Behind Cable’s Peak TV Decline

coaxial cable as a slowly dripping faucet
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+

U.S. cable TV may have seen an uptick in total shows for the second straight year, but the 824 shows that aired across cable networks is lower than every year from 2011 to 2019. 

All of the major cable network operators — A+E Networks, AMC Networks, Disney, NBCUniversal, Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery — have seen annual output of scripted and unscripted content decline when compared with cable’s peak year for output, which is 2014, per data from Variety Insight by Luminate

In 2014, WBD, Paramount, A+E and NBCU all released 100 or more cable originals, with WBD accounting for almost half of all new cable output, at 562 shows. WBD remains the major source of cable TV in 2022 with 405 originals, but only A+E joins them with over 100. 

WBD has the most cable networks airing 10 or more originals in 2022, with 12 networks. A+E Networks and Paramount each have four, NBCUniversal three, AMC Networks and Disney two, and Amazon and Lionsgate each have one (premium cable networks Epix, soon-to-be MGM+ and Starz, respectively). 

While all network owners have seen output fall as focus shifts to streaming, Paramount has seen a significantly steep decline in cable originals, down by 51% versus 2014. The overall decline may also represent a move in recent years to rely more on repeat airings of content, driven by the overall fall in live viewing. (It could be argued that many TV networks now resemble FAST channels given their lack of originals.) 

While volume of content has shrunk across all media groups, many see the same number of channels offering originals in 2022 as in 2014. The outliers here are Warner Bros. Discovery, which twice has had to slash costs after mergers first between Discovery and Scripps and then Discovery and WarnerMedia, and Paramount, which has also been under pressure to cut costs to focus on streaming. 

Warner Bros. Discovery remains the undisputed king of unscripted output in 2022, with one original for every day of the year, followed next by A+E Networks (99), NBCU (71) and Paramount (55). 

It has been cuts to Paramount’s unscripted content that are behind the company’s overall decline in originals, with 2022’s figure down by 56% from 2014. Given that unscripted is considerably cheaper to produce than scripted, this highlights how drastic the money-saving measures have been at the media giant. 

WBD also tops the 2022 scrip ted originals list, but it should be noted that 37 of the 40 originals are for HBO. NBCUniversal sees just four scripted originals, with it lagging considerably behind industry peers Paramount, Disney and AMC. 

The decline in NBCU scripted output sees them top the list of declines, down by 83% when compared against 2022. USA in particular is worth calling out: Although it shares “Chucky” with corporate sibling Syfy, it had no other scripted originals in 2022, a far cry from the 11 seen in 2014 (as instead it has pivoted to unscripted content and pro wrestling). Likewise, TNT saw 11 scripted originals in 2014, but the pressure to cut costs has seen that trickle down to just three this year. 

Although VIP+ anticipates a change in TV strategy for 2023, with a focus on driving people to watch TV content on TV to maximize subscriber value as well as possibly some originals formerly earmarked for streaming to debut on TV siblings first, it is likely that the total number of cable originals will fall. 

Increasing pressure on media companies to stem losses will find more networks following the WBD model of airing content from one network on multiple others that share demographic profiles, filling scheduling time, presenting an audience that may not have seen a show with a chance to watch and reducing the time needed for originals. The peak TV era for cable is well and truly over. 

Make sure you read all of VIP+'s peak TV coverage:

Why 2022 will be the final year that peak TV peaks

What's behind subscription streaming's peak TV heights