With The Rise Of Scripted Cable Programming, Has Television Oversaturated Its Own Marketplace?

Alan Sepinwall has a great post up about one of the best problems a person can have, the fact that there’s too much excellent television airing right now, and that the number of shows overall, much less excellent shows, is growing far too fast for anyone to keep up. He’s got the numbers on just how big the television marketplace has grown:

Because FX keeps track of this, I asked their research department for some hard numbers on how many shows we have now versus then. In 2002 — the year “The Shield” debuted on FX — there were actually 28 original scripted dramas on premium and basic cable (some of it famous stuff like “The Wire” and “Monk,” some of it long-forgotten like “Falcon Beach” and “Breaking News”) and 6 original comedies. In 2007, there were 42 original dramas and 17 comedies. By last year, that number had ballooned to 77 original dramas and 48 comedies. And in the first four months of 2013 alone, there have been 34 dramas and 19 comedies. And that’s on top of everything that ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and the CW are doing. That pace will slow down somewhat as we shift into summer, but I’d still expect 2013 to top the 2012 numbers, and to keep rising. Netflix is making its own original shows now, and releasing all the episodes at once. Amazon has pilots in development. The amount of television expanding, but so is our definition of what counts as “television.”

But while Alan is discussing this challenge mostly in terms of being a critic who is expected to keep up with as many things as possible, and as a consumer, I think these numbers hold the key to a larger business insight: the number of television shows has proliferated far faster than the amount of time we could dedicate to new programming could possibly expand.

I couldn’t find exactly comparable data, but television viewership doesn’t appear to have fluctuated enormously in response to this boom in content. During the 2006–2007 television season, the average American viewer was watching 4 hours and 34 minutes of television a day. Today, that number is close to five hours, 98 percent of which is watched on a traditional television. An increase of 26 minutes, give or take, isn’t bad, but it’s a rise of 9.5 percent over six years, even as there are 275 percent more original scripted drama on premium and basic cable. And 26 minutes is an increase of a single sitcom per day, which is not nothing, but not keeping pace with the rate of new programming development, either.


Or in simpler terms: the cable networks which previously relied on reruns, movie content, or other forms of programming have hours to fill with original content if they want to. But we don’t have hours to offer up to watch them — the networks seem to be responding to their own schedules rather than to ours. Five hours a day is a lot, and for most employed people, it’s hard to imagine where they’d find more hours in the day to television watching than that. Maybe the ceiling is higher. But I wouldn’t put money on it being that lofty. It’s hard to imagine that oversaturation is totally unrelated to the ratings woes so many networks are facing now. As a viewer, it’s great to have more options, an embarrassment of riches, really, though the diffusion of the marketplace means I have fewer people to discuss some of my favorite shows with. But the networks need to realize that it’s rare that they’re going to get a show like The Walking Dead that enters the marketplace and siphons off a truly impressive number of viewers. More likely, something depressing is going to happen: the product is getting better and better, but there are simply fewer people who have available time with which to consume it. There’s something tragic about the idea that television’s arrival at maturity as an art form could coincide with the implosion of its business model, and that one could directly contribute to the other.