FX President John Landgraf made headlines two years ago by saying there is “simply too much television,” predicting a painful, Darwinian bursting of that bubble and thinning of the herd when it comes to scripted programming.
Yet as the FX executive returns this week to the TV Critics Assn. tour, where he first made those remarks, networks and services continue to crowd into the dramatic arena, seeking to define and brand themselves with high-profile, premium-quality shows aimed at competing with HBO, Netflix and Showtime.
This week brings two more examples, both based on established properties: “Mr. Mercedes,” a detective thriller adapted from the Stephen King novel by TV writer supreme David E. Kelly and starring Brendan Gleeson, for DirecTV’s Audience Network; and the dark comedy “Get Shorty,” a 10-episode Epix series from the Elmore Leonard novel turned movie, starring Chris O’Dowd and Ray Romano.
The dynamics that Landgraf cited haven’t changed. But the notion of saturation – or “peak TV,” as it has come to be called – hasn’t dampened incentives to plunge into original fare, a strategy that in some ways has been validated.
Amazon proved it could compete for awards consideration with “Transparent.” Hulu put itself on the map as never before with “The Handmaid’s Tale” – like “Get Shorty,” adapted from a book previously made into a movie – that recently earned honors as the program of the year from the TV Critics Assn., elevating the streaming service to new levels of prestige.
Discovery Channel has kicked up its game with “Manhunt: Unabomber,” a limited series starring Sam Worthington (“Avatar”) and Paul Bettany. CBS, meanwhile, has sought to establish its own streaming alternative, CBS All Access, with a similar reliance on proven titles: “The Good Fight,” a spinoff of its popular series “The Good Wife;” and the twice-delayed “Star Trek: Discovery,” which will finally launch in September.
One familiar strategy for these new or smaller services is to turn to titles with built-in name recognition – a maneuver that both heightens media interest and helps with marketing. Take YouTube Red, which just announced a decades-later sequel to “The Karate Kid,” “Cobra Kai,” reuniting original stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka.
So far, these fledgling services have also been able to attract high-caliber talent both in front of and behind the camera, which, obviously, is no assurance of success.
The opening episodes of “Mr. Mercedes” – which is about a retired detective, drawn back into a dormant case by a taunting killer – is a grim but solid exercise, while “Get Shorty” casts O’Dowd as the mob enforcer who decides he wants to get into the movie business, and Romano as the struggling producer drawn into the scheme.
Both shows are watchable, but the question remains as to whether they’re compelling enough to break through the abundant clutter on these smaller services.
Others, most notably Netflix, have painted a rosier picture about the apparent glut of original scripted programming, with its chief content officer Ted Sarandos having stated that there’s “no such thing as too much TV,” especially if consumers are well served.
The fact that niche players have forged ahead with new programs doesn’t necessarily make Landgraf’s appraisal any less prophetic. The real bet seems to be on establishing shows that will earn fledgling enterprises a seat at the table whenever the music eventually stops.
“Mr. Mercedes” premieres Aug. 9 on Audience Network. “Get Shorty” premieres Aug. 13 on Epix.