More TV in 2015 and some of it was great

BY DAVID WIEGAND

2015 wasn’t a particularly stellar year for television in general, but it was significant for one reason: The number of scripted series on all content platforms broke the 400 mark for the first time. That’s pretty remarkable, considering that not too long ago, there was a good deal of hand-wringing among those who care about well-written TV that reality shows were going to take over the entire medium.

According to a study by FX Networks released last week, there are now 409 scripted series on TV, up 9 percent over the total number of scripted shows in 2014 and 94 percent since 2009.

2015 saw measurable growth in scripted series on “each distribution platform — broadcast, basic and pay cable, streaming— led by significant gains in basic cable and digital services,” according to Julie Piepenkotter, executive vice president for research for FX.

The biggest growth in scripted series was in the basic cable category. Not only are channels like FX creating more scripted shows, we’re also seeing reality show platforms sticking their toes into the water with scripted series as well, no doubt seeing the handwriting on the wall that audience interest in reality TV is finite. As recently as 2011, there were only two shows available through online services; There are 44 today (Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu/Plus, Crackle, Yahoo).

In some ways, you already knew that, simply because there are many more shows to choose from now than there were a couple of years ago. Factor in the increase in the ways to access TV content, including smart phones, tablets and computers, and you have another reason for the exponential growth in content in general and scripted content in particular.

But what does it mean for the TV viewer? First, it means that, for a while, the industry may have been fiscally wise to count on reality shows, because they’re cheaper to make. But over time, many have worn out their welcome, especially as imitators popped up on other channels. “American Idol” begat “America’s Got Talent,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “The Voice”— and now “Idol” is exhausted and heading into its final season next month.

More scripted material may seem like a good thing, but it hasn’t necessarily resulted in more high-quality scripted material. This year, broadcast seems to have tacitly acknowledged it can’t compete on the same quality level as streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, or basic and premium cable. Most of the new broadcast shows of what’s left of the fall season were imitative and mediocre. Watchable in some cases, but nothing to write home about.

It took the broadcast networks until November to cancel the first new fall show — “Wicked City” on ABC. That’s pretty late. There were plenty of other candidates for cancellation, based on critical reaction and low ratings numbers. But the networks held on by their fingernails, almost as if to say, “Who cares? We know our job is to churn out mediocre content and we’ll just milk these shows for whatever paltry benefits we can get, rather than throw more money at another new show that may not do much better.”

There were some great shows on broadcast this year, but almost all of them were holdovers from previous seasons— “The Good Wife,” “How To Get Away With Murder,” “Mom.”

The fact is that if you’re looking for extraordinary television, you have to go to cable and streaming content providers. There is still a place for broadcast and it’s an important place, but the networks have to step it up or risk losing an even greater share of the TV audience to digital channels, cable and streaming platforms, all of which are adding new shows to further increase the options for TV viewers. Of the new broadcast shows, “Quantico,” “Limitless” and “Blindspot” were among the better options, but they don’t quite hit the level of creativity and imagination you see in shows like “The Man in the High Castle,” “House of Cards,” “Transparent” or “Red Oaks”— all streaming content.

The shear number of new shows available in 2015 means that there are going to be more mediocre shows, which, to be simplistic, means the great ones stand out even more.

Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” is not only the year’s best drama, but the best show of the year. The second installment of the anthology series was even better this year than last, exuding an additional sense of confidence after racking up a bunch of Emmys in September. Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” is comic perfection. USA doesn’t find itself on end of year best lists very often, but “Mr. Robot” more than earned a spot on the list. The show was so smart, so moody, so hip that it even hooked increasingly elusive viewers in their 20’s.

“American Horror Story” has had ok seasons and very good seasons, but this year’s “Hotel” was off the chain, with Lady Gaga swanning her way through the vacant, shadowy halls of a once elegant hotel.

To compile the list, I looked at the full calendar year simply because the fall season is a fast disappearing vestige of another era. There are no “seasons” anymore, so why consider only the shows broadcast (for the most part) offers in September? “Empire,” the only broadcast show on the list, made the cut largely because of its first season, which launched in January. The second season was fun but suggested the possibility of plateauing in the future. Still, the show gets that it’s not an embarrassment if television is actually entertaining.

The Best of 2015

5. “Mr. Robot,” USA. Rami Malek was the break-out star of this USA drama about a young disaffected computer engineer with significant social adjustment issues and a drug habit who is recruited by a group of cyber-terrorist hackers. Their target is E Corp, which Malek’s character calls Evil Corp. TV’s hippest show in years.

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