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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.

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