The Looming Catalog Crisis

The USA Network series Suits has become one of the hottest shows streaming on Netflix this summer. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Everette

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One of the hottest shows on streaming this summer isn’t some critically adored masterpiece or a bold new statement by an international auteur. Nope, the warm-weather winner this year might just be new-to-Netflix reruns of Suits, a basic-cable drama that lasted nine seasons and produced well over 100 episodes during its USA Network run — in other words, exactly the kind of decade-spanning hit the streaming giant has helped make all but obsolete. While Netflix loves acquiring older shows with hefty episode libraries (think Grey’s Anatomy or Seinfeld), when it comes to original content, it can be a little more, shall we say, promiscuous: lots of relationships, little long-term commitment. And because so many other platforms have followed its lead, even successful series on streaming now regularly disappear in as little as three years and typically leave behind no more than a few dozen episodes. They’re literally not making shows like they used to — and that’s a big problem.

It’s not that there wasn’t some valid reasoning behind the Peak TV model of greenlighting more shows but then making fewer episodes of them. Research has demonstrated that while established series help prevent people from canceling their subscriptions, flashy new titles are a much more effective way to get them to sign up in the first place. So if you’re a streamer whose only goal is to get as big as possible, as quickly as possible, “All that matters is the new and shiny,” says one exec who’s worked for both streamers and linear platforms. “There’s no weight put behind making shows that keep people invested and coming back because all they wanted to say was, We’ve got x amount of subscribers this quarter.” Throw in the fact that many streaming shows have production budgets on par with modest feature films, and you end up with a TV ecosystem in which genuinely big hits such as Prime Video’s Jack Ryan and Netflix’s Never Have I Ever signed off for good this summer having produced just 30 and 40 episodes, respectively.

For the most part, Netflix and other streamers haven’t really seen much downside to not building shows with sizable libraries because they’ve been able to simply license these kinds of shows from other parts of the TV ecosystem. After all, until just a few years ago, basic cable networks were still cranking out a healthy number of original series with binge-friendly episode counts. (Suits was still airing new episodes until fall 2019.) Similarly, as recently as 2018, the broadcast networks could still be counted on to collectively launch at least a few new five-to-six-season warhorses every season, further ensuring the nation’s strategic sitcom and procedural reserves remained well-stocked and available for purchase by content-hungry streamers.

But the Big Four broadcasters have cut way back on scripted shows in recent years and rarely make 22 episodes of all but their biggest hits, while the CW — which once made hundreds of millions selling its angsty dramas to Netflix — has been reduced to importing shows from Canada. And on the cable side, networks such as Paramount, USA, TNT, TBS, A&E, TV Land, and Lifetime have either abandoned high-quality scripted series or make just one or two shows per year. Even the two basic cable brands with substantial scripted portfolios — AMC and FX — make shows mostly for the benefit of their partner streaming platforms and then limit the number of episodes they produce to ten or fewer per season. Bottom line: The content factories that produced shows like Suits either dramatically downsized or shut down, and streamers haven’t picked up the slack by creating similar shows. At some point, platforms are going to run out of quirky linear shows from the 2000s and 2010s that zoomers can rediscover on streaming.

After years of ignoring this looming catalog crisis, some industry insiders are starting to sound the alarm. “If we don’t start building the library shows of tomorrow, we’re going to regret it,” says a content exec who works at a Netflix rival. Indeed, even before the WGA and SAG strikes, the conventional wisdom among industry insiders was that Peak TV had finally, really, truly peaked and the number of new shows ordered every year was about to plummet. If that’s the case, it means there’ll be far fewer shiny objects to attract new subscribers and more need for the kinds of old-school shows that keep existing subscribers from hitting that cancel button. “You’ve got to start investing in shows that viewers care about,” the exasperated content exec says. “And [episodic] libraries stop churn.”

There’s nothing mysterious or complicated about what could be done to avert this potential problem: Streamers should just start making shows that film more episodes every season and, if audiences embrace them, they should allow them to run for six, seven, and eight seasons instead of two or three. That doesn’t mean giving up on big stars and cinematic production values or even shows that come and go after 40 episodes. Netflix and HBO have raised the bar for what television can be and audiences clearly crave — and will pay for — big spectacles or the chance to see Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez solve mysteries with Meryl Streep. “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” one senior streaming programmer says about the desire to go back to a world where all hit shows cranked out 22 episodes a year.

Indeed, many writers very much appreciate the freedom of not having to make a certain number of episodes every season or not being pressured to keep a show on creative life support just because the studio needs to hit some magic number for syndication. Plus, anyone who says shorter-run shows can’t build a strong connection to audiences is forgetting that Stranger Things will have produced barely 40 episodes when its run concludes in a few years, Succession came and went after only 39 hours, and that one-season shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life remain beloved decades after their cancellations.

But recognizing that TV is different now doesn’t mean accepting that all the changes of the past decade have to be considered permanent or insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to program models. The same suit who says we’re not going back to the pre-Netflix world also says he’s been sensing an openness among his fellow execs to an evolution in how they think about the lengths of both seasons and series. “Some people are starting to push back against these accepted truths,” he says. “Consumers really liked having 12 or more episodes of a show every season. And we all enabled Netflix to change that.” TV critic and Burn It Down author Maureen Ryan echoed those thoughts earlier this week on the social network formerly known as Twitter: “U.S. TV was a money-printing machine for decades because people like 12- to 22-episode seasons that allow for meaty character development,” Ryan wrote.

Indeed, television was a lot more profitable when there were fewer series with longer episode counts because, in general, they were simply a lot less expensive to produce than today’s ten-episode shows-that-think-they’re-movies. Networks and studios kept budgets reasonable, production values modest, and relied more on making new stars rather than breaking the bank to lure established ones. But longer-run series were also a lot more efficient and still are today: Per-episode budgets go way down when a show’s season stretches 16 episodes instead of 8 and the costs of production (sets, actors, wardrobe) can be amortized over a much longer period. Plus, because there’s ultimately more of the end product — finished TV episodes — it was easier to monetize a show after it wrapped its run. If you made 200 episodes of a show, that meant bigger syndication paydays, more DVDs to sell, and more time to sell to advertisers — all of which turned hits into ATMs for all involved.

That calculus changed when Netflix decided that its original shows should only live on one platform, in some cases for up to a decade at a time, and other streamers seemed ready to follow its lead. But within the past year, that model has come under attack. Say what you will about David Zaslav’s reign at Warner Bros. Discovery or his decision to disappear a handful of shows, but he was also right to lead the way in getting execs outside the Netflix bubble to realize streaming shows don’t have to be monogamous. It sucks that Westworld is no longer on Max, but it’s a good thing that people who can’t afford the streamer can now watch it on various free, ad-supporting streaming platforms — and it’s a very good thing for his company’s bottom line since the show is now making (a little bit) of money rather than simply draining cash. Shows having second and third lives in different places allows for a healthier overall TV ecosystem and, at least in theory, means that writers and actors can make more money from successful shows. It’s not hard to imagine this change in philosophy leading to longer episode counts as studios begin reverting to old monetization models.

Indeed, we’ve already seen more extermination from platforms on this front. It hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but when Peacock ordered a second season of Poker Face, it quietly green-lit 13 episodes rather than the 10 that made up season one. Meanwhile, season two of Hulu’s How I Met Your Father lasted for a whopping 20 episodes spread out over seven months (including a two-month hiatus). There’s been no announcement of a season three, but it’s not hard to imagine this show passing Casual to become Hulu’s longest-running comedy ever (in terms of total episodes). Even Netflix is changing things up a bit: It upped the second season of That ’90s Show to 16 episodes from season one’s ten-episode count.

To be clear, even with these hints of change, there’s no evidence to suggest that any streamer is ready to fully embrace the idea of once again making shows that go the distance for 80, 100, or (gasp) even more episodes. And doing so would likely require some other big paradigm shifts, such as getting rid of the cost-plus model under which streamers pay the full cost of production for a show plus a bonus to studios. This would immediately make most shows much less expensive for streamers and might make it possible for them to shift the money they’d save from reduced license fees into longer episode counts. Some studio insiders I’ve talked to say they’d welcome the chance to give up the sure thing of “cost plus” if it meant being able to open up new distribution windows for hit shows or even modestly successful ones; folks I’ve talked to at platforms counter they’ve gotten no takers when they’ve suggested doing exactly that.

But even if there’s only been marginal movement to look beyond streaming’s current episodic reality, there’s reason to expect that could change soon. The aftershocks of last year’s Great Streaming Correction have prompted everyone who runs a streamer to start thinking about new (or in this case, old) ways of doing business. Netflix has already said it’s in the early stages of thinking about jumping into the FAST business, and if that happens, it might want to have a library of original shows with 90 or 100 episodes. What’s more, the changes that emerge from new labor agreements between the WGA, SAG, and producers might also encourage more tweaks to the status quo. One veteran manager this week, for example, told me he thinks that if some of the issues surrounding the amount of time writers are guaranteed pay during a production of a show get resolved in favor of scribes, “It may start to be less cost prohibitive to do longer runs.”

I also think we’ll see streamers associated with legacy studios continue to make more shows that are basically identical to broadcast series (save for some swear words prohibited by the FCC) but appear first on digital. Paramount+ is pretty much doing that with its Criminal Minds reboot, but it ought to be making 20 episodes of the show every season instead of 10 (as Disney is doing with How I Met Your Father). Similarly, there’s no reason Max shouldn’t be turning to sister studio Warner Bros. TV to create the next 150-episode Chuck Lorre sitcom or a new procedural franchise that spawns multiple spinoffs and has new episodes debuting most weeks of the year. Ideas like this would never fly when every new streamer was desperately trying to be the next Netflix, but as sanity slowly returns to the TV industry in the post-Peak TV world, some industry insiders think they might be worth a try. “We shouldn’t be imitating Netflix,” says one exec with decades of experience in the business. “We should be leaning into what’s made us special. There was a reason the old model worked.”

The Looming Catalog Crisis