×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Will Out-of-Control Episode Costs Kill Peak TV?

Something is wrong when a minute of scripted television costs more than half a million dollars.

Not an episode: A minute.

Woody Allen’s Amazon series “Crisis in Six Scenes” reportedly cost $80 million for six roughly 24-minute episodes. Do the math, and it becomes clear that one episode of “Crisis” would pay for half a dozen installments of “Friday Night Lights.”

Talk about a gut check.

As noted in this week’s cover story, an epidemic of spending is rippling through television — and it may end up doing this underdog art form irreparable harm. As Hollywood and Silicon Valley pour ever larger sums into the TV ecosystem, it’s hard not to dread the ways in which the influx of billions has begun to distort and warp its priorities and output.

Why is “Game of Thrones,” which will spend in the realm of $15 million per episode in its final years, looked at as the North Star — the show to emulate — rather than a wildly atypical outlier? (As I discuss in a new column, many networks appear to be learning the wrong lessons from “Game of Thrones.”)

How in the world did a half hour like “The Tick” arrive at a $5 million-per-episode price tag, when many acclaimed comedies (like “Atlanta”) cost less than a third of that? By comparison, a few years ago, “Terra Nova” was considered quite pricey — at $4 million for an hour of TV.

Emmy nominees “Westworld” and “The Crown” spend $10 million per hour — five times per episode what “Mad Men” cost when it first came out. The HBO and Netflix programs have their fans, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks either show is five times as good as the story of Don Draper.

Everyone’s migrating to TV because that’s where the money is. But will all that cash —and the relentless pursuit of it — kill what made it entrancing in the first place?

Of course, artists and artisans should have the money — and time — they need to realize their visions. Everyone in the industry is aware of the kind of shortsighted penny-pinching that is destructive to storytelling. But a massive influx of money within a very compressed period is existentially terrifying. TV simply cannot support this big an expansion this quickly without losing its grip on some of the essential factors that make for great television.

First of all, if much of the industry’s energy is devoted to simply locking down talent and grabbing coveted IP, as has been the case during an increasingly ferocious arms race, the focus on the basics of storytelling — characterization, psychology, plot and meaning — begins to fade. Too often in this frenzied scenario, the audience is an abstraction, not a group of people who should be pleased or moved or thrilled but an entity that exists to absorb content.

Second, those in control of these big money cannons don’t always know where to aim them. If you think the quality control that the traditional TV industry has exercised over its output has been lacking in the past, just wait. The emergence of a new wave of big-spending players from Silicon Valley — which has long focused on arranging and monetizing content, rather than creating it — is more than a little frightening.

That said, no one sector of television has a monopoly on bad decision-making — but put enough money and competitive pressure in the mix, and even sane executives and disciplined showrunners start to lose their grasp on what matters.

Does television want to become the tentpole-driven movie industry, where budgets morph into runaway trains, reboots are all the rage and character specificity disappears down a rabbit hole of excess?

Of all the scary scenarios facing the TV industry, not much is scarier than the idea that the number of scripted TV shows made in 2014 — 389 — may double relatively soon. If skewed priorities and storytelling problems are apparent now, how much sloppier and more self-indulgent will many TV shows be in a world of 600, 700 or — dear God — 800 scripted programs?

Some days we TV critics feel like those ducks that are force-fed and later turned into foie gras. Those of us who write about TV love it and are excited by the best of what is out there right now. But is adding another 50 or 100 shows to the 600 that may arrive in 2018 ideal? Will that amount of TV make for better art, or will it all simply burn out everyone who makes it, writes about it and watches it?

The thing about excess — more money, more shows, more networks — is that more isn’t always better.

Sometimes it’s just more.

More TV

  • Prince Albert II of Monaco (C),

    Jessica Alba, Gabrielle Union's 'L.A.’s Finest' Opens Monte Carlo TV Festival

    Prince Albert II of Monaco opened the 59th Monte Carlo Television Festival on Friday at a glittering ceremony at the principality’s Grimaldi Forum attended by Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba. The Hollywood actresses presented the French premiere of their action cop series “L.A.’s Finest,” which has just been renewed for a second season. “You typically [...]

  • Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba'L.A.'s Finest'

    Jessica Alba, Gabrielle Union Speak About Horrific 'L.A.’s Finest' On-Set Accident

    Actresses Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba spoke about how the horrific accident on the set of their action cop series “L.A.’s Finest” affected them and the crew at the 59th Monte Carlo Television Festival Saturday. They also paid tribute to the main victim of the incident, executive producer/co-showrunner Brandon Sonnier, whose leg was amputated below [...]

  • Emmys: How a Social Media Campaign

    How a Social Media Campaign to Game the Emmys Led to This Week's 'Block Voting' Scandal

    The Television Academy’s “block voting” controversy has quickly become the talk of Emmy season — and that appears to have been the org’s point. According to multiple insiders, the number of people disqualified from voting in this year’s competition is believed to be small, only around three members (out of nearly 25,000 members overall). But [...]

  • No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No

    TV News Roundup: Hulu Drops Trailer for 'Veronica Mars' Revival (Watch)

    In today’s roundup, Hulu dropped the official trailer for the “Veronica Mars” revival and HBO revealed more cast members for “Lovecraft Country.” FIRST LOOKS Hulu has dropped the official trailer for its revival of “Veronica Mars,” set to premiere on July 26. The series will bring back most of the original cast, including Kristen Bell, Jason [...]

  • Dan Stevens

    'Legion' Star Dan Stevens Says His Character Would Fight Thanos, 'Wreak Havoc' in MCU

    Dan Stevens said his powerful, telepathic mutant Legion would do some serious damage if he ever crossed over from the eponymous FX series into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Legion would wreak havoc. He’d probably take on Thanos, let’s see that,” he told Variety on the red carpet at the premiere of the trippy, mind-bending superhero series [...]

  • Viacom CEO Bob Bakish

    Bob Bakish Talks Pluto TV, Netflix and CBS-Viacom Merger Rumors

    Viacom CEO Bob Bakish knows that a lot of his peers are in the original content space in streaming, but he believes the company’s ad-supported free service Pluto TV is better off relying on Viacom’s library of content. “We can debate a lot of things about the future, but in the near term, the opportunity [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content