Is quality TV really ‘dying’?

There are other challenges contributing to the decline in prestige TV series. Last year, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, actor-director-producer Justine Bateman, a prominent figure in the actors’ and writers’ strikes, alleged that showrunners were being asked by streaming platforms to factor in the fact that a huge proportion of viewers will be experiencing the show in a mode referred to as “second screen” – in other words, on in the background while they scroll other devices. “The viewer’s primary screen is their phone and the laptop and they don’t want anything on your show to distract them from their primary screen,” she explained to The Hollywood Reporter, describing how the behaviour forces showrunners into making a sort of “visual muzak… [streamers and studios] don’t want anything on your show to distract [viewers] from their primary screen because if they get distracted, they might look up, be confused, and go turn it off.”

“When that becomes the demand, you’re not going to get complex antiheroes and super serialised storylines where you really have to follow all these details to understand it,” says Esmail. “You can forget about something as abstract as Twin Peaks: The Return [working with phone-distracted audiences] – that’s just not going to happen. As a filmmaker, you want every frame and every second of your TV show to be incredibly considered and crafted. But if people are just going to watch it while on their iPhone, well – as storytellers, to write for an audience like that, it’s almost impossible.”

Another obstacle is the sheer number of platforms available, and the fact that many people can’t afford subscriptions to all of them. Subscribing to Hulu, Disney+, Netflix, Paramount+, Peacock, Max, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV would cost $63.93 a month on the cheapest available plans. With people picking and choosing the platforms they subscribe to, it’s harder than ever for a TV show to become a phenomenon. “The audience is so fractured right now and made up of all these little niches,” says Boyd. “Unless you permeate the culture like a Succession or a White Lotus or The Bear, you become this niche thing that some people know about but most don’t know exists.”

He’s not kidding. The last six months has seen the release of two incredibly groundbreaking TV series starring two of the biggest acting talents of their generations: Emma Stone (The Curse on Paramount) and Nicole Kidman (Prime Video’s Expats). Despite being – in this writer’s opinion – two of the best shows of modern times (The Curse in particular), few people seem to have heard of them, let alone watched them.

Cause for optimism

Despite the doom and gloom, there are reasons to be hopeful. For starters, there’s a more diverse pool of talent waiting to tell their stories, should the industry give them the opportunity. Shows like True Detective: Night Country and Netflix sleeper hit Beef, both created by talented writers of colour, shows that TV has grown beyond stories about Difficult Men, created by white showrunners – a huge focus for the small screen in the early days of golden age TV drama.

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