Of Course, John Was Right About Peak TV. He Rarely Isn’t.

I’m disappointed at times that I haven’t quite been able to communicate exactly how I feel about FX Chairman John Landgraf.  On many occasions, I’ve called him out on his seemingly quioxtic obsession with driving home the point that there’s simply too much TV being made, that a bubble bursting was inevitable, and we should pay attention to the warning signs.  Since I was one of the executives who was tasked with helping him illustrate that point way back in the oughts, when his early successs was spawning a host of what he perceived as less creative but perhaps more ad-friendly competitors from TNT, USA, Lifetime, and, eventually, one he respected in AMC, I believe I have a fairly good handle on the genesis of this quest.

John is literally the most competitive and tenacious executive I have ever encountered, and far and away the most demanding boss I ever worked for.  When he believes in something, he champions it with a fervor and zeal unlike almost anyone I have ever seen in ANY business, let alone TV.   So those that have cited his parochialism in his eagerly awaited annual (sometimes bi-annual) updates on Peak TV aren’t totally wrong when they would chide that a significant motivator was to level the playing field so that FX shows could win more awards, have greater appeal for creative talent who would have fewer options so that they could be produced somewhat less expensively, and that he alone would decide what’s a good show.  As someone who was often in the uncomfortable position of having to provide empirical data that would sometimes show results he believed were impossible, it put me squarely in the crosshairs of debates I was in no position to win.  Furthermore, his earlier days on top had fewer breakout hits than he had later, plus there were fewer ways to spin success at that time.

But one thing we did bond on, and I suspect we still share, is a determination to stick by what we believe is the right path and to call out those who somehow, even with massive financial resources, manage to screw things up.  Which is why when this headline from this piece by Amol  Sharma and Joe Flintbroke earlier this week, my first thought was somewhere, probably over an extremely healthy and decadent meal, John is smiling just a bit broader than usual:

Peak TV Is Over. A Different Hollywood Is Coming

The full piece, which I encourage those of you who can access it to read in depth, details what the fallout from last week’s WGA settlement will ultimately be.  It’s very simple, actually.  With the data provided by Ampere showing with even more detail than Landgraf’s team provides on not only the number of shows being aired but also the number in queue in decline, the summary that Sharma and Flint provided is undebatable:

Fewer new shows in production. A higher bar to get shows renewed. Rich paydays going only to an elite few.

The labor pact writers struck with studios and streamers this week, ending a five-month strike,  will likely accelerate the retrenchment that was already under way in Hollywood for more than a year.

The streamers will have to find a way to pay increased talent costs—from the writers’ settlement, along with an earlier deal with directors and whatever is finalized with actors—without adding to their overall production costs.epresented a formal end to “peak TV,” a decade that included an explosion of programming for viewers—and job opportunities for talent in Tinseltown.  That will likely mean that companies will make fewer new shows and cancel even more that are on the bubble. In effect, while many people in Hollywood will get better pay as a result of the deal, the contraction in spending means there will be less work to go around.

Old-school observers, many of whom were Landgraf’s peers and contemporaries, offered some even darker views of the immediate future:

The gusher of spending—I don’t see that marketplace coming back,” said Kevin Reilly, who held top programming positions at Fox, NBC and the streaming service HBO Max, championing shows like “The Office” and “The Shield” along the way. “Everyone will get a better piece of what they’ve created. But if anyone is thinking, ‘Let the good times roll!’—that won’t happen.”

One veteran TV producer predicted the number of scripted shows Hollywood produces could fall by one-third in the next three years. “The contraction in investment in content will by definition restrict the amount of work that’s needed,” the executive said.

And right now, the only solution that the majority of these competitors can come up with to pacify Wall Street seems to be to charge more for less.  As Sharma and Flint continued, with this graphic clearly showing the summary:

The cost of streaming subscriptions has risen sharply over the past year as entertainment companies’ focus on acquiring customers and growth at all costs gave way to a profitability push. That trend is likely to continue, and the costs of the strike settlement will give streamers one more reason to lift prices.

Disney in August raised the price of its flagship streaming service, Disney+, and Hulu by more than 20% each, its second round of significant price hikes in about a year.  Paramount’s CEO said he plans to again raise the price of Paramount+. Others are likely to follow suit.

And just yesterday, Discovery+ tacked on $2 more a month to their ad-free model, and Netflix, amidst their recent price hike and the reality check that a fraction of their massive subscriber base actually has opted in for ads, changed out the leadershiip of their fledgling sales team.

If that sounds to you like that’s shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, you’re not wrong.  And I suspect John Landgraf might quietly concur.

He’s been a bit more muted in recent months than he was during the growth curve era.  There was no need to chide him publicly as Next TV’s Daniel Frankel did in 2021.  Anyone who thinks I hold grudges should check out Dan’s piece.

This summer’s labor issues cancelled the press tour, but last year, after a couple of years where his updates were muted during the pandemic, John had another moment to reflect and update.  As INDIE WIRE’s Chris Lindahl reported at the time, it was a more sanguine and reflective version of Landgraf that we saw, but one that was eerily precient of what would ultimately transpire this year:

Last year set a record for the number of scripted original series for adults, but the “Peak TV” era probably hasn’t peaked just yet, at least if you ask FX Chairman John Landgraf. (As the television executive who coined the term, Landgraf would be a good person to ask. Then again, he’s made this claim before.)

During an executive session at the Television Critics Association press tour Tuesday, the FX brand’s boss offered some tea-leaf reading about the seemingly never-ending output of more and more TV shows. “2022 will be the high watermark — in other words, that it will mark the peak of the ‘Peak TV’ era,” he said.

Landgraf has been wrong before, and he’s the first to admit that his prediction might be done “foolishly.” Back in 2015, speaking to the same audience of TV critics and reporters, Landgraf predicted that the number of scripted series would hit its peak in 2015 or 2016. He amended that the following year when he said he expected the peak to hit in 2019 followed by a decline the next year, when he bemoaned that there was “simply too much television” and warned of “oversupply” and the negative impact of tech monopolies on creativity.

So much has changed since then, including Landgraf’s tenor. Tuesday’s forecast came with no warnings or caveats; he painted it as “sticking my neck out” for some fun.

Well, Landgraf at least had the guts to stick his neck out then, as he had many times before.  We didn’t hear any of the folks who are now taking a victory lap for settling the strike doing that then.  If anything, they were sowing the seeds of the fruitless chase for eyeballs that never occurred.  While LORD OF THE RINGS and HOUSE OF THE DRAGON were waging war to the tune of over a billion dollars in production and promotion, FX was quietly stoking a sleeper hit with  the documenary series WELCOME TO WREXHAM.  Landgraf was fresh off launching THE BEAR, a show with few familiar faces, which this summer rose to even greater success both in critical acclaim and popularity.

The one concession he offered to Lindahl and his colleague Tony Maglio last summer–one more than he ever offered to me, incidentally–was a fleeting concern that having been wrong once before, he might be again:

Time will tell if Landgraf finally got his Peak TV prediction correct. “It will take a year-and-a-half to find out if I’m right this time or I’ll have to eat crow yet again,” he said.

I can assure you, whatever healthy and expensive dish he is eating this week, it ain’t crow.

And I, for one, wish I was on the other side of the table enjoying it with him.

You were absolutely right, John.  This time.

Until next time…

Figure 1: Uses three-month averages. Includes Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney+, Max, Hulu, Netflix, Paramount+ and Peacock. Data are as of August 2023. For shows produced in the U.S.

Source: Ampere Analysis

Figure 2: Launch info for first ad-free plan †Launch info for first streaming-only plan
Note: Monthly prices for the most popular ad-free versions in the U.S. and as of Sept. 28 except for Hulu and Disney+ prices, which go into effect Oct. 12. Max was known as HBO Max until May 2023.

Source: the companies

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