Running the Numbers on the Best TV of 2016

In recent years, my reporting has become more data-driven. Talking to people in the TV industry is usually fun and enlightening, but storytellers instinctively come up with narratives for what they do and why they do it. Spreadsheets and columns of numerals, on the other hand, are less prone to subjectivity, confirmation bias and wishful thinking. Numbers can be manipulated, of course, but when you look at a set of data, patterns and trends can emerge that might not arise from an impressionistic conversation.

All that is to say, I crunched the numbers on my end-of-year lists, in part because math is fun and in part because I enjoyed the excuse to luxuriate a bit longer in the best of what TV has to offer. 

A few thoughts I had while digging through the data:
On my three 2016 rosters — Overall Top 20, Best New Shows and Best Returning Shows — a total of 46 shows were listed. All in all, 20 networks were represented, which is an indication that most, if not all, segments of the TV ecosystem are putting out a wide array of pretty good programs.

Not surprisingly, basic cable networks led the pack in terms of overall representation. Ten basic cable networks were responsible for 19 of the shows on my lists, or a healthy 41 percent.

What may be most interesting is how non-dominant premium cable channels are these days; they constitute about 15 percent. A few months ago, I wrote a piece on how great TV was in 2006, which bore witness to an explosion of excellent shows from an array of providers — but many of the big dogs were in the pay-cable realm.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but in this entirely subjective list of dominant shows from 2006, the broadcast networks and premium cable were the two big poles in the tent. A lot of the TV conversation revolved around those two arenas: On one side, you had HBO shows like “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” “The Wire,” “Rome” and Showtime’s “Dexter,” and on the other, broadcast shows like “Lost,” “Arrested Development,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House” got a lot of the buzz. 

TV’s gotten more diffuse since then, obviously, in large part because there are just so many places making TV shows that I expect my orthodontist to give me links to screeners for her new sad-com at my next appointment. We’re in a realm of more than 400 scripted shows, and I absolutely love it when a network or streaming service that hadn’t really been in the mix before or had been in decline comes out with something notable. That happens a lot nowadays. 

All things considered, premium cable is certainly an important part of the TV realm, but it’s no longer the sun around which everything else revolves. And as premium cable and broadcast networks have become less dominant over the TV scene, streaming services have risen up. Netflix delivered DVDs to my door in 2006 (i.e., The Olden Days), but now Netflix and Amazon are responsible for almost a quarter of the shows on my list. They’re right behind basic cable in terms of dominance over my 2016 rosters.

It’s delightful to see that the broadcast networks are still quite competitive, though not so much with the one-hour dramas. Outside rare exceptions like “This Is Us” and “Empire,” it’s been much harder to sustain mainstream hourlong dramas than it was a decade ago. But happily, the broadcast networks still excel at churning out smart, winning mainstream comedies (and most are half-hours, but the CW’s two hourlong comedies are terrific).

It’s also heartening to see lot of smaller cable networks land one, two or three shows on the list. “Berlin Station,” “And Then There Were None” and “London Spy” all came out of nowhere to wow me, and there’s a lot of other good stuff being made away from the realms of streaming and premium cable. (This is a subtle pitch for low-profile but interesting fare like MTV’s plucky “Sweet/Vicious,” or Syfy’s “Wynonna Earp” and “Killjoys,” two reliable gateways to escapist adventure.) 

But at the moment, as has been the case in the last few years, the list is dominated by a few TV outlets. FX, Amazon, Netflix and HBO are responsible for about 43 percent of my list. It’s food for thought, but overall, I don’t regard this as a bad thing. In fact, the case can be made that the TV industry at the moment is like a sports league in which there are several strong contenders for the championship every year. Everyone has to compete that much harder to win, which makes for great “games” for the viewers, to extend the analogy.

As these and other networks compete against each other for top talent, it must be noted that they sometimes let the most sought-after creatives run wild, with deadening and turgid results. As my fellow Variety critic Sonia Saraiya and others will attest, there are many hours of our lives that we’d like to get back, many of them involving projects from executives, writers and actors who really, at some point, should have known better. As my editor Debra Birnbaum frequently says, “Everyone needs an editor,” but a number of writer/creators aren’t getting that message from their TV overlords these days — or they are getting it, and instead are choosing to tune it out. 

But today’s not a day for grousing about the state of TV. All in all, when I look at Sonia’s two year-end lists and my own, I feel pretty good about where things stand, especially when it comes to the increasingly diverse array of creators who are doing some of the sharpest and best work.

Bring on 2017. But before that, someone tell me: What is this “sleep” thing that people keep referring to?

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