Money Over Creativity: Is TV Originality Declining Like the Movies?

In the post Sopranos TV era, critics have claimed cable television to be in a “golden age” of creativity.  But after viewing many of the newly released fall shows, hearing of cancellations, and reading the news of spinoffs from popular shows, signs seem to be pointing towards a slow down in the television “golden age.”  This comes at a time when for well over a decade the major studios in Hollywood have shied away from original content in favor of large blockbuster sequels and adaptations.  Is television following in the studios footsteps and forfeiting creativity to better its bottom line? Below is an infographic from Short of the Week demonstrating Hollywood’s decline in creativity.


As hinted above, Hollywood studios aren’t the only ones guilty of waning creativity. The major television broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, etc.) do the same thing. How many versions of NCIS and CSI, episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, singing competition shows, or new characters in Two and a Half Men do we need before a network can acknowledge success and end a series gracefully. They continuously pump out the same or similar shows with large production values and big stars to draw people in. Broadcast networks need to appeal to the general population and obtain large ratings and audiences. If shows don’t get good enough ratings from the start, they are dropped. CBS’s new show We Are Men was cancelled after only airing twice.  The system is set up so that few shows succeed and most fail quickly. Shows aren’t given a chance to develop creatively and build up followers, which is typically why edgy, groundbreaking shows are not found on broadcast networks.

AMC’s recent announcement of a Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead spinoff raises a similar question. Are major cable television networks heading down a similar path as large Hollywood studios and broadcast networks?

The major Hollywood studios are publicly traded companies and spend enormous amounts of money attempting to create blockbuster hits. As a result, the CEO and executives need to have data supporting their decisions and demonstrating that any losses were unexpected mishaps and not a byproduct of mismanagement. Executives often use a report that compares script drafts to previously released films. The report looks for similarities with previously successful movies and even makes script altering recommendations to be more closely aligned with other successful movies. Suggestions can sometimes completely alter the premise of a film. However, studio executives are willing to sacrifice some creativity in favor of easing profitability concerns.

A similar argument can be made for what is happening in the cable television arena. With AMC’s three extremely successful shows (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead) slowly coming to the end, AMC has been searching for a suitable replacement.  None of their newer shows have taken off in the same way, so they followed Hollywood’s lead and decided to give its audience more of what they already like. It is a safer financial investment that has substantial lucrative potential.

Netflix original content is produced in a similar fashion. Netflix gathers all of its users viewing data and uses it to make informed decisions. With the exception of Arrested Development, all of Netflix’s shows have been new and original content. According to Netflix, it knows what its users like and want to watch. Consequently, it claims that all of its shows have been successful, but it does not need to release any reporting or ratings to back up its claim.

There is a fine line between marketing research and sacrificing creativity for financial success. Major Hollywood studios and recently AMC have done the latter. It appears the larger an entity gets, the less room there is for creativity. However, to say creativity in television is disappearing is a gross misunderstanding. Television is a medium currently undergoing drastic changes. It is bridging the gap with traditional film as well as branching out to the digital realm. Behind the Candelabra benefited from HBO’s audience and marketing power, and it is now experiencing a successful movie release in theatres overseas; a path many independent filmmakers may want to consider in the future. On the other hand, Netflix was able to create several critically acclaimed shows that are only available through its online subscription service. The role and influence of television is expanding and all the changes are taking place in cable.

Cable television can’t afford the large marketing and production budgets that the major movie studios and broadcast networks rely upon, so it must depend on its creativity to push the boundaries and stand out. Traditional cable television requires programming all-day and year whereas movie studios will only create a handful of movies a year.  It is not entirely shocking that larger networks such as AMC would rely upon some spinoffs to fill a few hours of its slate. Ultimately, cable television is dependent upon its creativity and content to stand out from the competitive clutter of entertainment options the viewer faces today, so I wouldn’t expect any drastic cuts in originality and creativity just yet.

Sources: Bad Haven, Deadline, Short of the Week, Slate

Cover Photo: Resumbrae 

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