Last week at an FX session at the Television Critics Association meeting, I could tell that the network's chief, John Landgraf, felt my pain. He bemoaned the cancellation of the Billy Crystal-Josh Gad comedy “The Comedians.” Much like all those noble failures I mentioned, “The Comedians” was heavily promoted and well-reviewed. Landgraf is arguably the savviest programmer in the business, and certainly the one with about the best taste (“Justified,” “The Americans,” “Louie,” all on his watch just for beginners).
Not surprisingly, Landgraf gave a savvy explanation of why too often, too many good series face an untimely demise. With so many networks and platforms in the originals business, there's “simply too much television being produced,” he said.
With so many networks — plus Netflix, Amazon and Hulu — producing series, an embarrassment of riches can mean too often the good series die young. It's especially tough for ad-supported networks to launch a series against a commercial-free Netflix series backed by so much viewer data to pinpoint a target audience. I'm surprised Netflix or Amazon doesn't back up the Brink's truck and steal Landgraf away, so he wouldn't have that old ad-supported model to contend with.
The numbers Landgraf offered to back up his claim of a programming overload were daunting. Nearly 400 original series will be produced this year. That's a number up significantly from (by his calculations) the 280 originals on the air five years ago. Landgraf predicted that the number will continue to rise next year before the inevitable happens: “The programing bubble bursts.”
Sagely offering his analysis in the shadow of media stock taking a major hit last week, Landgraf said that this is the time to come up with new business models that would support quality programming over quantity. But he didn't offer a blueprint for a saner programming environment. He admitted it would be “a messy, inelegant process" for all involved, especially for advertiser-supported networks.
Landgraf did suggest solutions to the current glut. For ad-supported networks, reducing advertiser inventory would be one step, while advertisers, among others, need to support quality over quantity. He made a direct appeal to Madison Avenue to “radically change” the way it values programming, and change how it engages audiences across platforms and over time. Another essential for the industry moving forward is for networks to place fewer bets on originals, in tandem with a shift in marketing money put behind a more select slate of series, he said.
All this makes perfect sense to me. Whether others in the industry take heed of what Landgraf is saying and, with a stake in the business, choose to work cooperatively is quite another thing. Unfortunately, I see more bad things happening to good shows — and a big bubble burst.