What Comes After Peak TV?

We explore what TV may look like in the 2020s.
Peak Tv Header
By  · Published on November 28th, 2019

This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.

Even after all its growing pains and golden ages, the best television still tends to be, more often than not, elevated beyond its form. The Wire, you may have heard, isn’t so much a TV show as it is a novel told on screen. Twin Peaks: The Return is more like an 18-hour movie. Limited series are definitionally more prestigious because of their finite quantity. Hell, just this week, Werner Herzog called The Mandalorian “cinema back at its best.” Television, in most viewers’ collective subconsciousness, has long been seen as an intrinsically commercial medium as opposed to film’s artistic one; no matter how good it is, it is “content” rather than true creation.

As we enter the next decade — the seventh since the majority of Americans were first reported as owning television sets — it’s time to stop hedging and call television what it is. Despite the overwhelming boom of programming that FX CEO John Landgraf labeled “Peak TV,” television is more personal and unique to its singular form than ever. Just as the 1970s saw the American New Hollywood era free up filmmakers from strict studio oversight, television is entering a period of unparalleled creative exploration as it rapidly grows beyond the simple cable-and-network structure that dominated the market for decades. Ironically, it’s as television morphs into something disparate and ill-defined (it’s not, after all, always on a TV screen anymore) that it’s finally shedding its image as the lesser of the screen art forms.

Whether we like it or not, America is scaling above the limits of Peak TV and entering what is almost sure to be a streaming bubble. Several new streaming services — Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, and NBC’s Peacock — are set to join an already crowded field of streamers both major and minor in the next few months. This means, among other things, that the proverbial watercooler may have finally run dry. As each viewer streamlines their TV-watching experience and tailors their own a la carte primetime slate, high-quality shows that would’ve been at the center of the zeitgeist in an earlier era of television could end up on the fringes. When there are new shows debuting every day across hundreds of channels and dozens of platforms, “must-see TV” can no longer be measured by awards or ratings. Hell, even the most well-versed pop culture critics must grapple with the realization that exponentially growing cultural blind spots are a side effect of this strange new world.

Let’s put it this way: the field is so crowded with creative potential that the next Sopranos could end up being some show on a streaming network that doesn’t exist yet, one that some friend of a friend will try to convince you to watch. Maybe you’ll watch it, or maybe you’ll add it to your queue and won’t get to it until another best of the decade list 10 years from now reminds you that you’ve missed it. The risk of missing something great is inevitable, but so is the occasion for claiming discovery of and self-identification with a hidden gem. If the 2010s were the era of Peak TV, perhaps the 2020s will become the era of personal TV.

There is, of course, another likely scenario. Bubbles burst. We’ll never go back to cable packages, but as streaming bundles become available and all-in-one media devices increase in popularity, it’s possible that television will get so big that it’ll end up having to find a way to make itself small again. Several of the streaming services that have made their bones in recent years will likely be nothing but nostalgia fuel 10 years from now — although whether it’ll be because unregulated big fish companies will eat them up or because they won’t be able to beat a crowded market remains to be seen. And while it’s tough to pick a winner in a streaming war that has far-reaching consequences for everything from repertory screenings at indie theaters to industry standards on economic transparency, there are some facts worth noting.

This year, Amazon, which has film and TV branches with Prime Video and Amazon Studios, became the most valuable corporation on earth. Disney also has money to burn and an apparent taste for acquiring, well, everything. Netflix has the most cultural currency of any streaming brand, but it’s also reportedly billions of dollars in debt, and its current production slate, with new original content dropping nearly every day, seems untenable in the long run. At one point, Netflix’s hyperproductive content schedule might have indicated a larger plan to eventually turn Netflix into a network of entirely original content, but the company’s recent wildly expensive bids to keep beloved comfort food shows like Friends make that theory unlikely. Meanwhile, Hulu may be in the weakest position of the established major streaming sites, as many of its non-original movies are often simultaneously available on other streamers like Prime, its flagship relationship with NBC will likely be changed by the advent of Peacock, and early Disney+ membership numbers indicate that its parent company, Disney, now has a different, instantly popular streaming platform to worry about.

The next decade seems poised to offer not only a personalized viewing experience but also televised storytelling that is itself more personal than ever. With less ratings-seeking pressure on each series, writers and filmmakers are more able to take risks on the small screen than ever before, and more willing to make series that are anything but commercial. The TV-series-as-therapy model, for example, has become popular in recent years, with shows like The Good Place, The Leftovers, Russian Doll, Fleabag, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and You’re the Worst focusing on complex character interiority and exploring big, often unanswerable existential questions through every possible genre and lens. New heights in diversity, unprecedented genre-bending, networks invested in cinema-level budgets, and a continued rise in small-screen auteurism are all factors contributing to a television landscape that has more to offer than ever before.

Are all of these offerings good? No way. Is it our joy and responsibility as lovers of this ever-expanding medium to find stories worth investing in, wherever they may be? Absolutely. Whatever happens next, we’ll be watching.

Related Topics: ,

Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)