In 2015, John Landgraf, the CEO of FX, inadvertently gave writers a handy label for the current TV era: Peak TV. It was clear by then that the so-called Golden Age of TV had shifted into something broader, that the creative glories ushered in by “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” coupled with evolving technologies had brought programming to a new level. The phrase Peak TV was quickly adopted and hashtagged.
For Landgraf, Peak TV was a negative. It suggested that the overabundance of scripted TV shows — 455 in 2016, up from 192 in 2006 — were leading to problems in finding superior talent and stories and in creating enough buzz to grab viewers. That last point is definitely true: I can’t tell you how many times readers and friends haven’t even heard the names of the latest great new series — I’ve been met with empty stares at mentions of Netflix’s “Ozark,” FX’s “Better Things,” Amazon’s “Catastrophe” — while they complain about not having time to stay caught up on the shows they already love.
If you’re trying to promote a show, it’s a tough moment. But for me, Peak TV has been a positive. I’ve focused on the other meaning of the word peak — not maximum volume, but pinnacle. That’s why I was glad to learn that Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s content chief, also has problems with the pessimistic usage. Last week at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in LA, he addressed the topic, aware that his own shop — which is spending a whopping $6 billion on shows this year — has been part of the growing glut. “The notion of Peak TV is a completely backwards idea, which is that somehow you can have too much of things,” he said. “It’s like saying you’d eat too much at the buffet — you only eat what you want.”
The more shows, the better, I feel, and the more shows vying to capture our attention and Emmy Awards, the better. As viewers, we benefit from the competition for our eyes among the networks and streaming services. We benefit from the increased risk-taking and the striving to be different. There is no shortage of fine TV writers, directors, and actors out there, at least not yet, and many of them are immigrating from the world of film to make the worthy likes of “Big Little Lies,” “The Knick,” and “Top of the Lake.” I don’t see the medium even close to running out of fresh talent, as remarkable originals continue to dazzle — Issa Rae of HBO’s “Insecure,” for example, or Donald Glover of FX’s “Atlanta,” or Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Comedy Central’s “Broad City.”
Sure, it’s a problem for completest personalities, those viewers who need to see every episode of every show on every year-end Top 10 list. The TV lineups must feel like a traffic jam to them. And with all the shows to choose from, Top 10 lists have tended to vary widely, just as they do in the music industry. There are fewer monoliths these days in any medium, not least of all TV, where award winners such as “Transparent” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” nonetheless have niche profiles. The crowded TV lineups are also a problem for TV critics who were once able to survey the entire TV landscape in order to guide readers to the good stuff. At this point, few of us can take all roads at once.
But book readers — and book critics — also need to make choices from the thousands of novels released each year. And just as streaming has expanded the number of TV releases, digital publishing has expanded the number of book releases. And yet no one is suggesting that less fiction should come out every year. People find their stories in the rush of good and bad new things, sometimes through advertisements, but mostly through social media and word of mouth. They no longer need to merely accept what a handful of networks or publishers throw at them. They select the best that’s available, that they like, that they have time for, as they have been doing in the past few years.
There’s a bit less water-cooler talk in this age of Peak TV, partly because of binge-ers trying to avoid spoilers, but mostly because there are so many shows to choose from. We are often watching different shows at different times. And yet, a number of series — Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — have managed to transcend our separateness and generate group excitement. While we each dig deeper into our own tastes, relishing all the good and great we have to choose from, we nonetheless always find common ground.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.