TV is doing just fine. . .for now

A new op-ed about the possible end of “peak TV” misses the real story. 

By Brad Berens

Film historian and critic Peter Biskind’s op-ed in The New York Times hangs black crepe, mourning the end of peak TV. The funeral came at last week’s Emmy Awards, with an open casket where viewers could see the cast of Succession. Biskind’s piece went online with the headline “How Hollywood Lost Its Nerve” on 1/18, and it’s in today’s print edition with the headline “Peak TV Was Fun While It Lasted.”

Biskind argues that bare-knuckled competition among streamers for both subscribers and advertising dollars inhibits innovation because the different streamers are all chasing the least common denominator of programming that appeals to the broadest possible audiences.

Here’s a representative paragraph:

The era of so-called Peak TV was kicked off in the late 1990s by “The Sopranos.” It happened because HBO, looking to disrupt the industry, broke rules, took risks and pushed creative boundaries. Today, beleaguered programming executives are hampered by cost-cutting and cowed by market upheavals. Almost no one is looking to be a disrupter anymore. In fact, the goal is just to survive, in part by undoing the disruptions of the past. That might be a fiscal necessity, but it’s not a recipe for groundbreaking TV. Anyone hoping for a repeat of the achievements of the last two decades has to look at what the disrupters did then, not at what they’re doing now.

This is a bizarre hot take. Stiff competition typically accelerates innovation, except when there is oligarchical collusion and price-fixing to build a moat around the status quo. The studios and networks had just such a moat for decades, which is how we came to have the original Night Court on NBC for 11 seasons, 45 seasons of Survivor on CBS, and a limitless supply of ancient reruns, low-rent reality TV, and talking heads on hundreds of basic cable channels. Streaming disrupted this moat.

Digitization, Proliferation, Collapse/Consolidation, Rebirth

While Biskind is right that the next few seasons of TV (broadcast, cable/satellite, and streaming) will feature belt-tightening reality checks as every network looks to make a profit (rather than just build audiences through profligate spending), that doesn’t mean sharpest-edge innovative TV storytelling is dead. It’ll just look a bit different.

We’ve seen this story play out before. The earliest days of the internet saw new digital entertainment companies (like, new ecommerce companies (like, and new niche companies (like all flame out and collapse because they came too early… only to be followed Netflix, Amazon, and Chewy.

In the digital ad business, this happened with a proliferation of ad networks in the early 2000s, which then collapsed into a few ad exchanges. Right now, every retailer is launching a retail media service, but consolidation will come over the next few years.

I expect that we’ll see a slight decline in the amount of TV with massive special effects budgets and a slight increase in smaller, character-driven stories that are cheaper to make. These changes will only be slight because Generative AI-driven special effects are plummeting in cost, as are new storytelling technologies like the StageCraft “video wall” pioneered by The Mandalorian team.

Yes, studios and streamers will make less content, but the overwhelming firehose of shows has been too much for anyone to handle since lockdown, so this is not tragic.

Are ads bad for TV?

Biskind also thinks that advertising makes TV worse:

Streaming services are also adding lower-cost, ad-supported tiers to their hitherto ad-free programming. But ad-supported tiers open the door to the kind of pressure from advertisers—which typically don’t want their products appearing next to scenes of sex, violence or controversy of any sort—that is precisely what neutered broadcast television in the first place and gave rise to HBO and the bracing, challenging programming it offered. We’ve come full circle.

This is nonsense for several reasons. First, much of the best TV in history was ad-supported: M*A*S*H, The West Wing, All in the Family, Babylon 5, and The Simpsons all spring to my mind. Sure, there was also a lot of junk, but that’s why Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything in every genre is crap) still resonates.

Second, in the 25 years since The Sopranos premiered, advertisers have gotten used to having their brands next to edgier content than in the 70s and 80s. Premium cable and early streaming have served as a kind of Overton Window to stretch the frontier of the thinkable for brands.

Third, programmatic advertising technology makes it possible for advertisers to choose in what programs their ads will appear with incredible nuance, so there’s no risk that an ad for Pampers will show up next to a racy scene in yet another Game of Thrones spinoff (even though that would probably sell a lot of diapers).

The real threats to TV’s future

Biskind’s misguided doom mongering about the decline of quality TV misses actual threats. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are more likely to watch YouTube, TikTok, and Reels than any scripted or so-called “reality” television. They are also more likely to play video games than watch television. It doesn’t surprise me that Biskind, who is in his mid 80s, doesn’t have these things at the top of his mind, but younger Americans sure do.

Every time an avid traditional TV watcher dies, she or he is not replaced. Instead, a short form video watcher and videogamer is born.

At CES earlier this month, Netflix had a popular exhibit (one friend waited in line for 90 minutes!) to get people excited about its new series, 3 Body Problem. But this exhibit wasn’t only there to promote a scripted streaming show. In the popular SF novel that is the source of the show, a video game plays a central role. Netflix is making a huge push into videogames on top of its streaming entertainment because that’s the only way it will hold onto a big audience.

The biggest threat to the future of TV is irrelevance.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).



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January 26, 2024