In 2015, the word "peak TV" has been brought up more and more by network executives, critics, and hardcore binge-watchers alike. It refers to the apex of scripted programming on TV, which in no small part was driven by original shows offered on streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video, and the subsequent response of traditional cable outlets. According to FX Networks President John Landgraf, there were over 370 scripted series on television last year, and this year should see more than 400. With so much to watch, it has become more difficult than ever to define what makes a show successful, be it TV ratings, critic reviews, or something else.
As Willa Paskin, Slate's TV critic, points out, NBC canceled The Single Guy after two seasons in 1995 despite an audience of 20 million, whereas today the network's Blindspot is considered a hit with roughly 8 million viewers. Twenty years ago, ratings were fairly straightforward, but today they're much more fractured, which doesn't rule them out as a measure of success entirely, but definitely creates a massive gray area. As Paskin notes, by combining all the extra numbers for viewers watching a show after the day it airs or on various streaming devices, Blindspot's ratings are actually almost double what they initially seem to be.
Of course, with the advent of a revolutionary little technology we like to call the Internet, it isn't just the way we consume TV that's changed radically in a short span of time — how we discuss and form opinions on shows changed, too.
Different Shows for Different Appetites
AMC's The Walking Dead, in which a band of human survivors struggles to survive in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, is and has been a ratings juggernaut since it debuted in 2010. Now deep into its sixth season, the show is pulling in more than 17 million viewers in the first three days after its episodes air (a metric referred to as L+3). It's unquestionably a successful series from AMC's point of view, and although it's had some real lows in quality and critical reception, that's never deterred the hordes of people that turn out to watch it every week.
With this in mind, it's obvious The Walking Dead isn't a success based on any groundbreaking writing, directing, or acting. That's not to say any of those elements are poor, but they don't have to be anything more than "good" to sustain an audience who like it or not tunes in largely for the endless carousel of zombie kills. Much better shows reigned in the recent "golden age" of television — AMC had two of them in Breaking Bad and Mad Men — but despite their near-universally adored writing and pop culture impact, they never came close to the kinds of ratings TWD picks out of its teeth.
A show's success from a financial standpoint undoubtedly rests heavily on the number of people watching it, and in turn its viability as a marketable product to sell ads against. However, a not-all-that-watched comedy or drama can still be viewed as successful if its creativity provides something viewers have never seen before and critics love to champion. FX's current model strongly demonstrates this line of thinking — The Americans is critically one of the most well-received shows on TV and everyone who watches it seems to love it, even if the total number of viewers pales in comparison to The Walking Dead.
How a Show Provides Value
To generalize the business models of TV networks and pseudo-networks like Netflix, a "successful" slate of original programming likely balances ratings juggernauts with an offering of niche, more creatively driven shows. This is not unlike some online publications in the rapidly evolving media world — money-making viral content financially makes it possible to support more in-depth original writing and reporting. Both styles can be wildly successful, but are measured by two completely different sets of metrics. The former directly drives up the bottom line, whereas the latter is a crucial builder of brand and credibility. On extremely rare occasions comes along a show that satisfies both, but the two are largely relegated to their own silos.
Some TV critics may gawk at why relatively formulaic shows like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory are routinely among the most popular on television from a ratings standpoint. On the other side of the coin, some networks are quick to boot out much more creative shows that struggle to find an audience. This disparity in thinking is purely driven by different priorities in the realm of "success" than a total disagreement in what success actually means. It's a subtle distinction, but an important one given the absolute explosion of original programming we've seen over the last few years.
As TV viewers, we're in the lucky position of watching the quality of shows increase due in this new age of streaming. More than ever, networks are willing to bet on creators with a vision by giving them the resources they need and essentially getting out of the way. Whether it's a heart-pounding drama like Mr. Robot or and insightful comedy like Master of None, a bigger ocean of content inevitably means more huge catches, even if the bait needed to catch it isn't nearly as impressive.
All we have to do is sit back and let our eyes glaze over. Enjoy it.
(Cover image: Blogspot)