If there’s one thing that has become clear in recent years, it’s that TV is the winner. It has proved itself a superior storytelling medium to film.
This was probably always true, but TV never took routine advantage of its opportunity to tell serialized, unfurling stories over seasonlong arcs of episodes until the early 1980s when “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere” paved the way for more smart, character-driven network dramas such as “China Beach,” “Homefront” and the current critical hit “The Good Wife.”
In the late 1990s, cable found a way to go further. Unburdened of network standards and practices and with premium cable networks such as HBO less concerned about ratings, “The Sopranos” broke through to become a sophisticated hit rooted in the psychology of its characters. “Deadwood,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” followed.
Now we’re at a point where there’s just too much good TV. It’s a high-class problem to have, but it is on some level a problem. You can see it in the Emmy nominations where “The Good Wife” was overlooked for a best drama nomination despite a stellar, critically acclaimed season.
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“We’re in a golden age of television,” acknowledged Television Academy CEO Bruce Rosenblum at a news conference last month. “There’s far more terrific programming on television today than there was five years ago or 10 years ago. And when you look at the dramas that were nominated, I’m not sure which one of those you would move out (to make room for others).”
Rosenblum said there were 40 percent more dramas submitted for nomination consideration this year and 60 percent more comedies. That’s not surprising because there are more scripted shows on TV than ever in the medium’s history with cable the most fertile ground for new shows.
Research provided by FX Networks shows 114 scripted basic or pay cable drama or comedy series debuted so far in 2014, up 9 percent compared with 2013. In 1999 there were only 23 scripted comedy/dramas on basic or pay cable.
No wonder FX CEO John Landgraf began by apologizing to TV critics on FX’s day at the TV critics summer press tour last month.
“I think we would probably all agree that since the day television was invented, there have been too many bad TV programs,” Landgraf said. “We would probably also agree there have never been, and probably never will be, enough truly great programs on television. But today may be the first time in history where we could all honestly agree there are simply too many good programs, at least too many for any one viewer to watch or any one critic to cover.”
The reality is there’s just too much good TV and not enough time to watch it. From Sundance TV’s “Rectify” and “The Honorable Woman” to HBO’s “The Leftovers” and WGN America’s “Manhattan” and FX’s “Tyrant,” this summer’s tsunami of scripted originals put to rest the notion of the dog days of summer TV.
While much of this fare is on cable or premium cable, even the broadcast networks have gotten on board with a new season of “24” on Fox, new medical drama hit “Night Shift” on NBC and CBS’ “Extant,” which hasn’t had the best ratings but still counts as original programming with a movie star, Halle Berry, at its center no less.
Even PBS has more scripted series than a decade ago, playing scripted dramas “Call the Midwife” and “Last Tango in Halifax” on Sunday night outside of “Masterpiece” and even adding a comedy this summer with the Britcom import “Vicious.”
But this latest Golden Age of Television could be fleeting. At some point, original scripted programming seems likely to reach an unsustainable saturation point. But for now, networks continue to renew low-rated scripted shows despite a lack of audience and buzz (see: “Halt and Catch Fire” getting another season on AMC).
In August, The Hollywood Reporter noted a TV brain drain that could also endanger this era of plenty: Now is the time when TV writers start pitching show concepts for fall 2015, and so far it’s off to a slow start. Many of TV’s most experienced writers are already busy working on the wealth of existing scripted programs.