The promise of an unlimited future for television content has run into the economic realities of a business driven by unpredictable market forces. A recent shift in strategy for the largest producers of content has become apparent in recent weeks: Major networks and streamers have reversed course and canceled previously ordered or renewed series — and even halted plans to launch already produced programs. Every outlet scraps a series or two from time to time. But the past 12 months have seen an unprecedented number of about-face decisions on greenlights and renewals.
As executives, producers and top creative talent descended on the Television Critics Assn. press tour this month in Pasadena, the overriding theme of conversations was about the state of the cable and pay TV marketplace, which is still slogging through a difficult transition from linear to streaming.
“It is a tough landscape, because everybody’s dealing with all the same economic pressures,” Paramount Television Studios president Nicole Clemens told Variety during Paramount+’s presentation day at the Langham Huntington hotel. “And now people are really scrutinizing the business behind pickups. As a seller, I noticed that.
“We are all having to take a hard look from every single angle at what the business of the businesses is — for the health of everybody. It is definitely a reset moment.”
Just when consumers were trained to expect streaming shows to remain available and on demand forever, entities like HBO Max have started culling their libraries, removing some lesser-watched fare to save money on license fees and residuals. Some library content, like “Westworld,” has been pulled in the hopes of monetizing it by other means, including free ad-supported TV (FAST) platforms.
It was probably inevitable. Although consumers got used to the notion that every show would always be available on streamers, that wasn’t the case for most of TV history. Programming had windows — first run, reruns, home entertainment (for TV, starting in earnest after the rise of the DVD), followed by several cycles of syndication — cable, local TV and then … perhaps nowhere but on a shelf. Streaming took away those windows — and the profit that came with that backend. Now, congloms like Warner Bros. Discovery want to get those dollars back.
“You just can’t take this infinite amount of money, spend it on something, and then just dump it in a single [window],” says John Landgraf, FX Content and FX Prods. chairman. There are no plans to pull FX library content right now, but it can’t be ruled out, he says.
“If you have a streaming platform that has 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of content, it’s very hard to create a user interface that allows people to really find and discover every single piece of content on that streaming platform,” Landgraf says. “A certain amount of it gets stale; it’s not getting usage. [So] then, circulating it somewhere else has some value.” The disappearance of library fare could become even more common as streamers curate more of their offerings.
Then there’s the case of current shows that were previously greenlighted or renewed — and in many cases already in the can — yet retroactively have been canceled. For example, HBO Max rescinded its second-season renewal of comedy series “Minx” after it had been filmed; Starz picked it up instead. (Starz, meanwhile, un-renewed its drama “Dangerous Liaisons” in December after picking it up for a second season in November.)
That kind of reassessment is going on all over town. Paramount+ canned a planned movie sequel to the Comedy Central series “Workaholics” in early January, just days before production was set to start. TNT/TBS yanked new seasons of shows like “Snowpiercer” and “Chad” (which wound up at Roku). AMC Networks, smarting from its struggle to launch boutique streamer AMC+, has axed several series that had been picked up — and again, in some cases, already shot — as part of a programming write-down. Among the cancellations were “Invitation to a Bonfire,” “Demascus” and “Pantheon,” as well as second seasons of “Moonhaven” and “61st Street.”
“Our industry is experiencing a necessary period of reflection and correction,” Dan McDermott, president of AMC Entertainment and AMC Studios, told reporters. Despite shelving so many shows, AMC Network was still at TCA to tout new series that had survived the ax, including “The Walking Dead: Dead City,” “Mayfair Witches” and the Bob Odenkirk starrer “Lucky Hank.”
“Factors including rising inflation, a challenging ad market, too many shows and an overreliance on streaming metrics that don’t necessarily deliver profitability have caused most content companies, including ourselves, to take stock and recalibrate their forward path,” he added. “This has been a difficult but important process.”
Throughout TV history, plenty of shows have been ordered and/or filmed before being shelved — but usually, those preemptive cancellations were issuedbecause a show turned out so terrible that it didn’t deserve to see the light of day. This time is a bit different: Platforms that were in the volume game (where nearly everything got a second season, regardless of viewership) are starting to temper their orders.
“It’s a fairly simple thing to see that the measure of success has gone from simple sub growth to, are you monetizing the programming? I think it’s really that fundamental,” MGM+ head Michael Wright tells Variety. “The analysis everyone’s doing is, does that show make sense? Is there an ROI on this show? Does it make sense in our larger business and for the show itself? People are looking at the shows themselves differently now and saying, ‘How do we measure the relative worth of this show?’”
Adds Tanya Giles, chief programming officer of streaming for Paramount Global: “When it was the days of content, just put it on volume, volume, volume. Now it’s about that understanding that audiences are smart, and they’re discriminating.”
For that reason Landgraf once again shared his belief that the industry has reached peak TV output, with 599 English-language scripted primetime programs (not including kids’ fare) across broadcast, cable and streaming produced in 2022. Landgraf first predicted this in 2015, but he hadn’t counted on the streaming boom — and the amount of money that poured into original productions in the late 2010s.
Of course, his tally is only a segment of the still massive volume of original fare currently out there. “When assessing peak TV, it’s important to include all of TV — for instance, foreign-language hits like ‘Squid Game’ and unscripted content,” says Variety Intelligence Platform senior media analyst Gavin Bridge. “The latter is particularly important as it forms the basis of many cable networks, and with streaming services watching spend, the cheaper format will see more attention. It’s for those reasons that the total number of unscripted shows reached a new high in 2022, and it should be expected to grow again in 2023.”
But linear cable is already downsizing its scripted output; broad-based networks USA, TBS and TNT have almost completely exited that lane. If the streamers also continue to exhibit more caution, that annual series tally is assured to dip.
“We’re just in this middle‑inning period of radical transformation from the pre‑internet era to the post‑internet era,” Landgraf said at TCA. “We’re in the really bumpy part of that transition.”
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