Streaming Pushes Peak TV to New Heights

Fading Ratings
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+

In this article

  • 2021 saw a record number of original series across TV & streaming
  • Subscription streaming is now the platform with the largest number of original shows
  • Unscripted shows account for over half of all shows

The following is excerpted from Variety Intelligence Platform‘s special report “Fading Ratings,” which will be available exclusively to subscribers on Jan. 4, 2022. The report will provide an extensive analysis of changes in TV viewership among total audience and the 18-49 demo. Read part one and part two of our Fading Ratings series. Subscribe to VIP+.


Peak TV keeps growing.

There were 1,923 original series in 2021 released on broadcast TV, cable and streaming services, a new record high driven by the continued launch of streaming platforms like Discovery+ and expansions including Paramount+.

The previous record was 1,628 in 2019. The pandemic-related production shutdown saw the total fall to 1,577 in 2020, meaning 2021 saw an increase of 346 original series (+22%).

This year also marks a changing of the guard, as it is the first that subscription streaming’s output has surpassed that of cable (streaming overtook broadcast in 2017).

This boom in streaming has been fueled by the cable networks themselves, as they move assets once meant for cable to new SVOD services. Discovery+ alone accounted for 169 shows this year (see the "Fading Ratings" report noted above for more service breakdowns), with SVODs connected to cable TV companies releasing a total of 459 originals on streaming in 2021.

Unscripted shows saw the greatest growth in 2021, up by 26% YoY and accounting for 61% of all originals.

While representing the majority of all content on broadcast, streaming and cable in 2021, this is not the greatest share that unscripted has had of all original series by a long shot. From the late 2000s to 2015, unscripted accounted for at least 7 out of 10 shows on TV, peaking at 77% in 2010 and 2011.

Even with cable networks ploughing resources into their streaming services, cable remains — for now — home to the most unscripted originals. With the growth streaming is seeing, expect to see streaming unscripted overtake cable within the next year or two.

It’s a different story for dramas. Streaming overtook cable in 2018 and hasn’t looked back since, with 2021 seeing three times as many dramas available on streaming services than on cable (which includes premium cable outlets HBO, Showtime and Starz).

At some point in time, peak TV has to peak. 2021’s stunning increase suggests that peak may be a couple of years away. Cable TV still needs originals to justify subscriptions and stave off cord-cutting as best it can.

Subscription streaming is currently in an arms race to get the most subscribers in order to satisfy Wall Street expectations, which will see more originals in 2022. Free streaming services like the Roku Channel, Tubi and IMDb TV are getting into originals in order to draw in more viewers, meaning a new content arms race is likely.

Based on these factors, it wouldn’t be a surprise for 2022’s total of original series to top 2,000 for the first time in history.


Read the full special report