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Why Peak TV May Never Peak

Peak TV is a permanent condition. There will be no escaping the scourge of option paralysis or the perils of splintered viewing. 


Peak TV is a permanent condition. There will be no escaping the scourge of option paralysis or the perils of splintered viewing.

Nielson’s new Total Audience report is the latest study to underscore this bleak reality. In 2019, Nielson says, more than 646,000 shows were available to U.S. viewers, across both linear and streaming platforms. That marked a 10 percent increase from 2018, according to Axios.

Released last month, FX’s annual survey on Peak TV reported 532 scripted originals aired in 2019, a 7 percent increase from the year before. FX counted 210 such series in 2009. What’s truly harrowing is that none of these figures include unscripted series, which anyone with access to basic cable knows are prolific.

The 646,000 number Nielson reported this month is staggering. Two elements of those underlying trends make the future of television feel particularly overwhelming. First, the explosive growth in television never seemed sustainable. Maybe it won’t be. But the jump from 210 scripted originals in 2009 to 532 in 2019 is mind-boggling. Again, factoring unscripted series into the equation makes it all crazier.

Second, with each passing year, the TV mountain grows higher. “Peak TV” is generally used as a  descriptor for the current landscape, but thanks to streaming technology, the entire current landscape will be available forever. If you’ve never gotten around to bingeing “Barry” by 2025, it’ll still be there, as easily accessible as Season 683 of “Survivor” or “The Real Housewives of Brooklyn” or the inevitable “Girls” reboot or every episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

On top of all that, new streaming platforms are entering the market with new back catalogs of content. On top of the growth in shows, we’re in the midst of a growth in platforms. Eventually, the platforms could consolidate into bundling arrangements.

But, for now, a viewer settling onto the couch after dinner faces a dizzying choice in platforms, and a much more dizzying choice in content. Quibi’s arrival will almost surely intensify this. (Of course, streaming also means viewers can choose to watch pretty much any movie they want at any time as well, expanding the scope of options far beyond television. And then there’s YouTube.)

Emily Nussbaum reflected on the impact of vast archive access early in her new book, “I Like To Watch.”

“Among other things, we’ve gained access to archives of older shows, putting the context of no context back into context,” she observed. “There’s probably a whole essay to be written about the seismic impact of the ‘Pause’ button alone, the simple invention that helped turn television from a flow into a text, to be frozen and meditated upon.”

“Some days,” wrote Nussbaum, “the one thing that feels stable is the episode, that flexible slice, the wave inside the ocean, the part that has to double as the whole.”

All of these changes are obviously affecting formula and quality and distribution. The medium stands transformed, and the process unfolded largely in less than a decade’s time. But because television grew to become a central part of American culture—consuming serious chunks of our time even before the streaming revolution—that transformation in television is also transforming us.

“Peak” TV may have no peak. What will matter is how we adapt.