The End of Peak TV’s Relentless Growth

The End of Peak TV's Relentless
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

The peak TV phenomenon, that of ever-increasing numbers of TV shows being produced each year for 13 years straight, is over. 

It could be a temporary bump, the impact of COVID-19 shutting down the industry mid-year. The total of 1,577 scripted and unscripted adult shows airing a new series across broadcast, cable, and free and paid streaming services represents the first time since the WGA strike of 2007-08 hit 2008’s pipeline where a year has seen fewer shows than the prior one. 

Although the overall decline is low — down by 43 shows, or -2.7% — this masks a stunning drop for cable. With many TV companies opting to shift resources to their new streaming services, the pandemic amplified what was a planned cutback, with new series on cable down by -21.3% (-193 shows).  

Subscription streaming services, boosted by the introduction of HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi and the first full year of Disney+ and Apple TV+, saw a year-over-year increase of 164 more TV series with new episodes (+34.7%). This will continue to rise in 2021, with the launch of Discovery+ and upgrading CBS All Access to Paramount+. 

As a note, in this analysis subscription streaming includes Acorn TV, AMC+, Apple TV+, BET+, BritBox, CBS All Access, DC Universe, Disney+, Hallmark Movies Now, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Peacock, Prime Video, Quibi, Seeso, Shudder, Stargate Command, SundanceNow and YouTube Premium. 

There were 649 new scripted shows released across TV and streaming, a decline of 29 (-4.3%) from 2019. This was led by declines for both broadcast TV (31 fewer shows, -25%) and cable (down by 48 shows, or -24.5%). 

Unscripted reality, game shows and documentaries saw increases across broadcast (+1 more than 2019, to 92), free streaming services (Crackle, CW Seed, Facebook Watch, IMDb TV and YouTube, which increased by 13 shows to 30) and subscription streaming services with a substantial increase of 117 shows (+93.6%). 

Cable networks saw a large cumulative decline, down by 145 episodes, a fall of -20.5% versus 2019’s total of 709. While many networks saw unscripted output shrink in 2020, only four unscripted specialists saw double-digit drops, and all belonged to Discovery.  

This may have been a calculated move to shift resources to Discovery+ in order to entice fans to subscribe, but it resulted in key brands seeing substantial drops. ID saw 21 fewer shows, Travel Channel was down by 16, with both Animal Planet and Food Network airing 11 fewer series with new episodes than in 2019. 

Even with that decline, ID was the cable network with the greatest output, behind only mega-giant Netflix and the ill-fated Quibi. In fact, the only cable networks appearing in the top 16 were all Discovery tentpoles, with the company the only traditional media firm with total output (272, down from 345 in 2019) anywhere near Netflix’s tremendous output. 

Netflix remains the largest individual U.S. provider but is seeing a slowdown in total output. It’s impressive to note that, despite the production slowdown, Netflix actually increased in output in 2020. Its global supply chains meant subscribers didn’t see a shift in originals, unlike the majority of viewing options in the U.S.  

2020’s decline may end up a blip, once production gets back to normal. Streaming originals in 2021 should be around the same total output as 2021, given that new services will balance out Quibi’s quick flame-out. Equally, TV networks may find they can survive commissioning fewer shows, heralding a continued decline in series with new episodes. The unremitting growth era of peak TV could be over for good.