After the peak: As financial crisis expands, so does the streaming TV wasteland
Striking WGA members in Century City, Los Angeles, California on Nov. 7, 2007. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. jengod.

What is the state of streaming television and serial series in the wake of last year’s Netflix devaluation and this year’s recent bank crisis? That was a question that was not addressed specifically at the Series Mania festival in Northern France this year—perhaps the world’s largest television festival—but how to survive in an industry in retreat however did surface in disguised form repeatedly.

This global series abundance is belied by the fact that financing is shrinking in the wake of another bank collapse, this time most notably of Silicon Valley Bank, which made loans to digital companies of which streaming is now a part. This includes bankrolling the streaming service Roku, as well as the collapse on the international level of Credit Suisse. This is not to mention another U.S. mid-level bank failure, that of First Republic, equally crucial to the digital economy on both coasts, which lost 102 billion in deposits in the first quarter of 2023 and needed a $30 billion bailout just to stay alive.

The net effect of a run on mid-level banks in the U.S. was that money fled to the supposedly safer, larger banks, in particular J.P. Morgan (whose profits jumped 52% for the first quarter of 2023) and Citibank. First Republic has also now been absorbed by J.P. Morgan.

These banks will be much more conservative financiers of a largely debt-ridden industry which has yet to turn a profit. Warner Bros., operator of HBO Max—which recently became just Max—is $50 billion in debt, having lost $217 million in the first quarter, claiming that loss a victory since it was far less than the previous quarter, while Disney+ is hoping to be profitable by 2024.

So, there will be less money to go around, and the money that is available will be coming from more conservative sources, which will want more guarantees that the money invested will be profitable. All of this is happening in the wake of last year’s market devaluation of Netflix based on subscribers declining for one quarter and a new emphasis on overall company profitability, rather than on the number of new subscribers, as the market becomes more suspicious of the streaming house of cards.

The retrenchment was an unacknowledged topic at Series Mania, with everyone realizing that budgets will be leaner and fewer series will be commissioned. But there is also in the industry a new conservatism in programming which likely dates from Reed Hastings’, at that time the head of the most influential streamer Netflix, 2019 comment about not opposing Saudi cuts in his company’s documentary because “We’re not in the news business. We’re not trying to do truth to power. We’re trying to entertain.”

This purposeful rejection of any larger social role for the streaming industry was possibly akin to a statement attributed to Jack Warner in 1947 in the wake of a strike against his studio, that “I will never again make a film about the common man.”

The renouncement of social content was touched upon by Series Mania director Laurence Herszberg, who candidly declared before the festival that, “Today Netflix is more conservative than TF1 (a commercial French on-air station, the equivalent in the U.S. perhaps to CBS),” while during the festival HBO showrunner Lisa Joy, when asked if today HBO would have bankrolled her series Westworld, which the pay-per-view service canceled after its fourth season, simply shrugged her shoulders and said she was grateful that the series made it on the air at all.

The result of this reduction, which is already apparent, is a cutting back not only on the number of series and/or on the budgets of commissioned series but also on the streaming services—if they survive—the adoption of cheaper series, usually meaning unscripted or reality series, which means a general lowering in quality.

Last year, the French streamer Salto, which aggregated series from French public and private stations, collapsed, while the merger of Warner Bros. and the documentary service Discovery meant that the resulting streamer, now simply titled Max, focuses on saturation of lower-level, cheaper reality series from the Discovery label, with the emphasis on more bottom feeder series such as Gold Rush, Deadliest Catch, and Moonshiners.

The end of “peak TV”

The online service Slate described the new state of affairs as no longer “peak TV,” but rather “trough” or bottom-of-the-barrel television. Two years ago, 2021, was probably the height of series abundance, with 559 series produced in the U.S. By contrast, in the current climate, Sky, one of the leaders in European series, has invested in 200 series but only about 10 percent of them are scripted.

All over the world consumers—now labeled “cord cutters”—are canceling expensive cable services for cheaper streamers. The problem for the streamers is that, because of inflation and a global attack on working-class salaries in the wake of new austerity measures—such as the French raising of the pension age from 62 to 64—cord cutters are subscribing to fewer streaming services. All this is happening while, as Herszberg says, streaming services across the globe are growing and have now reached by her count 700. This means the competition for viewers is increasing.

What this new penny-pinching has prompted is a return by the streaming industry to many of the practices of the older era of network TV, practices which for a decade or so the streamers had claimed had been surpassed in a frenzy of creative activity. Series are being canceled sooner with some now canceled in production before they reach the air. This practice is more in line with the usual mid-season casualty list of network TV, which used to announce after Christmas a fresh second season, having replaced fall series that were duds and ratings failures with spring series, many of which, a few months later, shared the same fate.

Budgets for series are being reduced, and canny showrunners are already adapting to the new austerity. One of the best series in the festival was Nordland ’99 from Danish public television, in a shortened but tight half-hour rather than the usual hour format. The showrunner, Kasper Møller Rask, has fashioned a low-budget, rural series with a cast of largely newcomers, filmed cheaply in the Danish countryside whose dark forests are alive with the eerie intonations of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, while also echoing the thematics of Lynch’s series. Here, three teens search for their missing friend and discover the evil of an adult world which itself has been left for dead by the systemic brutality of what is now in the West Authoritarian Neoliberalism.

This new frugality contrasts sharply with the earlier era, and by earlier I mean just a few years ago, when, led by Netflix, money flowed freely as the streamers’ priority was simply putting as much content on their platforms as possible.

Another accommodation to the network TV era is the adoption of the dreaded strategy of advertising, which Netflix previously was famous for shunning, instead claiming it was “viewer-sponsored” with its revenue coming exclusively from subscriptions. All streamers now though have instituted “two-tiered” pricing, with a lower price that includes advertising and a higher price that excludes it.

Advertising of course also opens the door to sponsors having a say in content, and particularly in the atmosphere that the program surrounding their product sets up. This is yet another infringement on creativity that will and is resulting in a blanding of series content. This new austerity, control, and limiting of the range of content is presented as “freedom of choice” for the consumer.

There is as well more oversight with a new, more frugal Netflix functioning more like the TV networks of old, which were famous for their interference in programming as every producer lived in fear of the network executives’ visit to the set. The days of commissioning a series and then leaving it until it reached the air are over. Along with this has come for TV showrunners, those responsible for the creation and vision of the series, less job security.

Unlike the Hollywood studios of old, whose system of control was feudal and absolute but which still guaranteed a regular paycheck, most showrunners and writers now work show to show. Netflix had signed the German creators of an earlier hit, Dark, Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, and the Spanish creator Alex Pina on the strength of Money Heist. Those signings are now unlikely to be repeated as the next high-budget series by the Dark team, 1899, was canceled after one season, and the subsequent Alex Pina series have been disappointments such that his next series is a return to his hit franchise with a prequel about the most charismatic of the Money Heist thieves titled simply Berlin.

To appeal to lenders wanting to be assured their money will prosper, the buzzword in streaming is now “IP,” Intellectual Property, which does not mean more thoughtful challenging work, but rather the opposite. IP denotes utilization of a previously successful property. In the Hollywood studio sense, this could mean that the series already has an audience in another medium. This can be seen in the recent television remakes of the novels Great Expectations and Tom Jones and Drops of God, an international co-production from a popular Japanese manga about competition between wine growers in France and Japan. More often though, IP means the extension of one hit series into a franchise, the business term, or “universe,” its’ creative equivalent.

With the success of the very conservative Yellowstone, a kind of modern-day cross between Bonanza and Dynasty, about a rancher and his family holding onto their land, aided by the fading star quality of Kevin Costner, Paramount+, with its older audience drawn from its network profile on its subsidiary CBS, has now gone back in time and created two copycat series about the origin of the dynasty titled 1883 and 1923. This trend is further magnified by the ratings success of the Game of Thrones (GOT) prequel House of the Dragon, which despite a lackluster final season for the origin series has proven to be an enormous hit, and which has prompted the development of six more GOT series. You can never have too much of a good thing, even if that good thing ended by exhausting itself.

Europe is less genre-oriented and more attuned to individual productions, so the European way of coping with U.S. IP production and generally shrinking budgets is a new emphasis on “co-pros,” the European buzzword most heard at Series Mania. The showcase series for this mode was The Swarm, a co-production featuring public stations in France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and the private streamers Viaplay (Scandinavia) and Hulu Japan. The point of the series, about the ocean being abused by all manner of corporate dumping and overfishing and now fighting back and wreaking its revenge, is a strong one, but the series is weakened by its attempt to provide thinly sketched personal peccadillos for its array of young scientists scattered across the globe (“Is she sleeping with him? Will they get back together?”) and would have been stronger if it had, say on the model of the film Outbreak, simply stuck to its main theme.

It must be noted that co-pros, which now include U.S. streamers teaming up with Euro public television networks and private companies, have produced some solid results. This year’s The Good Mothers, a British/Italian indie production for Hulu and Disney+ won the inaugural Berlin Biennale Best Series. The on-point, utterly accurate detailing of the feudal misogyny of the clannish ‘Ndrangheta as a way of maintaining its power through secrecy makes this the best series of the year so far, with Disney+ and FX now also developing Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice, about the endemic corruption in India in the 2000s and the movement of gangsters into the government as that country made a transition from semi-socialism to capitalism.

Nevertheless, the general quality of the streamers’ stables is declining. Once upon a time, television was referred to as “the vast wasteland” with that phrase then superseded by the labeling of the streaming era as a new “Golden Age,” harkening back to the quality, often socially inflected, anthology dramas of television’s early years. Today’s budget-conscious streamers, in an era of increasing competition, each stressed at the conference their desire to be all things to all audiences, a one-stop shop for entertainment, given that much of the audience can now only afford one stop. This Noah’s Ark approach—comedy, drama, family, quality entertainment all in the same bundle—stressed the element of abundance, but the truth is there is now mostly an abundance of shows without much merit. In order to find quality series, it is now necessary to scour all the streamers to find the one or two relevant series on each.

Paramount+, for example, a newcomer to European markets, in line with its old studio logo featuring a snow-capped peak, described its offerings as “a mountain of entertainment,” a “popular array of content” that presented a range of series with each being “best in class.” The streamer’s “sizzle reel,” a montage of its various offerings, with the tagline “The Stars Are Streaming,” belied these claims, featuring the almost comatose Costner in Yellowstone, Sylvester Stallone in his beyond cliched gangster series Tulsa, a coming extension of Dexter about a vengeful serial killer, and NCIS Sydney, the overseas expansion of that tired franchise. This is surely a mountain of something, but I’m not sure the correct name for it is entertainment.

Netflix meanwhile described its collection of series equally as “premium and commercial at the same time,” though it was difficult to detect the premium element in its mostly standard generic offerings. The streamer also boasted ominously that “we have become the biggest builder of cross-European culture in the EU,” thus supplanting the range of public European stations in a mode of neoliberal entertainment that fashions a Euro cultural soup. Thus, in this interpretation, European culture is now being systematized by the top four streaming services on the continent: Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and Sky which is majority held by the conservative American owner of NBC/Universal and Peacock Comcast.

Striking back against the Empire

What once was “What is to be done?” about this dominance is now more appropriately altered to “Can anything be done?” There are three ways that both globally and locally the power of the streamers is being challenged.

The first, in Europe, is still the possibility of government intervention to level the playing field, though as in many forms of the digital economy, with the EU already currently behind in the race for Artificial Intelligence (AI) as exemplified in ChatGPT, this intervention often comes in the too little, too late variety. There is a European mandate that the American streamers content must be at least 30% local. Despite or perhaps to surmount this mandate, the streamers are pilfering the best European series talent, with Netflix, for example, recently having hired Eleonora Andreatta, formerly the head of the drama department of the Italian public television network RAI and with the producers of the French espionage series Bureau of Legends, which has now become a global franchise, currently working for Disney+.

In France, though, following the Chinese model, each co-pro with an American streamer now must have a delegated French producer. The idea here is that the producer then absorbs the American model and can instill it into French production, the way the Chinese allowed foreign companies to set up in China but then absorbed their know-how.

There is also some progress being made in the battle of creative producers to not cede the rights to their series in perpetuity for an (often slightly) increased up-front payment. This change is a factor of government negotiation and pressure, but also due to the fact that the streamers, and Netflix in particular, have now acquired so much content, that they no longer have any need to build up their catalog and so can, after a specified time, let the property circulate.

Yet, the most impactful challenge at the moment is located in the belly of the beast. As this article goes to press, the biggest story in television and film production is developing as thousands of unionized writers are currently on strike. Since 2007, with a contract won in the wake of the last strike, the writers have been watching those gains steadily erode as their salaries declined on average 4% while profits in the entertainment industry as a whole, despite the debt, have soared.

The streaming companies on the other hand, now more budget conscious, have not budged in negotiations, trying to extract as much profit as possible from writers who have an increasingly more crucial role in the establishment of series TV and whose hiring is now more precarious since series have shorter time spans. Eight to 12 episodes are now the norm as opposed to the former network model of 22. These episodes now also take longer to produce in the era of “quality TV,” but writers are being paid the same amount per show and thus are forced—as are workers everywhere—to work longer hours for less pay.

When asked what the strike means to her, showrunner Lisa Joy answered promptly that she was very much in sympathy with the strike which would also lead to her getting “to spend more time with my kids.” As for the reason for her avowed support for the union and the strike, she explained to a European audience, where the benefits of social democracy, though systematically being lowered, still prevail, that American writers have no job security, working show to show and no safety net: no health insurance, no long-term unemployment insurance, and no free education.

Elsewhere in a panel of European producers, the journalist/moderator made the onerous suggestion that perhaps the Europeans could benefit by, in the wake of U.S. audiences’ more willing acceptance of foreign languages and subtitles after the successes of the South Korean Squid Game and the Spanish Money Heist, using their series as scab series and strikebreakers, a suggestion the European producers declined to endorse.

One of the points of contention in the contract negotiations is the use of AI, with producers threatening to employ this latest technological breakthrough to author scripts and the writers campaigning to keep AI out of the writing process. The problem here is that because of the declining quality which this article has mapped, and the whole history of Hollywood film and television production as rolling off an assembly line, some of the recent series look like they have already been written by programs like ChatGPT. However, this assembly line production can never replace well-written series.

One need only look at two recent series, released within a day of each other, to observe this. Amazon’s bloated, utterly unoriginal John Wick/True Lies/Jason Bourne paint-by-numbers Citadel, which will become a global franchise with new entries in India and Italy, surprisingly exec produced by the Russo Brothers, sounds like it has been spun off of a machine. To use the language of AI, the script, lacking an ounce of originality, is simply recombinatory. On the other hand, David E. Kelley’s Love and Death, an extraordinary, minute examination of how unmet desires in a suburb of Texas at the dawn of the repressive Reagan “Revolution” erupt into violence, is not a machine-like spitting out of past cliches but a highly original work.

The third challenge to the power of the streamers is in the global content of showrunners willing to buck the trend of “pure entertainment” and create socially relevant series, which admittedly are in the vast minority.

In this category, from Scandinavia, there was the aforementioned Danish series Nordland ’99 as well as the Norwegian series The Fortress, which won the jury prize for writing, an eerie dystopian or apocalyptic series about Norway building a Trump wall, with enough oil wealth and agriculture to sustain itself, shutting itself off from the rest of the world but then falling prey to a bacteriological attack because of this isolation.

An India/Pakistan production, Limobland, although much more Pakistani-centered, being shot amid the breathtaking peaks and lowlands of the Hunza Valley in Karachi, is a Succession-themed series but unlike that series which is simply wealth porn, has an anti-capitalist point. Limboland centers on the decisions an old man, now a wealthy hotel owner, made in his life, shutting out the woman he loved in favor of the pursuit of money with a non-Western pace that equally belies the frantic pursuit of profit evidenced even in the editing of its American cousin. Equally, Black Santiago Club, from Benin, describes the fellow feeling around a jazz club that is being threatened by a developer who wants to gut the club and turn it into condo apartments. The film is crystal clear on both the communal spirit engendered by the club, and the attempt to destroy that spirit essentially by privatizing for profit what is a neighborhood treasure.

Pedro Almodóvar and his brother presented Mentiras Pasajeras, with an almost perfect pilot episode about a cosmetician who has staked everything on a corporate promotion and then is sabotaged and must go into practice for herself. The follow-up episodes though, instead of being about her troubles setting up an affordable beauty clinic and taking this out of the province of the ultrawealthy, concentrate too much on the sitcom element of her having to lie to maintain her social status.

Finally, two other series highlighted racial inequality. The first was Canada’s Little Bird, voted the audience favorite at the festival, which situated itself first in the present as it follows the path of an Indigenous woman ripped away from her family and inserted into a Jewish professional milieu in which she has thrived, but which then flashes back to her painful abduction by the Canadian state. The series highlights the attitude of superiority that allowed that state to break up families in the name of “progress.” Netflix’s Thicker Than Water, currently streaming on the network, a tour-de-force by showrunner, writer and series lead Nawell Madani, highlights the racism of the French professional classes as an Algerian female reporter must claw her way onto the set of French TV as an anchorwoman, all the while dealing with her brother who is connected to a gang.

The dominant series genre at the conference was the dystopian or apocalyptic series where the world either has ended or is in the process of ending. These are not necessarily progressive series since they may promote an inevitability about planetary destruction negating activist attempts to reign in the fossil fuel industry, or they may brand activists as dangerous and potential terrorists themselves. From South Korea came Duty After School, a fast-paced story about high school students being armed to oppose alien invaders, a bit ominous given that the U.S. recently pledged to rearm the country with nuclear weapons to oppose an “alien invasion” from North Korea.

Likewise, A Thin Line, a German series on Paramount+, followed two sister activists and hacktivists as they attempted to foil government attempts to further climate degradation. The series quickly descends into a cautionary tale about “going too far” to save the environment as one of the sisters becomes involved with an “eco-terrorist” (not the corporate fossil fuel kind that are laying waste to the earth and whose profits continue to soar), fringe, lunatic anarcho-terrorist group. The other sister joins the police effort to catch her hacktivist sister before she can wreak havoc on the planet. It is amazing how this series, which at the start admits the apocalyptic danger we are all facing, rapidly moves into fear of those on the front lines trying to halt this danger.

As Western economies everywhere decline, the streamers also find themselves in a precarious position. Peacock, Comcast’s streamer made up of content from NBC/Universal, is now rumored to possibly lose its identity in a merger with Warner Bros. Discovery, and thus in danger of becoming the first of the major streamers to throw in the towel.

The struggle by writers, creative workers in general within the industry, public stations, alternative streamers, as well as audiences, to oppose the corporate juggernauts continues. In the latest manifestation of this struggle, writers, never more important in the industry, attempt—through the time-honored tool of a strike to fight off these latest efforts to reduce their value. These efforts by the corporate juggernauts include both a regressive movement back to “non-scripted” reality television, and a coming attempt to supplant their work in general through the onslaught of AI and ChatGPT’s replacing of a writer’s sensibility with a mechanic recombination of genres with the decline in series quality, supposedly motivated by decreasing budgets, readying audiences to accept this degraded mode of production.

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Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.