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Congrats, and Goodbye, to Peak TV

Author: John Koblin Reporting from Los Angeles Source: N.Y Times
January 16, 2024 at 18:00
The cast of “Succession,” one of the big winners at the Emmys on Monday.Credit...Aude Guerrucci/Reuters
The cast of “Succession,” one of the big winners at the Emmys on Monday.Credit...Aude Guerrucci/Reuters

The Emmys on Monday night felt in many ways like a bookend to one of the defining features of the streaming era: a never-ending supply of new programming.

As “Succession” cast members marched up to the Emmy stage on Monday night to grab their statues for the show’s final season, they used it as one last opportunity to say goodbye.

Kieran Culkin, after kissing his co-star Brian Cox on the lips, gave a tearful speech while accepting the award for best actor in a drama. Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook, who each won acting awards as well, gave loving tributes to fellow cast members. And Jesse Armstrong, the creator of “Succession,” capped off the night by accepting the best-drama award for the third and final time and noting: “We can now depart the stage.”

It all punctuated an end-of-era feeling at the Emmy Awards on Monday night. “Succession” was one of many nominated shows that had farewell seasons, joined by a list that included “Ted Lasso,” “Better Call Saul,” “Barry,” “Atlanta” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

But that was not the only reason that there was an elegiac theme to Monday night. The ceremony felt in many ways like a bookend to the so-called Peak TV era itself.

Nearly every year from 2010 through 2023, the number of TV programs rose in the United States, reaching 599 scripted television shows last year.

It may never hit those heights again.

For more than a year now, studios and networks — including streaming giants like Netflix, cable stalwarts like HBO and FX, and the broadcast channels — have hit the brakes on ordering new series. Executives, worried about hemorrhaging cash from their streaming services, customers cutting the cable cord and a soft advertising market, have instead placed more emphasis on profitability. The monthslong screenwriter and actor strikes last year also contributed to the slowdown.

With a more frugal approach, there is widespread fear throughout the industry about the fallout from a contraction.

The Emmy nomination submission list gives a snapshot. The number of dramas that the networks and studios submitted for Emmy consideration dropped 5 percent, according to the Television Academy, which organizes the awards. Entries for limited series fell by 16 percent, and comedies by 19 percent.

At after-parties on Monday night, there was considerable angst at just how much thinner the lineup would probably be for the next Emmys.

Some television genres seem to be in some degree of peril. Limited series — six to 10 episodes shows that became a sensation over the past decade, particularly after the 2014 debut of “True Detective,” the 2016 premiere of “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” and the 2017 start of “Big Little Lies” — have been a hallmark of the Peak TV era. The shows stood out in part because of the big stars and lavish budgets involved.

At the 2021 Emmys, the statue for best limited series was the final award presented. This had long been a designation for best drama, and it signaled an admission by organizers that the category had become television’s most prestigious prize.

Not anymore.

As part of programming budget cuts, executives now see significantly less benefit to deploying lavish resources to a show that ends after a matter of weeks.

Once again, investing in series with lots of seasons is a much bigger priority. And there is a good chance that television may start to look a lot like television from a couple of decades ago.

Executives at Max, the Warner Bros. Discovery streaming service formerly known as HBO Max, are looking for a medical drama. “Suits,” a 2010s legal procedural from the USA Network, became an unexpected streaming hit last summer, after millions of people began watching reruns of the show on Netflix. “Next year, you’ll probably see a bunch of lawyer shows,” Netflix’s co-chief executive, Ted Sarandos, said at an investor conference last month.

To wit, Hulu recently ordered a project from the star producer Ryan Murphy that will chronicle an all-female divorce legal firm.

Of course, Peak TV-era quality television is not going away. “The Bear,” the best-comedy winner and already the runaway favorite for the next Emmys, will return. Also coming back are “Abbott Elementary,” the beloved ABC sitcom, and “The Last of Us,” HBO’s hit adaptation of a video game, which won a haul of Emmys.

Even the origin story of “Succession” seems tailor-made for the new television era. When HBO executives ordered the series, they wanted to put their spin on a classic television genre — a family drama — but had low expectations. The show did not command “Game of Thrones” or “Stranger Things” budgets. It was light on stars. Armstrong was not a brand name yet. And yet, it became a hit.

Less than an hour after the Emmys ceremony ended, when Armstrong was asked at a news conference what he would turn to next, he demurred.

Instead, he reflected on the past.

“This group of people, I don’t expect to ever be repeated,” he said, of “Succession.” “I hope I do interesting work the rest of my life. But I’m quite comfortable with the feeling that I might not ever be involved with something quite as good.”

John Koblin covers the television industry. He is the co-author of “It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO.” More about John Koblin
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