And just like that, another one bites the dust.
In case you missed it last week, WGN canceled its incredibly well reviewed period drama, Underground, and in the process, announced that it was thereby ending its experiment with original scripted programming. Four series actually made it to air on the network, starting with the period witch series, Salem, in 2014, followed by Manhattan, about the quest to create the atomic bomb, and then the Appalachian drama Outsiders, and eventually ending with Underground.
Salem lasted three seasons, the others two each, and all were extremely well received. That the ratings were low across the board is sort of the major problem with the current landscape, that there are too many shows, across too many platforms, for most of these projects, no matter their quality, to carve out the viewership necessary for survival. WGN, ultimately, realized on a fundamental level that the cost of creating original, scripted television was one that they just were not recouping. At some point, bait has to be cut, and that’s where the network ended up. Cutting its losses and returning to reruns, old movies, syndicated religious programming, and the like, which clearly was getting it done, as far as the bottom line was concerned.
WGN wasn’t the first, however. MTV made a similar decision a few months back, as the corporate overlords at Viacom decreed the music television network was done with such fare. Company CEO Bob Bakish said that MTV’s dip into those waters “didn’t work,” and shifted the original programming over to Spike, which is only interesting because that network has previous experience with the attempt to establish an original scripted beachhead, only to give up on it in 2011 after it didn’t go as well as planned. Now, though, they’re trying again, first with an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist, which premieres in a couple weeks, then, in the fall, Season Two of The Shannara Chronicles, shifted from MTV. There is more on the way, coming in 2018 when Spike rebrands as the Paramount Network, but don’t be surprised if the leash here is pretty short.
Viacom, after all, is not in the strongest shape these days, so even if they’re spending a fair amount of money to rebrand this outlet and develop more programming, if the viewers don’t show up, that gravy train is going to end, and sooner rather than later. With four or five series due on the air by next summer, don’t be surprised if the 2019 slate ends up with sagebrush rolling through it as if it were a deserted western boomtown. That might be aggressive, but placing such a bet on 2020 probably isn’t.
The signs that things are turning to the worse couldn’t be clearer, and if you doubt it, just look at what Netflix has been doing of late. Yes, it just dropped the new seasons of three different shows (House of Cards, Bloodline, and F is for Family), a movie (War Machine), and a Sarah Silverman stand up special, but the argument can be made that the latter two projects don’t count for these purposes, and the first three are simply a network putting out new seasons of three of its shows as any network might during any particular time of the year.
What’s much more important here is that the streaming giant has recently canceled no less than four high-priced shows, one of them being Bloodline. The others, Marco Polo, The Get Down, and Sense8, all had very loyal followings (I, personally, think Sense8 has been one of the more original and interesting shows to hit the air in some time, and I don’t mind saying it), but those followings were small. So small, in fact, that even a behemoth like Netflix decided it was time to cut its losses.
If that’s not enough for you, Reed Hastings, the service’s fearless leader, even went so far as to say last week, “we’ve canceled very few shows … I’m always pushing the content team: We have to take more risk; you have to try more crazy things. Because we should have a higher cancel rate overall.”
I don’t know about you, but that sends a pretty clear message to me. As Richard Rushfield at The Ankler puts it, rather succinctly, “When the head of a company muses aloud that, maybe we should think about canceling more shows, I’m putting my money on what’s going to follow is canceling a lot of shows.”
Lo and behold, that process has begun in earnest, and if Netflix is doing it — the company that has unmistakably made it rain, spending literally billions on more new shows than any one person could watch — then just wait for the deluge to begin.
The networks are doing okay, but not thriving like they were. Seasons are being shortened, as fewer and fewer programs get the full order of 22 per. Amazon and Netflix are starting to focus on feature film production over developing more television. All this while more and more cable networks are returning to the far cheaper option of unscripted and reality fare to fill their programming hours. A prime example of that last category is Oxygen, which recently rebranded as a true crime network aimed at women, featuring only non-scripted shows.
It wasn’t the first, and clearly, it won’t be anywhere near the last. In fact, with the exception of a select few cable outlets — like, for instance, TNT, TBS, USA, AMC, and, the current best of the bunch, FX — that aren’t really in any danger, it would be unwise to wager too heavily on the programming futures of any outlet not on broadcast television.
That even goes for Apple and Facebook, both of which appear to be, rather uncharacteristically, getting into the game late. Both are spending money to create content for an increasingly shrinking audience, and no matter how many billions a company might have at its disposal, there inevitably comes a time when, again, bait must be cut. The question for them is, how many billions are they going to spend before they realize what some of us already have?
This isn’t the end of quality TV, mind you, just the end of the boom. The gold rush, while financially lucrative for creators and creatively satisfying for viewers, is over. The bubble is in the process of bursting, as it had to do. This was inevitable, simply because there’s no such thing as permanent growth.
Perhaps it happened sooner than some thought it would, but if it comes as a surprise to anyone, it’s because they haven’t been paying attention.