Has Covid Leveled Peak TV?

Last week on the TV’s Top 5 podcast, Star Trek producer Alex Kurtzman dropped some numbers that made hosts Lesley Goldberg and Dan Fienberg, two jaded, longtime television reporters, stop in their tracks. As talk turned to the strange new world of Covid-19, Goldberg asked how much Kurtzman’s budget had increased on the small-screen Trek franchise as a result of precautionary measures. Kurtzman’s estimate: PPE alone has added between $300,000 and $500,000 in costs to each episode.

You can almost hear the hosts doing the mental math on: 1) how these additional costs will add up over a season; and 2) what larger impact this will have on television production in the short-term, and maybe the long-term.

By the end of the episode, the answers seem to point to: 1) an ungodly sum of money; and 2) Covid may have just toppled Peak TV.

We have taken it as a given in recent years that the television universe, like our real one, will just go on expanding for long after any of us is gone. We had barely acclimated to there being over 400 scripted original series airing in a given year before that number crossed the 500 series threshold. Even as cable channels like A&E or Cinemax were bailing out of the scripted game, the streamers have been growing and multiplying so rapidly that the total amount of content has kept going up, up, up.

And where the pandemic has completely upended almost every other aspect of life as we know it, television has been a reassuring constant, with abundant new options to watch even as the rest of the world shut down. Of course, most of these were shows that completed filming before the March quarantine, and not every corner of the TV business has gone unscathed. (Witness how the broadcast networks have had to scramble to put together a fall season.)

But Covid-19 is a pernicious virus, and it just needed more time than usual to begin impacting a seemingly immune part of the world like television.

In recent weeks, the pandemic has resulted in a wave of “un-renewals,” a term which means exactly what it sounds like: TV shows who’ve had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory by networks and streamers that no longer want to make planned new seasons under these rapidly-shifting economic conditions. The highest-profile un-renewal was GLOW, the women’s wrestling comedy, which had already filmed an entire episode for its planned fourth and final season when Netflix reversed course. The stated reason was that it’s too difficult to film a show with lots of wrestling scenes, featuring a huge ensemble, while taking the necessary Covid precautions. But Netflix also recently un-renewed teen shows The Society and I Am Not Okay With This, while ABC, TruTV, and Showtime gave the same treatment to, respectively, Cobie Smulder’s private-detective show Stumptown, the Andrea Savage sitcom I’m Sorry and the Kirsten Dunst dramedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida. None of these shows contain wrestling, though they admittedly had other logistical difficulties of varying degrees. (The Society featured big crowd scenes, for instance, and takes place in summer, while the lockdown would have pushed filming in New England back into the fall.)

Mostly, though, the issue seems to be the added cost of making shows while keeping the cast and crew as safe as possible from Covid. Several prominent showrunners, speaking under condition of anonymity, suggested to me that Kurtzman’s $500,000-per-episode figure was in the ballpark, but perhaps on the low end. There are the PPE supplies themselves, including transparent shields to allow actors to run lines together before cameras roll. Studio HVAC systems need to be upgraded to meet the new air safety standards. Vans that could once ferry a half-dozen actors or more to a set are now allowed to carry at most two at a time, so everyone needs more vans. One showrunner estimated that testing alone is over $100,000 per episode, and fees for crew, director prep, and shooting, plus guest-star salaries, are all up 25 percent over normal, because they have to film episodes on a 10-day schedule rather than the usual eight to accommodate the new protocols. Depending on the regulations in a given state where production happens, shows may also have to pay to quarantine any actors flown in from out of town for 14 days, and also pay that actor a higher rate to cover work they potentially missed during that quarantine period. Bit by bit, it all adds up, making hits less lucrative and turning borderline shows into ones that are no longer tenable.

The research department at FX, which has kept track of Peak TV stats since before their network boss John Landgraf coined the term, estimates that the total number of original scripted shows this year, through August, was down about 15 percent from the same point in 2019. That gap is likely to grow over the rest of 2021, if only because there won’t be the usual flood of new fall series on ABC, NBC, et al. Even if that percentage holds, though, we’ll have gone from 532 original series last year to 452 this year. That seems like counting the grains of sand peeled off the beach when the tide goes out, but it’s not hard to imagine the total number of shows plummeting over the next few years.

It’s even harder to imagine the post-Covid scripted landscape having nearly as much variety as we’ve enjoyed for most of the last decade. Peak TV has been defined as much by how many kinds of shows have been made as by the overall tonnage. It’s been an era where so many series were created to suit so many different tastes that anyone who couldn’t find a new favorite TV show simply wasn’t looking hard enough. Can that continue in this harsh new reality?

“For an established show like ours,” says one showrunner, “which plays all over the world and streams in perpetuity, I’m sure it makes sense for the studio to go forward.  For newer shows, and niche shows… the handwriting is on the wall, I fear.”

It’s tough not to notice that most of the un-renewals so far (as well as abrupt cancellations for relative newcomers like Netflix’s Teenage Bounty Hunters) have been series about, and often made by, women. As the cuts go deeper and wider, odds are that all kinds of shows will suffer similar fates. But when it comes time to green-light new series under these conditions, it feels like stories from and about underrepresented voices, or stories told in unique ways, will have a much tougher go of it. It won’t be quite like when the movie industry largely stopped making anything but tentpole action movies, if only because Covid precautions will make it very difficult to mount shows on the scale of a Game of Thrones for a while. But when faced with a much higher price tag for both a formulaic show and one that breaks the mold, which do you think most executives will favor? Would AMC have made the philosophical hang-out dramedy Lodge 49 in this environment, let alone four extremely low-rated seasons of the great Silicon Valley drama Halt and Catch Fire? A few years later, would Netflix have allowed Maria Bamford to explore her struggle with bipolar disorder within the profoundly weird context of the wonderful but extremely specific comedy Lady Dynamite? For that matter, if someone was pitching GLOW to Netflix for the first time today, would it get made?

And if all of these odes to misfits don’t vanish entirely, there’s the matter of whether the audience will be willing to try them in this colder economic climate. Even before the pandemic hit, Netflix had developed a newfound appetite for canceling shows, with the phrase “renewed by Netflix for a third and final season” a staple of industry trade stories over the last couple of years. It’s a huge turnaround from the early days of the streaming age, where the unwritten contract between audiences and Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, et al., was that shows would be allowed to run for as long as their creators wanted — or, at least, that the creators would be given enough warning to properly wrap up their stories. In other eras, a show’s lack of commercial prospects became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as audiences shied away from series they assumed would be canceled quickly. In Peak TV, that anxiety was allowed to go away — for a while, at least — which gave viewers confidence to sample whatever they wanted without fear of losing it too soon.

But the second word in “show business” eventually takes precedence, and it’s left viewers more on edge than before about their favorites going away ahead of schedule. Netflix social media posts these days are instantly greeted by pleas to bring back one of a dozen different canceled shows, and/or indignant replies from people who refuse to watch any future Netflix series until after its entire run has concluded and they know it has a real ending. Which will only make it harder for anything distinctive to find an audience if it does manage to get green-lit in this new and more expensive world. Time is a flat circle.

As another showrunner bluntly puts it, “A critical darling with bad ratings is not gonna last unless it wins an Emmy — and maybe not even then.”

I hear that Netflix has already started telling its creators to plan for a three-season run at most, and thus to pack in as many ideas as they can as soon as they can. This will actually be something of a welcome change for the streaming giant, whose boss Ted Sarandos once said that he encouraged his creators to treat their entire first season as a premise pilot. This philosophy often led to the successful shows feeling sluggishly-paced, and the unsuccessful ones like I Am Not Okay With This ending before they had barely even begun telling their stories. But, from a broader view, many of the producers I’ve spoken with suspect that Covid precautions will transform American television into something even more closely resembling the British business model: shorter runs for almost everything (save maybe family sitcoms and procedural dramas), and shorter seasons within those runs, to account for how much longer it will take to film everything. (Though that will actually make individual episodes cost even more, because it becomes harder to amortize major expenses — say, building additional sets to limit location filming — across a briefer run.)

Peak TV’s obituary has been written plenty of times before, including in the 2015 Landgraf speech that named it. (At the time, he wrongly predicted, “My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America, and that we’ll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond.”) It’s possible that this will be a blip, and that the business goes back to its usual excess after a vaccine is widely available and those PPE costs go away. Or even that a shift to a British model actually increases the number of shows, to allow for each of them not sticking around as long. Earlier this week, Disney announced that the entire company’s chief focus going forward will be streaming content; at the moment, Disney+ only has one show anybody talks about (The Mandalorian), so that means they’ll have to invest heavily in new programming.

But for now, the irresistible force that has been Peak TV is smacking hard into the immovable object of Covid. Enjoy the shows we have today, because reinforcements may be fewer and farther between for quite some time.

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