TV 2015-16: A Record Number of Scripted Shows Clutter the Airwaves

Unlike the not so distant past when an abundance of non-scripted programs diminished anything of real substance, the rapid rise of scripted series (dramas, in particular) has led to an immediate observation for the upcoming TV season: too much television. By the numbers, more than 400 scripted series will be populating the airwaves (broadcast, cable and SVoD) this year. In 2014 the tally was a then record 371. Just five years ago, in 2010, it was about half what it is now.

Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu account for a good portion of the growth, of course. Netflix alone is expected to house about 50 original shows in the upcoming season, and the three combined should easily surpass 100 in total. Since Netflix introduced its first original scripted series, drama "House of Cards" in February 2013, this digital arena is still a relatively new concept. But the bulk of the increase comes from cable, actually, with 66 scripted shows produced in 2009 rising to 164 in 2014 and in the vicinity of 200 this year.

Cable nets like National Geographic Channel, OWN and Spike TV known for their non-scripted menus are now diving into the scripted drama format. And cable, overall, is introducing more original scripted programming throughout the year. While comedies are certainly present, dramas are clearly the hot (or over-saturated) ticket.

While the end of summer is synonymous with a new breed of fall series hopefuls waiting in the wings for a piece of the audience pie (and a spot in the world of social media), the inherent challenge for any show in the upcoming season - and beyond -- is the increased competition. Just how much room is there, after all? And when exactly will the so-called "bubble" spring a leak?

FX President John Landgraf was the first to address this subject at the recently concluded Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles, proclaiming, "My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America and that we'll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond. For programmers, this bubble has created a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories. It's also had an enormous impact on everyone's ability to cut through the clutter and create real buzz."

Like any good debate, not everyone agrees. "There may be too much good TV, but there is never enough great TV." said Showtime President David Nevins also at the Summer Press Tour. "We're still in expansion mode, but we're expanding at the rate that we feel like we can do great, meaningful television."

David Bank, Managing Director, Equity Research - Media/Advertising, RBC Capital Markets summarized it best, perhaps, by taking a stance in both directions. "I think it is more an issue with too many bad TV shows, and not the overall number" he said. "If you cut out all the mediocrity, maybe the shows of a quality nature will have a better chance to make an impact."

That is a big "if," however.

As always, television is a cyclical business; what is in one year can be out the next. But one hour entries, many serialized in nature (and many of a crime, thriller or supernatural nature) basically remain at every corner.

Fox, no doubt, had the biggest new hit series in years, "Empire," which will certainly lead to similar appeal concepts elsewhere (translation: serialized dramas featuring feuding families). Think upcoming ABC scripted drama "Blood & Oil" with Don Johnson (and more in development down the pike). And upcoming "Scream Queens" from "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy should at least register in social media. But inherent weaknesses elsewhere on Fox could not mask erosion for the network of 1.07 million viewers and 19 percent in adults 18-49 year-to-year, which resulted in a fourth-place finish in both categories.

"One individual series, unfortunately, cannot reverse the position of any entire network," said Carroll. "But it can be used to plan for the future."

The CW, meanwhile, is riding on the strength (both in the traditional ratings and in social media) of its comic book-themed dramas (which will include "D.C.'s Legends of the Universe" in midseason). And ABC and/or CBS could snag the crown in adults 18-49 (or at least tie NBC) if something new on their rosters breakout. The biggest question mark on CBS is "Supergirl," which...if anything...will bring a younger audience to the network. If "Supergirl" does register, and it should at least get sampled given the expected promotion, the glut of superheroes will only thicken.

While nothing is a given, of course, three new network series that could very well define the 2015-16 TV season (and for different reasons) are "Supergirl," "Scream Queens" and the Neil Patrick Harris variety series, which if successful could revive a genre once very prominent in primetime: variety. If it works, everyone else will want their own variety series.

Since the lead-in program still very much matters, look for newbies "Life in Pieces" (out of "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS), "Limitless" (out of "NCIS" New Orleans" on CBS) and "Blind Spot" (out of "The Voice" on NBC) to all at least get sampled. But something as big as "Empire" (which built in audience each week in season one) defines the saying "needle in a haystack." And most of the CBS crime solvers, if not all of them, do tend to skew older (translation 50+).

On The CW, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" is unlikely to snag much interest via the traditional ratings leading off Monday. But, like lead-out "Jane the Virgin," the critical acclaim could prove that there is more to keeping a show on the air other than just ratings. "The compatibility with "Jane" is flawless," noted CW President Mark Pedowitz. "And this particular themed night of programming proves we are more than just about superheroes."

Probably more so than ever before the definition of success varies. And expect the broadcast networks to experiment a bit a la NBC offering the first season of drama "Aquarius" on its online platform.

As for the first new network series to face the proverbial axe, place your bets on NBC Friday 8:30 p.m. sitcom "Truth Be Told" (which out of the live telecast of returning "Undateable" will be massacred). Interesting footnote: The last time NBC attempted to open a season with regularly scheduled comedies on Friday was in the fall of 1983 care of short-lived "Mr. Smith" (featuring an orangutan) and "Jennifer Slept Here." That's right...32 years!