The Mayor Of H-O-L Miscounts Again

Now I’m gonna probably piss off a few people who think I’m yet again shooting myself in the groin by calling out someone who once used to return my calls.  Let me state upfront that anything written from this point forward has absolutely nothing to do with any personal history.  I’ve long since resolved that whatever penalty I paid in simply speaking the truth to someone who was simply not open to hearing it was circumstantial, unfortunate and frankly too far in the past to retain any hope for any sort of acknowledgement or apology.

But since John Landgraf once again took the stage at the Winter TCA tour this week as he has for nearly 20 years as the czar of FX Networks to not only give the due praise and insights for his prolific portfolio of acclaimed series, but to update our industry on the state on what he has coined as “Peak TV”, and since both trade and mainstream media has treated it with the same sort of reverence they justifiably bestow on much of his team’s output,  I believe as a news event that impacts our industry, and as an observer with an established penchant for accuracy, it’s more than within my boundries to point out a few things I’ve noticed.

And let me yet again reinforce that, as a champion for creative expression and freedom, few have the auspices, track record or loyalty that Landgraf possesses.  Were I a scripted writer, producer or actor, the world that Landgraf has professionally and personally lived in with acclaim and adulation for decades, I would indeed believe every word that is spoken by the industry-proclaimed “Mayor of Hollywood” was gospel.

Except, it just so happens some of it just may not be fully accurate.

John and his team have been tallying up the number of series he believe fits the parochial parameters he set when he started keeping track in 2009 (take a look at my resume for the significance of that particular year).  And as The Hollywood Reporter’s Rick Porter reported, once again Landgraf’s narrative of Peak TV being on a Bataan death march toward a tipping point proved true, though this year’s uptick was a bit more muted, as apparently was Landgraf’s self-congratulations:

According to the annual tally of scripted series FX puts out, 420 such shows (Peak TV) aired in the United States.

Aside from the pandemic-affected 2020, the total has risen every year since then. According to FX research, 2022 brought 599 English-language scripted shows to viewers — 40 more than in 2021, for a year-to-year growth of 7 percent.

Landgraf presented the annual total Thursday at the Television Critics Association press tour. He noted that the second half of the year slowed down from the furious pace of the first six months of 2022, when more than 350 shows were released — a possible marker that the actual peak of Peak TV might be at hand.

“In August, I said it would be the 2020s you would find the market peak of a scripted scripted TV series TV series and that is still my bet, while noting with humility that I’ve been wrong on this prediction twice before,” Landgraf said.

Actually, Mr. Mayor, it may have been slightly more often.

At the same time your research team (which, incidentally, does a heckuva lot more quality work than merely counting shows, though one wouldn’t know it considering they rarely get the chance to get the full accolade of the breadth of their responsibilities and talents they deserve) has been keeping track, so too has Variety’s Gavin Bridge and the Variety Intelligence Platform, via an in-house service called Luminate Film and TV.   And Luminate’s tracking has included unscripted television production as well, which considering it makes up more than half of the output of all television in Hollywood and beyond, is perhaps more than an asterisk in this particular discussion.

Indeed, as Bridge and Variety VIP+ published to its subscribers at the end of last year, Peak TV is a heck of a lot more plentiful when one factors in all of the work, and indeed all of the hours of content and viewership of it that it contributes to the video ecosystem, than merely the fraction that Landgraf’s tallies seem to posture as being the sum total.   And as Bridge wrote, those numbers are waaay higher than 599:

This year saw 2,024 original shows released across TV and subscription streaming, a new record in the seemingly ceaseless rise of the amount of content being made available for consumption in the U.S. 

Variety Intelligence Platform’s analysis, based upon data from our sister company Luminate Film & TV, found the number of scripted and unscripted originals rose by 137 versus 2021, an increase of 7%. Compared with the figures from 2012, a decade earlier, there were 779 more shows — a gain of 63%.

But this may be the last year for scripted content to grow considerably, given the new focus on profitability at content companies and the fact that scripted is much more expensive to produce than unscripted.  

There were 99 more scripted shows made in 2022 than in 2021 (+13%), with the 849 total a new record. Unscripted shows also reached a new peak — 1,175 — but this represented only 3% growth, or 38 more shows. Producing more unscripted than scripted shows is a trend that should continue.

Yes, you read that right.  Variety’s count is 849 scripted series.  In fact, while their numbers and Landgraf’s team’s were more in line during the earlier part of the previous decade, as the number of streaming services and sources has increased exponentially, the gap has grown, as our own side-by-side comparison details:

year FX Variety
2009 210 189
2010 216 202
2011 266 257
2012 288 287
2013 349 336
2014 380 362
2015 420 422
2016 454 496
2017 487 562
2018 495 586
2019 532 668
2020 496 616
2021 559 750
2022 599 849

Now, I’m told that as time went on and the number of platforms making content grew, the task of counting everything everywhere may have been a little cumbersome for Landgraf’s team, who understandably has other priorities and only so many person-hours to devote.  There are a host of qualifiers in the Peak TV definition per Landgraf , which even Porter’s article yesterday reminded his readers of:

FX’s annual count is a snapshot of the scripted landscape but represents just a fraction of all of TV. It doesn’t include hundreds of unscripted shows, sports or news programming, children’s television or the growing market of non-English language series.

And when all is said and done, the respective conclusions at this point are effectively in line with one another.  Both studies showed output increasing +7% at a time when viewership splintered and the third parties that are supposed to accurately measure it for optimal monetization can’t yet find the ability to fully do so. or a consensus of clients to agree upon any empirical accounting of it.    Viewership as reported by Nielsen is down signficantly, and viewership not captured by Nielsen is often missed entirely.  So the conclusions and insights John is making are absolutely spot on.  That said,  someone’s watching all of those shows–even the 250 scripted and 1425 unscripted shows produced in 2022 that Landgraf and team opted to ignore–and the collective impact of those shows’ impacts on estimates nd projections are making enough of an impact to make a lot of other good people unemployed or, still worse, irrelevant.

And that’s perhaps my biggest contention with FX’s tracking.  To dismiss the efforts, talents, and viewership that those who have contributed to those shows that he has somehow deemed don’t meet a certain threshold for inclusion is a slap in the face to every single person responsible for producing, promoting, tracking and reporting on them.  A lot of them are friends and colleagues of mine. A lot of them work for other divisions of the Walt Disney Company that now has embraced FX and Landgraf’s team as a crown jewel.  That has incorporated them into the Hulu platform that has dramatically expanded FX’s reach and the impact of their shows, their ability to continue to earn the awards that they deserve and that Landgraf covets, and indeed has allowed the “fearless” FX brand to reach year 30 under new ownership far more successfully than a host of their erstwhile cable network competitors that are struggling mightily for mere existence.

And here’s what I’m perhaps most flabbergasted about.  These days, FX also produces a number of highly acclaimed and sometimes well-viewed shows under the FX Documentaries umbrella.  FX employs a number of really talented people who work on unscripted content.  Indeed, at the same press session where Landgraf presented his state of Peak TV, his team promoted the premiere dates of several intriguing upcoming unscripted shows that will tell important stories of icons of diverse cultures, as Denise Petski of DEADLINE reported:

FX also announced premiere dates for two documentaries and a docuseries. The New York Times Presents: Sin Eater, a two-part documentary about infamous Hollywood P.I. Anthony Pellicano, will debut Friday, March 10 at 10 pm ET simultaneously on FX and Hulu, with the two parts airing back-to-back. FX’s The New York Times Presents: The Legacy of J Dilla, a documentary feature about prolific musician, producer and visionary J Dilla, premieres Friday, April 7 at 10 pm ET simultaneously on FX and Hulu. And FX’s Dear Mama, a five-part docuseries exploring the lives and legacies of mother and son, Afeni and Tupac Shakur, will premiere Friday, April 21 at 10 pm ET/PT on FX with the first two episodes, followed by one new episode each week. All episodes will stream next day on Hulu. Dear Mama will be available on Star+ in Latin America and Disney+ under the Star banner in all other territories internationally.

And in perhaps his most controversial statements during his press conference, Landgraf cited the likely decline of scripted TV, accelerated by the cost-cutting writedowns of his arch-rivals at  the likes Warner Discovery and AMC, as perhaps being most impactful on diverse storytellers.  And as Wilson Chapman of IndieWire reported, John did not shy away from offering his thoughts on that looming reality:

During his presentation, Landgraf pointed to a recent New York Times story about how orders for adult scripted series fell by 24 percent in the second half of 2022 and the general signs of slowdown from streamers and networks as they brace for a recession this year, as a reason why Peak TV is nearing its end. During a Q&A, Landgraf was asked how this cost-cutting in content will reflect in terms of shows made by and for diverse audiencs, and answered frankly that he was concerned about its impact.

“In the country which we live in, about 60 percent of the population identifies as white, and you take Latinx people who identify as Caucasian, it’s maybe closer to 70 percent if you’re going for the biggest meat of the audience … you tend to program for white men, because women watch a lot more drama and comedy than men, so if you get a scripted program that appeals to men, that’s automatically a boom,” Landgraf said during the Q&A. “You worry, when there’s narrowing prospects, who’s losing opportunity.”

He couldn’t be more correct.  And for a network that’s already bid farewell to ATLANTA and, soon, to SNOWFALL, that’s a brutally honest and brave admission.  Making their commitment to the stories being told by his unscripted team that much more crucial to maintaining an audience that FX has embraced and celebrated for many years of late.

One might think that fact alone should be reason enough for the measurement of Peak TV to be adjusted accordingly with the rightful inclusion of unscripted series, if indeed John wants to continue to be the authority of it.

But it’s clear, at least to me, that he’s perhaps a bit less inclusive in what he considers to be worthy of tallying than he is in storytelling.

By his tally, by omitting unscripted TV from his analysis, he’s leaving out 58% of the output of U.S. content in 2022.  By Variety’s count, he’s omitting just over 70 per cent–incidentally, roughly the same proportion of total content that was initially omitted when the tallying started in 2009.  So at least by some yardstick things haven’t changed all that much.

It’s as if he was spelling the name of the city our industry (and those that cover it) has anointed him “mayor”  of with just the letters H-O-L-L.  Or, per his analysis, just H-O-L.

Once again, let me please reiterate that I passionately believe John Landgraf is one of our industry’s most talented and enduring creative champions, and someone I’m exceptionally proud to have once been able to call my boss.  He has done, and continues to do, a remarkable job of identifying strong voices, empowering them to express their experiences, and reward both those creators and his team many times over with both financial success and industry accolade.  As a producer and an executive, he is arguably unparalled.  And I’d imagine anyone who’s ever worked in on the scripted side of this business would vehemently agree with me.

But as a tallier, he’s perhaps just a bit less skilled.  I think I’ve presented some unbiased evidence of that.  This is absolutely, unequivocally, not personal.  But it’s also not worthy of being dusted away as insignificant.

No one, no matter how challenged they are, should ever be counted out.  He certainly hasn’t been, even as many of his one-time competitors have faded from the landscape.  I highly respect and identify with that level of endurance.

I’d like to think he’s respectful enough of those of us who occasionally remind him he might be a bit less inclusive than he otherwise should be ib this case that we shouldn’t be counted out entirely, either.  I’d like to think that he might respect my contentions enough to acknowledge them.  In some fashion.

I’d REALLY like to think that.

Your move, Mister Mayor.

Until next time….







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