Peak TV is Over—What Comes Next?
Remember “Peak TV”?
It was a good run, starting more than a decade ago with the launch of filmmaker-driven shows such as Lena Dunham’s Girls on HBO, David Fincher’s House of Cards on Netflix and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake on Sundance Channel, not to mention episodic heavyweights like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Mad Men and The Walking Dead, all of which supplied steady work for a plethora of indie writers and directors. But that party is over—or at least taking a break. If the corporate mergers and media layoffs of the past year weren’t enough of a red flag, the industry’s recent labor battles are the ultimate buzzkill, a sign of growing disconnect between the companies that backed such shows and the workers who created them.
It’s hard to say what the landscape will look like post-strike. Some producers and directors are optimistic that what comes on the other side will be better for freelance creators looking to make episodic work; others remain wary of an increasingly corporate marketplace—a period recently defined by critic Sam Adams as “Trough TV,” where “a steroidal hybrid of algorithmic insights and old-school showbiz wisdom about what sells [results] in a flood of bad-idea IP extensions (Velma, That ’90s Show), true-crime schlock (Netflix’s entire Documentaries tab), and Yellowstone spinoffs.”
Just a few years ago, it didn’t seem that way. During the binge-watching COVID months of 2020, “there was a real buying frenzy, and producers started selling lots of series,” says producer Sofia Sondervan-Bild, who closed a deal on a new episodic thriller with Fox Networks at the time. “But then in 2021–2022, the consolidation started, the streamers started letting go of entire groups and a lot of the people we were going to pitch to are now gone.”
According to a recent report in Variety, the streaming companies’ new cost-cutting “austerity” measures have led to a wave of cancellations, revoked season orders and a major reduction in new titles, which nearly doubled in 2021 but rose only four percent last year. “We were in a bubble,” admits one producer, “where streamers were spending tons on content, then suddenly realized they were not able to sustain that.”
During this period of corporate retrenchment, indie filmmakers are bound to bear the brunt. With every studio producing for its own platforms and clamoring for exclusivity, Deniese Davis, producer of HBO’s acclaimed Issa Rae series Insecure, argues the newly vertically integrated system has created a far more closed environment. “It’s inevitably gotten more risk averse,” she says. “You can see how the studios are more concerned about shareholders than what audiences want to see.”
In November of last year, on the eve of the downturn, Davis was fortunate to have landed a development deal with Tyler Perry Studios. She suggests the best way forward for creators is to eschew corporate dependency and partner with independent studios, such as MACRO, A24 and MRC. “They can make their own work and bring financial capital to a project,” she says.
Similarly, producer Helen Estabrook, who had first look deals with HBO (Mrs. Fletcher) and Hulu (Casual), saw the writing on the wall a couple years ago and, rather than continue working independently, joined Condé Nast as head of global film and television in March 2021. “We wouldn’t be able to get a full season of Casual now,” she says, referring to the Jason Reitman comic drama. “We’ve gotten to a point where the creatives are no longer in the room with the decision-makers, and the people who are the decision-makers aren’t the decision-makers anymore. It may even be the same people, but they have new bosses and new metrics.”
According to many insiders, the studios are only looking for proven concepts and proven talent. “Companies want only the most experienced and proven showrunners—all of whom are already locked up by other shows,” says Davis.
“In the same way that only one of 10 actors could get an independent film made,” echoes Estabrook, “now you have one of only 10 showrunners who can get a show made.”
“The challenge now,” agrees Mark Duplass, the indie filmmaker turned prolific TV executive producer, “is to continue to make unique, interesting, smaller shows as the lanes for what the buyers want narrow. The vertical integration isn’t making it easier. The big dudes want that big, repeatable IP. It’s more about putting all their chips in a few big baskets these days.”
One executive, who recently left her production company to become an agent, says the larger players have less room for independents. “They have their production deals, or producers with a big IP library,” says the agent. “Unless you’re a big name yourself, they don’t need you.”
Zadoc Angell, co-president of Echo Lake Entertainment’s management division, who represents a number of creatives for the TV industry, sees shifts in the kinds of series that networks and streamers want these days away from anything niche toward the mainstream. “Unfortunately, there are [fewer] opportunities for that slice-of-life or small audience type of show,” he says. “They’re talking a lot about reaching wider audiences and shows not being for ‘Middle America’ enough. And there is a strong need for a propulsive story engine that is going to keep people binging a show.”
And despite all of the chatter about prestige TV like Succession—which, like many similar high-profile series, has employed indie filmmakers, including Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Andrij Parekh and Miguel Arteta—such series do not satisfy the mandates of the new streaming universe. “A lot of these companies are looking for broader content because they are moving more toward an advertising model,” says one executive. “As much as we all talk about Succession, everyone is watching NCIS.” (According to trade reports, Succession’s season finale reached a series-best 2.9 million people; NCIS, CBS’s conventional police procedural about the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, regularly reaches more than 10 million people in a week.)
The state of the nonfiction serial business is even harder for indie filmmakers. “To say the marketplace is cold is generous,” says one documentary producer. “It’s fucking freezing.” In the same way that many fiction shows need familiar branding associated with them, the very rare documentary
projects being greenlit are only the most celebrity-driven and accessible. Because of the cutbacks, “the saddest part for me,” says the producer, “is there are all these people who were working as co-producers and associate producers who thought they had a career, and now that’s going away.”
Despite such constrictions and contractions, there is the sense that the push for new content will continue. After all, many of the big media platforms are trying to grow and compete for subscribers. Duplass, who, together with friend and colleague Barret O’Brien, launched an episodic indie pilot at this year’s Tribeca Festival called The Long Long Night, says, “I hope to make things cheaply enough so that they can’t say no to me. It’s what I’ve always done, and I hope it continues to work.”
Smaller platforms also continue to strive to break out. As O’Brien says, “There is more and more acceptance of smaller TV platforms, so there are more outlets and space for creators to pitch their wares.”
Amazon’s ad-supported Freevee platform, for one, continues to produce independent TV (including recent hit Jury Duty), and The Roku Channel is seen to have growth potential (recently buying actress-filmmaker Zoe Lister-Jones’s comedy series Slip). But the sector remains “limited” and “to be determined” says one insider, with a lot of focus on ad-supported reality TV–style programming. It was not a good sign for more prestige-style indie TV when Facebook Watch’s Originals unit, home to shows such as the Elizabeth Olsen drama Sorry for Your Loss and the Stanley Tucci podcast adaptation Limetown, was shuttered this April.
Some directors are trying to remain positive. James Ponsoldt, director of The Spectacular Now, who recently worked as an executive producer and director on Sorry for Your Loss, as well as Amazon’s Daisy Jones & the Six and Apple’s Shrinking, has faith that distinctive and visionary work will continue to thrive. “I think the studios and networks want to have shows that make people talk, and you don’t get that from being mediocre because the bar is so high these days,” he says. With multiple shows in development, Ponsoldt still feels “there is an openness to ideas that are pushing the envelope.”
“I would like to think that we’re going to bounce back and the crème will rise to the top,” agrees Lift filmmaker DeMane Davis, who got her TV start on Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, like a lot of African American women directors, and was recently a co-executive producer and director on new shows such as CBS’s Clarice and the CW’s Naomi. While Davis worries about new creators being able to graduate to the showrunner ranks in the current climate, she says, “There are a lot of popular shows that are ending, and there’s going to have to be shows that take their place.”
Tze Chun, another indie filmmaker turned prolific TV creator for such shows as Once Upon a Time, Gotham, and Boots Riley’s new series, I’m a Virgo, admits that he’s seen some “shutting down of submissions. But I see this as short term. I’m trying not to get discouraged because in every part of the industry—indies or studios, cable or streaming—there have always been companies that are hot for a little while, and then contract for a little while.”
Like a lot of indie filmmakers who have made the transition to television, Chun is using the slowdowns and strike hiatus to develop new projects and feature films. According to one producer, a lot of filmmakers are going back to independent film projects or even making podcasts to create an original IP for shows that they’ll develop later.
“I don’t chase trends anymore,” says Chun. “By the time a studio is looking for something, that information is old. When Ted Lasso was reaching its peak, all the studios just wanted optimistic stuff, and all my friends who write dark stuff were freaking out. I said, ‘Wait a month,’ and then Squid Game came out.”
“Every project is short term, but you are long term,” he continues. “And nothing in this industry—no ebb or valley—is forever. We just have to keep proving that people who are coming from independent film can break through, and as long as the shows are successful, there is no reason why they won’t continue.”