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Platform Shift

Now Begins the Peak-TV Hangover

What are the downsides of overabundance in streaming options?
  • Jake Johnson in Minx, Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld, and Abubakar Salim in Raised by Wolves (Photos: HBO)
    Jake Johnson in Minx, Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld, and Abubakar Salim in Raised by Wolves (Photos: HBO)

    Welcome to Platform Shift, a column about the way the internet changes how and what we watch on TV. 

    I promise you that I tried. I've always loved animation: the way it lights up the screen, streamlines narrative for my plot-averse brain, blasts me back in my chair like the guy in the old Maxell ad, not with sound but with color and motion and design. There's not an element out of place in a good cartoon, and the thing about animation is, the farther back you go, the better it gets, seemingly. All of which is to say that when HBO Max launched in 2020 boasting a full catalog of classic Looney Tunes shorts, you better believe I pushed the classics on my toddler like they were vegetable-infused chicken nuggets. Long had we gotten by on sub-par CGI and middling toilet humor. Here, at last, was the good stuff.

    Alas: It did not take. We bounced off of Looney Tunes quickly and went back to our standard compromise: documentaries about volcanoes and just absurd quantities of Bluey. It's hard to argue with Bluey. Still, I felt a pang of guilt late last year when ululations rang throughout the internet for Looney Tunes' back catalog being purged from HBO Max. I'm a parent and a lover of old animation. Had I not done my part? I looked afresh at Bluey, her malevolent tail wagging. Was she to blame?

    Obviously, Looney Tunes' digital disappearing act was just one part of a much broader about-face at Warner Bros, which has lurched mightily since David Zaslav took the helm last year. Some of the shows memory-holed from the streamer were not huge surprises: it's hard to imagine much mourning for Little Ellen, for example, which somehow premiered in fall of 2021, a full calendar year after the star was exposed for on-set bullying. Westworld, on the other hand, had been a flagship property at one point, with plummeting season-over-season ratings but still a fairly devoted fanbase and a sizable cultural footprint. It’s shocking that it didn’t even get to do a goodbye mini-season. 

    But ruthless is the name of the game at the company these days. Looking through the graveyard of HBO victims, you see a couple of trends: high-concept sci-fi shows (Westworld, The Nevers, Raised By Wolves), various DC Universe projects not in line with the new regime's creative vision (including a fully completed Batgirl movie, now never to see the light of day), and, yes, boatloads of Looney Tunes properties, including the remastered 4K classics that I had planned to devour with my apple-cheeked sire, and which he has now entirely forgotten in favor of facts about volcanoes.

    It's impossible to say exactly why HBO chose these specific projects to shutter and remove from streaming availability, but suffice it to say that the long-term engagement they created did not justify the costs of hosting them on their servers or continuing to pay residuals. This fits broader weather patterns in the media and tech world. As the New York Times reported in December, the "Peak TV" era is finally ending, with a precipitous drop-off in new adult scripted series headed into production (24% year over year, 40% down if you go back to 2019). After explosive growth in the early days of the pandemic, the tech industry, more broadly, is bracing for an economic downturn, with mass layoffs hitting all of the major players and Netflix, in particular, playing host to ideas it once deemed inconceivable, like an ad-supported tier.

    One thing that these broader headwinds mean is that the belt-tightening has finally come to our content coffers. If the previous decade or so has been defined by an overabundance of streaming options, we may now be entering an era of peak-TV hangover, in which our content-consumption metabolism is used to having everything and now we merely get lots. Netflix, when it was the only game in town, was able to put pretty much everything up for streaming: Friends, the Criterion collection, all of the Nic Cage, etc. As other platforms emerged, major companies wrested back their streaming rights, and then touted their individual libraries as major sales features. What is becoming increasingly clear is that these back catalog titles are not sticky enough to keep people subscribing: they need something new. Again, look to Netflix, which has increased the quantity and percentage of its original programming over the past decade in an ongoing attempt to find the Squid Game or Making A Murderer or Stranger Things that dominates the cultural conversation for roughly 10 days and reminds subscribers why they can't jump ship just yet.

    That peak-TV hangover will likely mean a lot of things. A ton of bad TV shows (like, say, Little Ellen) will never get green-lit; so will some strange and interesting ones that might’ve popped through the bubble of our attention. Still, it’s not like fewer green lights will mean less interesting stuff: The branching path of multiverses that leads to something like Squid Game becoming a national obsession is sort of hard to reverse engineer. I’m much more interested in what the peak-TV hangover means for us at a more cognitive level. Peak TV meant a lot of analysis paralysis: We’ve become used to and even reliant on apps and newsletters and sorting sites that help us get through queues and parse the influx of media available. Culture coverage online is dominated by television, and these opinions matriculate out onto platforms, such that we feel compelled to pay attention to the hegemonic TV show of any given moment. Peak TV has been one of the chief generators of what The New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka called “algorithmic anxiety,” in which we feel an omnipresent suspicion about how our various recommendation algorithms alternately surface and hide content from us. 

    These were the negative sides of surplus, and they may’ve been what stopped people — or at least me — from sticking with Looney Tunes in the first place. (I’d rather blame Big Tech than Bluey, I guess.) But my point is that we also liked this surplus; we were giddy about this overabundance. There was something nice in knowing that I could be watching 4K restorations of classic Looney Tunes cartoons even if I wasn’t going to, necessarily. It was right there, on the queue, ready for me when the time was right. I wanted the option to circle back. In some ways, this is the same as “owning” any piece of media: a Criterion Blu-ray is more about the ability and the willingness to watch Bergman on a whim than the propensity to actually do so. 

    All of which is to say that there’s a little bit of wanting it both ways here: We are both exhausted by the surplus of options available on streaming platforms and beleaguered by the constriction of those options. It was fair to think, over the past decade, that a surplus of options and availability might expand viewers’ tastes, but this was accompanied by an overriding anxiety that opaque algorithms were hiding those very options from us. Whether or not popular tastes expanded is hard to say — although the popularity of international releases in the West suggests that they did — but perhaps there is still a way for some of these platforms to evolve to alleviate the very anxiety that they created. In the world of film, a human touch helps: platforms like MUBI and the Criterion Channel smartly curate their content, foregrounding hidden gems with contextual essays and proposing movie nights and curriculums to help navigate their depths. 

    Such a service for television is impossible to imagine, logistically, given that TV rights holders typically host their own platforms. But it is nevertheless nice to imagine such a thing: a sort of MUBI for television, proposing through lines and excursions and guided trips for adventurous viewers. Looney Tunes wouldn’t be cut from a platform like that — it would be a centerpiece. In the meantime, I’m reminded of a quote that ends the New Yorker article on algorithmic anxiety, in which the fashion critic Rachel Tashjian advised an algorithm-anxious reader to “adopt a rabbithole mentality! Read the footnotes and let one footnote lead to another.” As platforms continue to constrict and the peak-TV hangover comes into full, ibuprofen-proof bloom, it’s worth trying to sniff out a few more rabbit holes in our platforms. Follow the sound of a carrot being chomped on before it’s too late. My Looney Tunes phase may never happen, in other words, but this winter I’m finally knuckling down on John From Cincinnati

    That, selfishly, is one of my hopes for this column: That by exploring some of the ways digital platforms are changing the way we watch TV, I can be a little more conscious of my own viewing. I’m just as interested in the way these platform-holders wield their libraries and seem to be subtly differentiating themselves (what is “the Apple TV+ style”?) as I am in the way social platforms chew the content up and repurpose it (my algorithm is all no-context Succession, these days). Our experience of the internet and of television is dominated by these major platforms, and by trying to talk about them individually, or at least phenomenologically, I hope to help make sense of the ongoing transformation of what and how we watch TV. 

    Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Shaker Heights, Ohio. You can see other things he writes on Twitter.