Day 2 of the ATX Television Festival gathered network and streaming execs Jennifer Salke (NBC), Casey Bloys (HBO), Nick Grad (FX), Craig Erwich (Hulu) and Gary Levine (Showtime) to discuss the current state of television. The most popular topic: Peak TV.
“It always amazes me that these shows can break out in a world where there is so much [TV content],” said Salke. “You just have to keep striving for something inspired, and you got to have a good strategy. It’s really hard. The stars have to align,” but good TV “always will find a space.”
For Grad, one of the perks of the influx of content is you don’t need to have a hit off the bat. “If the show is great, people will talk about it, and you’ll find an audience … being original and being great will help you cut through the clutter.”
Levine agreed. “Peak TV is a great subject for panels and essays, but in terms of our jobs, we don’t live in the macro, we live in the micro,” he said. “For us, it’s really carefully building a show and keeping that pure and perhaps naive but hopeful mantra that if you build it properly they will come… a success for one of us doesn’t infringe on the success of the rest of us.”
Along with the growth of new series is an abundance of limited series, many times to attract bigger names that normally wouldn’t commit to a long-running episodic format.
“If those actors can play in the TV sandbox and only commit to eight hours one season, that’s tempting,” said Levine. “In some ways we may be hurting ourselves because the brass ring still is the long ongoing series where a network invests in a show, an audience invests in those characters, and the love flows in all directions.”
Another way to stay competitive is straight-to series pickups, which Erwich said is “fraught with risks” but at times necessary. Bloys agreed but added he’s still all for the pilot process. “Not only does the network learn something, but the showrunner sometimes goes in thinking that the show is going to be one thing” but “turns it” a different way. “It is an educational process” and “a valuable process to get things right.”
On the topic of Netflix’s recent string of original show cancellations, Grad quipped, “I’m glad they’re cancelling shows. They can’t have 10,000 shows…I think it brings them back in the ecosystem of where we’re all trying to make the best shows and the best decisions. They have a lot more shots and we just have to do better.”
Added Erwich: “They’re capitalist so I assume that they are, at any given time, making the best decision that they think is in the interest of their business. If canceling shows is the phase where they are, it makes sense.”
Speaking of canceled shows, Erwich was asked about what Hulu looks for in the decision to save an axed series. “If we’re going to transfer a show from another network, there’s a very specific set of circumstances,” he said, pointing out The Mindy Project, where Hulu had its past seasons, while Fox was airing the current one. “We knew that our audience loved that show. When Fox decided that it wasn’t viable for them to carry the show anymore, we knew quantifiably that there was still a huge audience for it. In a case like that we knew it made sense,” he explained. “A show that’s on another network where we don’t have the past seasons, it doesn’t really make sense for us.”
In the case of Timeless, which NBC reversed its decision to cancel, fan response carried a lot of weight.
“We knew that there was a large, passionate core audience,” Salke said. “We did make the decision, given the schedule and other opportunities that we wanted to give shows, that we had to let [Timeless] go. It was a hard decision to make and the outcry from fans really did make us not sleep well that night…. It was such a joyful moment to be able to reach out to those guys who were commiserating with all the fans online and be able to say the show is coming back.”