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Streaming’s golden age is suddenly dimming

After years of breakneck growth, the number of scripted TV series orders made by networks and streamers is in decline.

By John Koblin

American television viewers have become accustomed to it: Dozens of premieres every month, hundreds of shows every year, a guarantee from Hollywood that there’s always going to be something new to watch.

The so-called Peak TV era has included unexpected gems (“The White Lotus”), huge hits (“Stranger Things”), meat-and-potatoes fare (nine different series from “Law & Order” producer Dick Wolf) and the utterly bewildering (five full seasons of the “Full House” reboot, “Fuller House,” on Netflix).

But a new reality has become increasingly clear over the past few months in Hollywood: Peak TV has peaked.

The never-ending supply of new programming that helped define the streaming era — spawning shows at a breakneck pace but also overwhelming viewers with too many choices — appears to finally be slowing.

The number of adult scripted series ordered by TV networks and streaming companies aimed for U.S. audiences fell by 24% in the second half of this year, compared with the same period last year, according to Ampere Analysis, a research firm. Compared with 2019, it is a 40% drop.

“The second half of the year has really gone off a bit of a cliff,” said Fred Black, a research manager at Ampere.

It may take some time for that to become apparent to viewers — if it becomes apparent at all, given the glut. It is usually months and sometimes more than a year for a TV show to premiere after a network orders it.

The drop is a result of broader reckoning inside the entertainment industry. For years, television executives tossed off billions of dollars on TV series to help build out their streaming services and chase subscribers. The spending has been a boon to high-profile writers and producers, who captured eight- and nine-figure deals, as well as for the actors, directors and behind-the-scenes workers who kept the engine going.

But Wall Street soured on the buy-at-any-cost strategy starting in the spring, when Netflix, the streaming powerhouse, announced that it had lost subscribers for the first time in a decade. Netflix’s stock nose-dived, and other entertainment companies soon watched their share prices fall, too. Hollywood companies quickly shifted, putting a new emphasis on higher profits instead of raw subscriber counts.

Then, in recent months, entertainment companies became increasingly anxious about a slowing economy, the cord-cutting movement and a troublesome advertising market. Since the summer, scores of executives have abruptly been dismissed, strict cost-cutting measures have been adopted, and layoffs have taken hold throughout the industry.

The recent decline in show orders tracks that path. The number of series ordered in the first six months of the year showed no signs of letting up — it was shaping up to be just another year of buying in the Peak TV era. In fact, 325 series had been ordered, more than each of the previous three years, according to the research.

That market dried up — and it dried up in a hurry.

Jay Carson, the creator of the Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show” who currently has several projects in development at outlets like FX and Peacock, said that his talent representatives had warned him in recent months that it was a “bloodbath of a market.”

“They will love and believe in the project and know the material and package are strong, but they’ll tell you that right now if you take it out, you’ll end up like the guys in the opening scene of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’” he said.

Hollywood insiders felt a cutback on series orders was inevitable, particularly when many executives were ignoring profit margins and giving full series orders without so much as seeing a script.

“It’s part cost-cutting and stock price chaos, and part correction for the buying frenzy over the past five years where series were literally ordered over the phone without any proof of concept,” said Robert Greenblatt, the former chair of NBC Entertainment and WarnerMedia who is now a producer.

For the year, the deepest declines in the number of orders for scripted adult series in the United States were at Netflix, Warner Bros. Discovery (which includes HBO and the Turner networks) and Paramount (which includes CBS, Paramount+ and Showtime). The series orders for U.S. audiences have fallen 22% to 27% at those three companies, according to Ampere. In the second half of the year, the drop-off in orders from the three companies was even steeper.

After Netflix lost subscribers earlier this year, it vowed to slow its spending on content. Netflix also cut hundreds of jobs and introduced a cheaper advertising tier, overturning the company’s longtime pledge to never allow commercials on the service.

Warner Bros. Discovery, a company that was formed in April, faces a debt of roughly $50 billion and has been in severe cost-cutting mode. There have been rounds of layoffs companywide, including at HBO and HBO Max, as well as sudden cancellations. The once-popular series “Westworld” was canceled last month — a move that surprised Hollywood — and the lesser-known, raunchy dating series “FBoy Island” was cut a few weeks ago.

And Warner Bros. Discovery-owned basic cable networks like TBS and TNT, which just five years ago had greatly expanded their original programming efforts, have scaled back those ambitions since the merger.

There are a few outliers to this year’s trend: Apple TV+ and Amazon have increased the number of adult scripted series they have purchased this year. So has Disney, according to Ampere’s research. (For the second half of the year, however, Disney’s buying has declined compared with the same period last year.)

Black said Amazon and Apple, which get a vast majority of their revenue from their tech products and services, are “obviously not as beholden to the same budget limitations as pure entertainment companies — they have deeper pockets and can weather this storm,” he said.

Although orders for scripted series in the United States are falling, orders for international and unscripted series remain steady, Black said.

In addition to TBS and TNT, digital giants like Facebook and YouTube, which were investing in original series just a few years ago, have mostly moved on. The CW, which was recently acquired by Nexstar, is looking for lower-cost programming. And there are numerous basic cable networks that in recent years have pulled back from original scripted programming ambitions.

Some writers have found the market conditions so difficult that they are giving up on the idea of turning a project into a TV series — and looking to movies instead.

“In a stark reverse of what happened for 20-plus years, writers are now taking TV projects and converting them to features because they’ll be easier to get done,” said Carson, the TV writer. “The truth is, a lot of projects for the last 20 years that should have been features were stretched to be TV because that’s just what you did.”

And in the end, there could be a silver lining for viewers: Scaling back the volume could make for a higher percentage of quality shows.

“These companies pulling back — thinking longer and harder about each project — is actually good for the business,” said Greenblatt, the former television executive turned producer. “It will hopefully lead to less waste and more shows worth watching.”

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