“I have binge-watching envy,” confesses Taylor Schilling, FCLC ’06.

The luxury of sinking into a sofa on a rainy Sunday and tearing through hours of TV is not an option for the busy actress, star of the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. For the rest of us, however, TV is more of a habit now than it’s ever been: The average American spends nearly one-fifth of his or her waking hours in front of the screen—and that’s before you take Netflix and other streaming services into account. The sheer volume of excellent television out there, ready for the watching at our slightest whim, is keeping us more gripped than at any time since the invention of the vacuum tube.

"I had no idea [the show]would be received the way it was," Taylor Schilling (above) says of Orange Is the New Black. (Jill Greenberg/Netflix)
“I had no idea [the show]would be received the way it was,” Taylor Schilling (above) says of Orange Is the New Black. (Jill Greenberg/Netflix)
We’re riding a tidal wave of programming that the industry hasn’t seen since the advent of cable in the late 1970s. At the time, Herb Granath, FCRH ’54, GSAS ’55, chairman emeritus of ESPN and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, was the No. 2 executive at ABC. He helped convince the network to invest in cable.

“I had a relatively simple syllogism: If you offer more choice, people will find something they like,” he said in a 2011 interview. “The monopoly of three networks will change, and the audience will be eroded. Revenues will be eroded. If you are part of the ‘erodees,’ you should also be part of the ‘eroders.’” Granath’s plea led directly to ABC’s investment in the ARTS network (which became A&E) and its later purchase of ESPN.

Since the 1980s, cable has reinvented itself, becoming more than 24-hour news, weather, sports, and documentaries. It’s now the home of some of the most acclaimed scripted series in TV history—Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, to name a few.

But while studios and networks are innovating at breakneck pace, history is repeating itself. This time around, there are new eroders: video-on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon. And they’re cutting into cable’s viewership as much as the networks’ audience.

All this competition means shows are taking risks more readily than they ever have before, telling stories often tucked into the shadows and keeping viewers gripped to the point where whole weekends are lost to mega marathons.

The Cream Rises

There’s so much TV out there now, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. According to Variety, 145 original scripted series and miniseries were on the air in the fall of 2014, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. That trajectory continues: Not including streaming outlets like Netflix and Amazon, networks have ordered some 350 scripted series for the current TV season. Yet actors and producers are still choosing among this landslide of material the same way they always have: based on merit.

Thomas Kelly, FCRH ’87, a writer and producer whose credits include Blue Bloods (CBS) and Copper (BBC America), was attracted to his current project, The Get Down (Netflix), based primarily on story and talent. The 13-episode season, scheduled to begin shooting in New York City this summer, focuses on the struggles of a group of teenagers in the South Bronx in the late 1970s.

"It's in essence an American dream story," showrunner Thomas Kelly says of The Get Down, a music-driven Netflix series set in the South Bronx in the 1970s. (Photo by Michael Falco)
Writer and producer Thomas Kelly’s latest project is The Get Down, a music-driven Netflix series set in the South Bronx in the 1970s and set for release in 2016. (Photo by Michael Falco)

“It’s in essence an American dream story, which is what I’ve always written about,” says Kelly, who grew up partly in the Bronx. “I’m fascinated by the American dream—by the reality of it, by the duality of it, by the myth of it. It’s always that journey starting from a place or a class, lower-middle class or poor. How do you transition out of that into the greater American mainstream?”

Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, of Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby fame, will direct the first three episodes and the season finale. “He’s a true artist—I don’t use that term lightly,” Kelly says. “He’s really got this amazing vision, and it’s up to me to translate that vision and make it a TV show, which is awesome.”

A more extreme example: Schilling signed on to play Piper Chapman on Orange Is the New Black before Netflix premiered its smash-hit political drama House of Cards, the show most often credited with proving that streaming content is a viable model for original series. “There was no precedent,” she says. “We just knew Kevin [Spacey] was going to be on a Netflix TV show.”

When she decided to take the role, for which she’s received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, she simply went on instinct. “If you make choices based on the people that you’re working with and based on the story, you really can’t go wrong,” she says. “I went in just curious—just really interested in Piper and her journey. … I trusted that in my guts. I had no idea [the show]would be received the way that it was.”

Kevin Spacey and Baz Luhrmann, of course, aren’t the only A-listers who have been moving from film to TV. David Fincher directed the House of Cards pilot, 12 Years a Slave scribe John Ridley is producing the ABC drama American Crime, and Scarlett Johansson will star in a limited-run series called The Custom of the Country, based on an Edith Wharton novel. The list goes on.

But why? The seeming mass migration of talent from film to TV began several years before House of Cards hit, so giving all the credit to new distribution methods and viewing habits such as binge-watching is undue. According to The Get Down’s Kelly, there are more factors at play.

“Features are a mess right now,” he says. “[You’re either] making Mission Impossible 27 or you’re making an independent film. There’s no middle ground anymore for serious filmmakers and features. People from the feature world are interested in television because of all the great material that’s being done.”

Securing the Bottom Line

For viewers, this embarrassment of TV riches is good news. But for network executives, it’s more complicated. The current boom is exciting, but it can be harrowing for anyone who needs to make money by making TV. Producing more high-quality shows and distributing them across multiple outlets makes turning a profit a tricky proposition.

From a content standpoint, the primary issue is one of simple supply and demand. Not only are studios competing for a limited amount of top-tier talent, but they also have to jockey for crews, equipment, and locations, among other production needs. Case in point: A showrunner can now demand double the wage he or she could in 2009, according to estimates in Variety.

“I think the talent level’s getting watered down a bit in everything from writers to creators to cast and crew,” says Kelly, who has worked on series for broadcast, cable, and now streaming networks. “There’s just so much [content]out there, it’s getting spread thin.”

But for broadcast and cable networks, the problems don’t end once a show is scripted, shot, and in the can. They still have to find ways to get ads in front of viewers, who are increasingly not watching live TV. They’re using DVRs, which allow them to skip commercials, and streaming shows online or through devices like Roku and Apple TV.

Watching a recorded show on a DVR (i.e., time-shifted viewing), often spells salvation for people who can’t or who no longer want to make “appointment TV.” Networks and advertisers have adapted their business models accordingly. Time-shifting is already built into network audience tracking models, says Dominick Nuzzi, FCRH ’76, the senior vice president of production and administration at ABC Media Group.

“I’ll give you an example,” he says. “One of the shows on ABC, How to Get Away with Murder: On the first day of viewing, it [had]10.1 million viewers. Three days later, there were another 4.5 million viewers.” That combined audience, live-plus-three-day ratings, or C3, is what advertisers are paying to reach.

There’s also revenue to be tapped in other delayed-viewing avenues, namely streaming content, which can take the form of an app or a website, according to Nuzzi.

“The nice thing about streaming things is that [they’re] DVR-proof,” he says. “There may not be as many commercials as there were in the network or broadcast, but you’re not able to zip through them.”

Streaming content also helps networks diversify their media offerings. Advertisers who buy an ad that plays before a show viewed on ABC’s website, for instance, are also buying a different type of audience engagement, in which viewers can go directly to a sponsor’s website. Still, despite all this repositioning, ad revenues are thinning.

The Ripple Effect

All this doesn’t mean that networks are careening toward failure—far from it. It just means that TV executives have to develop more revenue from non-advertising sources. For Armando Nuñez, GABELLI ’82, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group, that entails using old and new programming alike to strike deals internationally and with streaming services, like Amazon and Netflix, as well as local on-demand players.

“All this great technology,” he says, “creates new pipes for us to place both all [our]great legacy content and all [the]great new content we are creating.”

The abundance of content coupled with the rise of streaming services and decline in traditional ad revenue also means that the TV audience is a moving target in a way it hasn’t been since the cable boom of the 1970s and 1980s. The changes, some say, will be sweeping. If original cable series like Oz and Mad Men moved the goalpost for networks in terms of production quality and subject matter, video-on-demand offerings are pushing it even further.

“[Network] shows have to compete—to have the story, the star power, and the complexity,” says Kelly.

Jennifer Clark, a TV scholar and an associate professor of communication and media studies at Fordham, says the networks are looking to cable and video-on-demand series for guidance on how to get viewers back.

“Some, like Fox or NBC, are starting to pick that up,” she says, “because they’re compelled by capturing those audiences that are now getting away from them.”

Tracking Netflix is a good bet. According to Kelly, the company’s deep technological roots have helped it take a lot of the guesswork out of finding audiences for its series. Netflix uses its own proprietary algorithms to analyze viewer data and identify an audience before it starts producing a series. The success of those series is not only a feather in Netflix’s cap, but also an additional proof point they can use to explore political or social issues others might avoid putting in front of a mass audience. Orange Is the New Black, for example, is a trendsetter in how frankly it deals with issues of race, gender, and sexuality—topics often seen as too taboo for mass consumption.

“Netflix-produced series are probably some of the most culturally interesting, innovative types of television that we’re seeing,” Clark says. “People are really responding to that. I think that is going to begin to come back to more conventional television.”

In some small ways, its effects are already on the air. “There seems to be more of a push towards inserting issues of ethnicity—questions of identity that we typically haven’t seen on network television—and trying to deal with that within the mass-appeal dynamic,” says Clark, who points to the new ABC comedy Fresh off the Boat, which features a Taiwanese-American family, as an example. “I think that is one small movement toward something that replicates what Orange Is the New Black seems to be accomplishing.”

Keep on Innovating

Still, the trendsetters in this new golden age of TV are not content to rest on their laurels. As Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and even Yahoo roll out full seasons of original series, they’re considering what this new type of television consumption means for how they tell stories and keep audiences satisfied. In the long run, binge-watching might actually be what spurs studios to continue to improve.

“You’re watching a season of television over, say, two days,” says Kelly. “You’re essentially watching a 13-hour movie as opposed to watching a television show.”

For directors and actors, this means a shift in their creative process. Schilling of Orange Is the New Black says that shooting a full season at once feels more complete creatively, allowing actors to follow their characters even more closely than was possible before. “It’s a little bit more cinematic,” she says. “You’re able to play the full arc. It’s not the same as the experience of doing it when it’s broken up—it’s very helpful.”

For a showrunner like Kelly, it means that viewers are watching even more closely, raising the bar for everything from story to production value. “The little details, things that you wouldn’t really pay attention to, maybe you shouldn’t pay much attention to, become glaring,” he says.

A fall 2014 Variety cover story warned that this new golden age of television is a bubble and, like all bubbles, will inevitably burst. As networks, cable channels, and video-on-demand services rush to capture (or recapture) their share of the audience, they may be dangerously overextending themselves.

After all, the shine will inevitably wear off flashy new delivery methods and services, and content will remain the great equalizer.

“Technology is fantastic, but people don’t watch technology—they watch content,” says Nuñez, the head of CBS Global Distribution Group. “When you have great content, then the great business follows.”

—Corinne Iozzio, FCLC ’05, is a contributing editor at Popular Science and a New York City-based freelance writer focused on technology and innovation.