Enjoy the Golden Age of TV While It Lasts

Last week, prompted by a question in class, I reflected on my all-time favorite shows and then followed up with some additional lists of faves. When writing it, I had to make a conscious choice not to fill it with shows from the last several years. Andor, for example, which was just nominated for a couple of Critics’ Choice Awards, strikes me as an almost impossibly good show (here are a few articles that articulate why); The Crown, too, is doing a very difficult thing very well. Deutschland 83/86/89, a German show, should have made one of my lists; my bad. Some of this is definitely recency bias, which I’m extremely susceptible to regarding media, if I’m not remaining conscious of it. But that’s not all it is.

This has been a Golden Age of Television (either the second or the third, depending on who you listen to, the first being the 1950’s, I Love Lucy era). Sam Adams had a good piece at Slate a few years ago that detailed why TV has been so good (“prosperity and uncertainty”), even while arguing that the era was ending in 2019. There was a lot people didn’t know in 2019 about how the next few years would go, and the COVID pandemic extended the era by a few years, since so many of us were trapped inside watching Netflix and the like. But here at the end of 2022, the streaming business as a whole is starting to feel like a party where everybody has stayed too long, a party where some of the guests begin to regret decisions they made only a couple of hours earlier. In 2023, I suspect, people are going to start shutting off the lights.

Between 2016 and 2022, Netflix’s content spending went from a little under $7 billion to $18 billion. Disney spent a whopping $30 billion in the past year. Amazon spent almost half a billion dollars on The Rings of Power alone. Apple, relatively modest, spent around $6 billion. It’s a ridiculous arms race before you even get to contracts for streaming sports.

Investors in these companies have to wonder what end goal they’re chasing here. Yes, Netflix is profitable. But Disney’s board just fired their CEO, in part because he didn’t seem as alarmed as investors that they were spending so much. Amazon and Apple don’t even need streaming, given their other, actually profitable businesses. It was one thing to spend this much when everyone was at home streaming TV, and borrowing money was free. With a possible recession looming, interest rates higher and still rising, and media stocks tanking, that level of spending on content makes no sense.

All of which suggests there will be fewer new shows in the coming years, and fewer big-budget shows. What does this mean for the kind of shows we do see? Would Andor even have happened in a leaner economic environment? Would WandaVision? What would it mean for shows like Our Flag Means Death or Reservation Dogs or Euphoria? These questions will have to wait for another post…

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