Too much of a good thing

Have we reached the saturation point for quality American TV shows?

August 8, 2014
Obsession
Glass
August 8, 2014

Given the already overwhelming amount of quality TV worth watching, does anyone really want to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for even more of it?

We’ll start to find out this weekend, as two premium US cable channels make their boldest moves yet to grab new viewers and subscribers. On Aug. 8, Cinemax premieres The Knick, starring Clive Owen as a surgeon in 1900-era New York City, with Steven Soderburgh directing all 10 episodes. One night later, Starz unveils Outlander, about a nurse from the 20th century who time-travels back to 18th century Scotland. The series is based on the eight novels by Diana Gabaldon, which combine historical fiction, romance and adventure, and have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.

Both shows represent a radical departure from their respective networks. Cinemax is trying to shed its “Skinemax” reputation and move beyond its pulpy action series like Banshee and Strike Back, while Starz—still lagging far behind HBO and Showtime in shows with critical and commercial acclaim—has relied too heavily on “boobs and blood” series like Spartacus, Black Sails and Magic City.

While the series are generating enthusiastic reviews (The Knick in particular), they will likely have a much tougher time drawing audiences than they would have just a couple years ago. Because both Starz and Cinemax are premium channels, sampling those shows means shelling out even more money each month to do so. And for those already on the hook for cable fees—for basic cable, HBO and Showtime—as well as payments for Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime, it will be hard to justify the additional expense, particularly given that these networks have little to offer those new audiences beyond that single show.

As Netflix, Amazon and Hulu keep beefing up their original content, and more and more networks begin debuting original series (welcome to the party, WE tv!), even those of us who devote our careers to watching and writing about TV can no longer keep up. There’s already way too much great television to watch to pay additional money for more of it.

Starz is betting against that, and is hoping to hook viewers—and hopefully, earn new subscribers—early by streaming the Outlander premiere for free. Cinemax, meanwhile, renewed The Knick for a second season a full month before its first one premiered, in part to assure subscribers of its long-term commitment to the show. (Cinemax had 14.45 million US subscribers as of March, compared with 29.475 million for its sister network HBO. Starz lands almost exactly in the middle with 22 million subscribers).

Helping both networks: their bars for success have already been set very low. Cinemax’s most-watched original series to date, Banshee, logged a mere 733,000 viewers during its first airing, which jumped to 2.7 million when factoring in DVR, on demand and streaming via MAX GO. Starz biggest series launch to date was Black Sails, which totaled 3.5 million views during its January debut weekend.

But if these new shows fail to attract more viewers or subscribers to their networks, it will serve as a warning to other companies preparing to roll out original content that audiences have reached their breaking point. Microsoft saw the writing on the wall and shut down Xbox Entertainment Studios last month, while Sony is still going forward with plans to debut original shows on its PlayStation Network.

Time is money, and when it comes to quality TV, do we have enough left of either? Starz and Cinemax certainly hope so.

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