The One Where Peak TV Starts to Decline

Last year marked the first decline in newly ordered shows in a decade

The One Where Peak TV Starts to Decline

5 Min Read

If there’s one thing the streaming revolution has given TV viewers, it’s options. Options for devices, a myriad of streaming channels, and above all else, more original content than a person could consume in their lifetime. However, as top shows bid their farewells at the Emmys, streaming channels are reevaluating their business models — and possibly bringing the golden age of television to a close. 

The One With the Series Finales

Emmys viewership wasn’t the only thing in decline this year. To those keeping track of the nominations, the decrease across multiple categories at this year’s ceremony was yet another indicator that the end of Peak TV is near. What exactly is Peak TV? Over the past decade and change, as streaming became mainstream, the number of quality scripted TV shows in production grew steadily, starting in the era of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. But this golden “prestige era” for TV seems to be coming to a stark close; as notable series continue to wrap over the past year, including Succession, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Crown, Ted Lasso, and more, the number of shows coming in to replace the incumbents is starting to drop. 

It wasn’t just that a large cohort of beloved shows ended last year. At the Emmys, there were fewer shows nominated in these key categories than in prior years, the New York Times noted. “The number of dramas that the networks and studios submitted for Emmy consideration dropped 5 percent, according to the Television Academy, which organizes the awards. Entries for limited series fell by 16 percent, and comedies by 19 percent.”

So does that mean “Peak TV” is really in decline? If so, what’s behind it? 

The One With the Recent Studies On Declining Content

Two recent studies confirm that the Emmys aren’t the only indicator signaling the decline in content being produced. The first of these reports, from Ampere, cataloged the declining number of scripted shows ordered. Last year, only 481 series were ordered, a 24% drop from the prior years (and almost a 50% drop from pre-pandemic numbers in 2019). 

Last year was certainly no ordinary year, with both writers’ and actors’ strikes grinding the production of new content to a halt. However, there are signs that the lack of new content goes beyond the strikes. The second study, this one from Luminate, noted that non-scripted and reality TV shows — the types of shows that flourish during a strike, since they require neither official writers nor actors — were also down by about 20%. The decrease in these types of shows, even during a strike year, confirms the true decline of newly ordered content. 

But why? Streaming channels like Netflix and Hulu have been major drivers behind the Peak TV era. One of the defining principles that set them apart from their more formulaic predecessors was volume — the sheer number of original shows and movies they released per year. Netflix’s is so great that as of last year, 55% of their library was originals. These numbers are now also in decline due to shifting business priorities. While Netflix released 107 originals in 2022, according to the Ampere study, that number dropped to just 68 last year. Streaming channels like Peacock, Max, and Hulu also made meaningful cuts to the number of originals released in 2023. With a myriad of series ending and a decrease in the new originals ordered, it seems as if TV viewers will have fewer new options in 2024, even despite the strikes being settled.

The One With the Return to Old Models

This lack of new content won’t stop TV lovers from turning to the tube, however. Nostalgia viewing is common among TV lovers, with or without TV production delays. During the pandemic, when all production had shuttered, Friends saw a surge in viewership to the tune of a 30% increase. During last year’s strikes, survey respondents said that they would turn to reruns (45%) over reality (11%) or international (9%) content. And you don’t even need a global pandemic or industry strike to show how powerful this viewing habit is: when Peacock acquired The Office, subscriptions to the service rose 17%. 

While viewers are returning to the shows they love, content production may be returning to the way things were done when cable reigned supreme. While the Emmys used to save its prestigious Best Limited Series award for the finale of the show, the New York Times reports that these short-yet-expensive endeavors are falling out of favor among content makers. Instead, they’re looking to return to the 22-episode-season model to keep audience attention for longer and make more bang for their buck.

Streamers are also waxing nostalgic about cable — specifically its ad-supported model. Streaming channels have acknowledged the necessity for ads for their bottom line, despite founding their services on ad-free subscriptions that set them apart from previous models. Netflix even just announced that they will be eliminating the lowest-priced ad-free tier to drive more viewers to the ad-supported option. 

From regular ad breaks to the return to 22-episode season arcs, everything old is new again. While Gen Z brings back the low-rise jeans of decades past, it’s looking like streaming TV is reviving the content model to match.