It’s not your imagination: Spring 2022 has seen an avalanche of new and returning TV content. In the past ten weeks or so, streaming platforms and cable networks rolled out more than 50 new and returning high-profile series. An insane 15-day stretch at the end of April crammed in roughly two dozen pedigreed projects including fresh seasons of past Emmy faves (Barry, Russian Doll, The Flight Attendant, Ozark), a galaxy of star-studded newcomers (The First Lady, Shining Girls, Gaslit), and a few long shots just hoping to get noticed (Billy the Kid, Outer Range). Even for the era of too much TV, it’s been ridiculous — yet amazingly, this audiovisual assault wasn’t simply an accident of the calendar. In some cases, it was a premeditated act.
Industry insiders tell Vulture the root cause of the programming pileup is the many Emmy-hungry platforms desperately seeking statuettes. Rather than just a handful of big cable powers (HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC) and a couple of streamers (Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu) duking it out for awards, all the new digital players (Apple TV+, Disney+, Peacock, Paramount+) are scrambling for recognition, as are smaller cablers such as Starz and Epix. And just as movie studios release critic-friendly titles in the fall to ensure maximum exposure before Oscars voting, these platforms are convinced that timing a show for spring betters the odds of a shower of Emmy noms come summer. Does it matter that last year’s big category winners (Ted Lasso, The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit) were released the previous summer or fall? Apparently not. “So many titles have benefited in years past,” one veteran exec says of the spring scheduling strategy. “The show was fresh on voters’ minds just as the ballots were going out.”
Indeed, while they might not have nailed down the biggest prizes, Hacks, Mare of Easttown, The Underground Railroad, and The Handmaid’s Tale snagged more than five Emmy nominations each last year after bowing in either April or May. In the pre–Peak TV era, series such as Veep, Fargo, Schitt’s Creek, and Mad Men theoretically got a boost from spring rollouts at least once or twice during their respective runs, cementing the notion that proximity to the first balloting window increases the odds of a big haul when nominations are announced in July.
Yet according to sources in TV land, Emmy strategizing alone does not explain this year’s insanity surrounding spring premieres. “Some of it is the hangover from COVID,” one top programmer says, echoing sentiments expressed in interviews with multiple execs. Even though the near-total pandemic shutdown of movie and TV productions between March and September 2020 is almost two years in the past, insiders say the disruptions it caused are still reverberating through release schedules. And more recently, the Delta and Omicron waves caused setbacks on specific projects, resulting in smaller — yet sometimes still significant — delays.
Bigger-budget series, especially those requiring extensive postproduction work, have been most impacted, sources say. “When you have shows with lots of special effects and big stars, just getting it on the air can be challenging,” one insider says, noting this was true even before the pandemic. “But now with the COVID of it all, many productions were slowed or shut down, and that pushed back everyone’s productions and slowed down when shows would be ready.” The result: Some Emmy-worthy projects originally targeted for late 2021 or early 2022 releases ended up not being ready in time, leaving programmers with a tough choice: Squeeze their shows into the increasingly packed spring calendar or push them to summer or fall — and pray voters would remember them come summer 2023.
While they declined to specify which COVID-delayed productions were moved to April or May, insiders from four platforms each cited the virus as a significant factor in scheduling decisions for several of their most recent shows. And yet, while they don’t deny that the industry’s collective lust for Emmys is a real issue, they also insist the awards don’t completely determine how shows get slated. “I really do try to consider what’s best for our calendar,” one top programmer says, citing his platform’s need to ensure no single month of the year is without top-tier content. An insider at a rival platform agrees, noting that the fear of losing existing subscribers turned off by a dearth of new content balances out the desire to win awards. “You can’t have churn,” he says. “We need to program all four quarters so there’s always something ready to premiere.”
Of course, the bigger issue for platforms these days isn’t finding something new to fill their schedules; it’s whether audiences will notice all the new shows. That’s what has made the spring crush so problematic. While awards-addicted platforms can target the few thousand members of the Television Academy with events and advertising, getting general audiences to take note is far more difficult if not impossible. This is an issue outside the awards-season window, of course, but the past few months took things to a whole new level of ridiculousness: Peak TV basically morphed into Peak TV+. Worse, it happened at a time when Americans were taking advantage of a post-Omicron-wave low in COVID infections to travel, socialize, and go to movies and concerts as if it was 2019. “This traffic jam was not good for the industry,” a senior streaming programmer concedes. “Everyone is doing what they think is best for them, but a lot of shows got hurt.” As one cable marketing exec adds, “It’s almost hurting consumers at this point. It’s just too much.”
The good news for folks who believe there is, in fact, too much TV? Some insiders are convinced the past few months will be remembered as an inflection point for the business, a moment when execs realized they couldn’t spend themselves to victory in the streaming (or Emmys) wars. “I’ll leave it to Landgraf to call Peak TV, but it really does feel like this spring was the top,” one industry veteran says hopefully, referring to FX chairman John Landgraf. He believes “the reckoning we saw with Netflix” — when the company’s stock collapsed in the wake of stalled growth — will reverberate through the business and result in flat or reduced content spending. “What could happen in the wake of this streaming correction is that people slim down their offering, and that will help the traffic jam abate,” the exec predicts, making it clear he believes this will be a good thing. “We as an industry have overdone it.”