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 season-long arcs of episodes until the early 1980s when “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere” paved the way for more smart, character-driven network dramas like “China Beach,” “Homefront” and the current critical hit “The Good Wife.”
In the late 1990s, cable found a way to go a step further. Unburdened from the shackles of network standards and practices and with premium cable networks like 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.
“We're in a golden age of television,” acknowledged Television Academy CEO Bruce Rosenblum at a press 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].”
Mr. 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 to 2013. Back in 1999 there were only 23 scripted comedy/dramas on basic or pay cable. That’s a 526 percent jump in 15 years.
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,” Mr. 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.”
CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler declared viewers the winners.
“We're a part of the business where creative deal making and new technologies are supporting more original programming and more platforms on which to watch them,” she said in July. “The winners here are content creators, viewers and the company bottom line. More quality shows are being produced. There is more choice for the audience.”
This summer’s original programming wasn’t as high a percentage of reality shows as in the past. According to TheWrap.com, from May 22 through July 27, seven of the Top 20 summer series in total viewers were scripted dramas (six scripted shows made the Top 20 among adults 18-49).
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’s “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.”
“I do believe it's a golden age of television in regards to drama, certainly,” said PBS president Paula Kerger during a July press conference. “And we believe that we have our own contribution to play in that as well, and we see it in the fact that our audiences continue to grow on Sunday nights. I think there's a hunger for that kind of storytelling, and I think that it is exceptional work that is happening across our industry, and I'm very proud to be part of that.”
When it comes to quality, consider this: Scripted TV shows may not always offer shining beacons of intelligence (I’m looking at you, “Under the Dome”), but compared to what’s at movie theaters – another unnecessary “Spider-Man” flick, the third “Expendables,” a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot – there’s a lot more obvious quality among TV’s growing quantity of scripted offerings.
But this latest Golden Age of Television – it’s the second or third depending on whose counting and their age – 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).
Earlier this month 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.
“Frozen” fanatics take note: Next week ABC will air “The Story of ‘Frozen’: Making a Disney Animated Classic” (8 p.m. Tuesday), which goes behind the scenes to look at the making of the movie, the Norwegian villages that inspired the filmmakers, a preview of the “Frozen” characters on the upcoming season of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” and “an exciting announcement about the next chapter of ‘Frozen,’” per ABC.
‘The Chief’ airing
Just a reminder: WPXI will air the TV premiere of the one-man play about Steelers founder Art Rooney, “The Chief,” from 8-10 p.m. Saturday. Actor Tom Atkins stars. The film will be preceded by “Stories About Rooney, The Chief’” at 7:30 p.m.
A two-hour “Dateline” will be pre-empted and air instead at 1:30 a.m. Sunday.
“The Chief” will re-air at 8 p.m. Aug. 31 on WPXI’s digital subchannel, ME-TV, and at 9 p.m. Sept. 2 on PCNC.
Once again this year, ABC will air a two-hour edition of the “MDA Show of Strength Telethon” at 9 p.m. Sunday with performances by Rascal Flatts and LeAnn Rimes, Bret Michaels, Fall Out Boy and Jason Derulo. Celebrity presenters will include Alyssa Milano, Brad Paisley, Josh Groban, Kesha and Susan Lucci. … GSN renewed “The Chase” and “It Takes A Church” for new seasons in 2015. … Disney XD’s “Phineas and Ferb” will debut an homage to “Lost” (story by “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof) in an episode airing at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29. NBC’s “66th Annual Emmy Awards” telecast drew 15.6 million viewers Monday night, down from 17.8 million last year on a Sunday with a NFL game lead-in but still the second most-watched Emmy show since 2006. … Less than a week after its premiere, The Hollywood Reporter says Netflix renewed animated comedy “BoJack Horseman.” … CNBC renewed “Restaurant Startup” for 10 more episodes to begin airing in January. …TVGuide.com reports the producers and some cast members for 1987-95 sitcom “Full House” are working on a revival of the series with producing studio Warner Bros. … The third season of PBS’s “Masterpiece” Emmy-winner “Sherlock” returned Wednesday for 30 days of free online streaming at PBS.org. … Discovery canceled reality show “Sons of Guns” this week after star Will Hayden was charged with the aggravated rape of an 11-year-old girl.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about “The Young and the Restless,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Gang Related.”
This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on new Amazon pilots, “Now and Again” on DVD, “Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” and “Chelsea Lately.” Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
Tuned In podcast has the week off.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.