Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Money Talks: The Explosion of Television

Over at Variety, TV critic Mo Ryan has an excellent series of articles on the rising costs of television and the fears that the TV market could be headed for some kind of meltdown or crash. It's a fear that more than a few in the American TV industry share, but its clear that costs and the amount of shows in production are not slowing down any time soon.

This is the level of effects fidelity TV viewers now demand from their shows.

In 2016 some 455 scripted TV series were produced and aired in the United States. That's not 455 hours, that's 455 actual separate, discrete series. The final figure for 2017 isn't in yet, but the eight-month figure as of the start of August was 342 to 325 in the previous year. The final figure for this year will be higher than last, and may come close to 500. That will easily be broken next year: 2018 is when a number of series commissioned by Netflix in their mammoth, multi-billion dollar expansion last year, and counter-commissioning by the likes of Amazon, will hit our screens. With Apple wading into the original TV space as of next year, it's possible that over six hundred scripted TV shows will air in the United States in 2018 (that's more than double the 2012 figure). That's going to be close to ten thousand hours of scripted television airing in one year. If you spent 12 hours a day watching TV, it'd take you two and bit years to watch one year's worth of scripted TV alone.

And that's not counting hundreds more shows coming out of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, and that's just in the English language.

The explosion of television is also being accompanied by an explosion in budgets. This year the seventh season of Game of Thrones clocked in at around $14,285,000 per hour. That will rise to around $17 million per episode for the final season, which is just about to start shooting. Thrones is very much an outlier, but other shows are getting up there: Star Trek: Discovery and Altered Carbon are both in the $7-8 million per episode bracket, and Netflix drama The Crown reportedly exceeded $10 million per episode. The second season of Sense8 rocked in at $9 million per episode (enough to get it cancelled when not enough people tuned in quickly enough). Stranger Things' first season cost a modest $6 million per episode for eight episodes, but its success has seen the second season increase to $8 million per hour with an extra episode bump, so the season as a whole costs $72 million compared to the first season's $48 million, which in real terms is a 50% increase in just one-and-a-half years.

These budgets are insane. Back in 1990, Star Trek: The Next Generation caused consternation when its budget exceeded $1 million per episode. Although exceeded for mini-series and specials, that budget for an ongoing TV series seemed remarkable. By a few years later, however, more was the norm. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's pilot was made for $12 million in 1993 and its regular episodes came in at around $2 million. Star Trek: Voyager's pilot was shot two years later for the same amount of money (so slightly less, given inflation), and the record of those two pilots stood for a decade, until Lost's pilot was shot for a reported $15 million or more. By the mid-to-late 2000s it was generally considered normal for a TV show to cost between $2 and $3 million per episode, with a high-end show like Heroes costing $4 million per episode. Lost wound up costing $5 million per episode, due to the expense of shooting in Hawaii, a factor which was likely influential in seeing later seasons reduce their number of episodes.

The true super-budgets were strictly the preserve of high-end cable, and especially HBO's prestige mini-series. In 2001 its Band of Brothers mini-series cost $12.5 million per episode to produce; its 2010 companion series The Pacific was roughly double that. HBO's ongoing series were more modestly budgeted until the advent of Deadwood in 2004 and Rome the following year. Rome's budget exceeded $100 million for the first season and was slightly less for the second, but these costs were considered too high and the show was cancelled; HBO later considered this to be a mistake, given Rome's long tail on DVD, foreign sales and in streaming. Still, HBO exercised caution in the following years, bringing in shows like True Blood for substantially less money. Even when Game of Thrones started in 2011, it's episodes were budgeted at under $7 million per hour. HBO probably now regrets being that thrifty, especially considering they turned a profit on the series in foreign rights sales and merchandising before a single episode was screened.

In the arena of traditional network television, lower budgets have continued to be the norm but have also been seen as a major problem. On around $4 million per episode, ABC's Agents of SHIELD struggled to even remotely match the big-budget set pieces seen in the Marvel movies which are supposedly set in the same universe. Yet suggestions that ABC should raise its game have been resisted, with a strong implication that any higher budget would be unaffordable and the show would be cancelled (and in fact appears to have been lucky to reach a fifth season).

Money pouring into TV is a good thing: compared to film, television has looked quite cheap for quite some time now, and TV shows having the budget to do their stories justice is welcome. However, there is something to be said for frugality. Necessity is the mother of invention and sometimes restricted budgets can result in inventive and impressive solutions. Battlestar Galactica's budget never exceeded $2 million per episode (albeit after a more expensive pilot mini-series which helped built its enormous standing sets) but the show put every single cent of that money on screen, coming up with incredibly inventive ways of portraying epic scenes and space battles relatively cheaply.

The Walking Dead likes to give maximum bang for the studio's buck.

The golden child of responsible TV spending is The Walking Dead, which is made on less than $4 million per episode yet credibly presents a post-apocalyptic world featuring hordes of ravenous zombies and occasional battle sequences with dozens of people exchanging gunfire. Although The Walking Dead is feeling the pinch of its budgetary issues - the last couple of seasons have featured some extremely ropy effects at times - it still shows you can still achieve quite a lot even with relatively little money. This frugality is even more eyebrow-raising when you realise that Thirteen Reasons Why - a teen drama with virtually no effects, no heavy make-up requirements, relatively limited location filming and no massive explosions - costs over $1 million per episode more than The Walking Dead. Whilst Game of Thrones has long supplanted The Walking Dead's viewership and place at the water cooler, AMC executives probably have some smiles about how incredibly taut and well-budgeted their operation is compared to HBO's sprawling epic.

The rise of TV budgets has been helped by the rise of the streaming services. Netflix doesn't have to sell adverts, it simply has to sell subscriptions and it can do that worldwide. No longer does it need to chase the 4-7 million viewers a prime-time US drama might hope to grab at best, it's now targeting hundreds of millions of viewers in 190 countries. And that means it is floating in a sea of money it can use to commission and make hundreds of shows at budgets network TV in the States can only dream of. This isn't the preserve of Netflix alone, though. HBO leveraged its formidable international sales muscle to get Game of Thrones sold around the world before it aired a single frame of footage, whilst Fox TV recently crowed over the success of its X-Files reboot by saying the season was watched by over 70 million viewers in a couple of dozen countries.

More topically, CBS has turned a profit on Star Trek: Discovery's first season after selling it to Netflix for worldwide distribution. The $105 million budget of the first season has already been accounted for even before people started subscribing to CBS All Access (which is why those threatening to boycott the service are really not going to change CBS's minds on this).

The fear that the TV market will eventually implode is a real one. Social media, video games and even good-old fashioned books are competing for attention, not to mention non-scripted TV shows and of course movies. The bubble may burst and we'll see the number of TV shows tumble to a more manageable level, but it's also likely that the victors will be those services which can reach a global audience instantly, and will continue churning out TV on a massive scale. The most important thing is that they also continue their recent trend of hiring talented writers and film-makers and allowing them to get new and interesting ideas on screen, and giving them the resources to do it properly.

1 comment:

Alex Walsh said...

As TV production values go up, and the cost of good CGI goes down, I think it's movies that stand the very real chance of imploding first. I know where I'd rather spend my money: Netflix and Amazon Prime cost the same combined per month as ONE trip to the local multiplex.

If we didn't have an independent cinema locally that only charges £7ish a ticket, I wouldn't go to the cinema.