s “Mob City,” written and directed by “Walking Dead” creator Frank Darabont, was also not renewed for a second season. FX Networks recently canceled the comedy “Legit” after two seasons.

“Original programming has never been more important for TV networks, but it’s also more costly and failure-prone than at any time in television’s history,” Boluk said.

‘Mad Men’

Everyone wants to duplicate the success of AMC’s “Mad Men,” which recently finished a seven-season run. A decade ago, AMC was a small cable network that mostly aired old black-and-white movies. Since “Mad Men’s” debut in 2007, AMC has boosted fees from cable and satellite distributors by more than 75 percent and increased advertising revenue by nearly 200 percent, according to an industry analyst who asked not to be identified discussing proprietary information.

But “Mad Men” debuted with mostly unknown actors. Now producers are signing up hotshot directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen as well as big-name actors such as William H. Macy and Robin Wright. Expensive locations are increasingly common. As a result, production costs are soaring, with some shows consuming as much as $10 million per episode.

The irony is that after years of complaining that there was nothing worth watching on television, viewers now say they are overwhelmed by choice. “Now people say ‘There’s more good stuff on TV than I have time to watch,’” said David Poltrack, who has conducted research for CBS since the 1980s.

Maureen Ryan, a TV critic for the Huffington Post, follows as many as 50 shows at a time. She binge-watches on weekends. She tunes in on her smartphone while on the treadmill, at the airport, in the back of cabs. And she adopted a strategy many regular viewers will find familiar: Moving on if a new show doesn’t grab her by the second episode.

“There’s so much more TV and so much of it is good and worth checking out,” Ryan said. “The sheer amount of it is overwhelming.”