A new meme has emerged in Hollywood: According to TV executives who’ve watched the number of shows, channels, and platforms available for watching episodic videos explode over the past half-decade, we’ve now arrived at “peak TV” — essentially, a “kid in a candy store” era of programming, where the selection of delicious content is far too great for viewers to reasonably consume. The net result, paradoxically, is that in a time that has rightly been dubbed a new golden age for television, the studios and networks responsible for creating much of it find themselves in a tooth and nail battle for survival.
The concept of peak TV may have been best summarized by John Landgraf, president of the cable programmer FX Networks, at this year’s spring Television Critics Association summit. “There is simply too much television,” he said. “When we go out and talk to audiences...television is less precious to them because there’s so much of it. Television episodes, television shows, television programmers are all a dime a dozen.”
Although Landgraf is right that the quantity of television available has reached a historical high — this season saw the airing of some 400 scripted series, 14 percent higher than 2014, then the year with the most original programming on record — the question is whether sheer volume is really to blame for the TV industry’s challenges.
More choices certainly mean a more fragmented viewing audience, and fewer eyeballs for any given program or channel. Network TV has seen live viewership drop by half in the past 15 years, due in no small part to the rise of cable television. And over the past five years, cable viewership has been similarly disrupted, as on-demand streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have dramatically increased their original offerings.
But people continue to find more screen time — in 2015, the average U.S. adult watched a staggering five and a half hours of video each day, up 12 percent from 2011 — and more platforms on which to use it. And what Landgraf and other television leaders fail to note as they bemoan “peak TV” is that this continued growth in video consumption has been driven by audiences that have traditionally been poorly served by traditional television programming: ethnic consumers.
And the truth is, until very recently, TV did little to represent America’s vibrant and growing multicultural identity. According to a 2014 study by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, just 5.1 percent of lead roles on broadcast TV and 14.7 percent of lead roles on cable were nonwhite as of 2012 — a stark contrast to the actual makeup of the U.S. population, where blacks, Hispanics, and Asians make up 37 percent. That “disconnect,” as the Bunche Center put it, might help explain why programs offering a reasonable representation of American diversity — with about 40 to 50 percent of main cast being nonwhite — consistently score higher in ratings than those failing to mirror America’s diverse reality.
At the time, executives dismissed the Bunche report as advocacy disguised as research. But only a year later, shows like Fresh Off the Boat, How To Get Away with Murder, and especially the ratings-phenomenon known as Empire demonstrated that the Bunche Center’s study was devastatingly prescient — that a significant pent up demand did indeed exist for programming with diverse leads and authentic multicultural storylines.
Since then, we’ve seen a bold proliferation of programming that “looks like America,” with new shows like Dr. Ken, Rosewood, and Quantico joining the network ranks and finding substantial and loyal audiences. The reaction in some ranks of the old Hollywood establishment has been sharp: Earlier this year, industry mouthpiece Deadline ran a controversial piece in which “insiders” wondered whether the pendulum had “swung too far” in the direction of diversity.
While that story was quickly and appropriately shouted down, the recent refrain of “peak TV” has eerie echoes of that insider backlash. It hardly seems like a coincidence that the Hollywood conversation around “too much TV” is occurring only now, as diverse perspectives are being reflected in mainstream television in unprecedented numbers.
We’ve seen this rhetoric before, among critics and academics who’ve raged at the inclusion of fresh voices in the literary canon, and classical enthusiasts who sniffed at the noisy din of jazz, rock and roll, and hiphop; among suburban homeowners wondering about the neighborhood’s “new arrivals,” and parents anxious that Affirmative Action is degrading the standards of their children’s schools.
Which is to say that at its core, peak TV is a notion devised by piqued TV insiders, watching as audiences for their single white professional rom-dramas, their gritty white cop procedurals, and their suburban white family comedies migrate to fresher programming pastures reflecting a truer demographic reality. Yes, television as we once knew it is dead. Long live television — now in living color.
Jeff Yang is a featured opinion columnist for CNN, and contributes regularly to NPR, Slate, Quartz and other publications. His son, Hudson Yang, plays the lead role of Eddie on ABC's groundbreaking hit comedy Fresh Off the Boat.