The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The TV hit isn’t just dying — it may already be dead

Astute observers of television say the idea of a unifying show on even a modest scale is gone. In its wake are a hundred Twitter niches — and a dangerous lack of common culture.

(Emma Kumer/Washington Post illustration)

On one level, “Mare of Easttown” was a smashing success. The Pennsylvania-set crime series starring Kate Winslet inspired numerous memes, truckloads of media coverage and even a “Saturday Night Live” parody after it debuted on HBO in April. More importantly, thanks to its head-fake mysteries and town with more secrets than beer bottles, the show quadrupled its audience between its premiere and its finale.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that its audience began modestly enough that even with all that growth, the finale was watched by only 4 million people over Memorial Day weekend. For all its buzzy enthusiasm and hardcore fan interest, the “Mare” finale was not seen that weekend by nearly 99 percent of Americans.

The television hit — the most abiding of entertainment traditions — appears to be dying. That isn’t to say shows don’t have fans; they do, and some of them are more passionate than ever. But according to its long-standing definition — a universally recognized show that gathers a large, verifiable audience and becomes unavoidable in all the places people talk about television and endures well beyond its run — the TV hit is vanishing.

That is true not just, as is commonly lamented, on broadcast, but also according to the lower standards of subscription television. Just two years ago, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” gathered 20 million viewers to watch its finale. Nothing on the current pay-TV landscape would stand a chance of coming close.

“Every network or service now likes to talk about a big hit they have. But the question is, ‘compared to what?’” said Tom Nunan, a longtime Hollywood producer who currently has a show set up with a major streamer. “We live in the age of singles and doubles.”

One of the biggest factors, he and others note, may be economic: the swing to subscription models, which favor engagement over broad popularity.

In recent months, shows like Disney Plus’ sitcom-homage Marvel piece “WandaVision,” Netflix’s fantasy series “Shadow and Bone,” Apple’s soccer-dramedy “Ted Lasso” and HBO Max’s odd-couple Vegas offering “Hacks” all gained cultural mind-share. If you watch these shows, it could seem like people are talking about them everywhere you go.

Medical dramas and sitcoms are looking to the coronavirus pandemic for material for their 2020 plots. Here is how covid-19 is shaping TV. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

But “seem like” and “actually” are not the same. Viewership numbers for many of these series are fundamentally unknown. The fact that people are talking about them everywhere we go may say less about the shows than how, in this age of echo-chamber social media, most of us, figuratively speaking, aren’t going very far.

“There are still very interesting conversations happening around particular shows,” said Laura Grindstaff, a sociology professor at University of California at Davis, who studies popular culture. “But they’re happening with a lot fewer people.” Asking 200 students each semester to name their favorite show, Grindstaff has found smaller groups behind any one show in recent years. Instead, she is confronted with pockets of very different shows, often from obscure creators.

The new culture of the niche, in other words, may have increased the number of voices. But it makes it nearly impossible for us to speak to one another.

The shrinking audience even for TV’s documentable hits has been a trend for years. In the early 2000s, fewer people watched the top NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” than had watched “Seinfeld” a decade earlier. In the 2010s, NBC’s “The Office” drew fewer viewers than “Will & Grace” had as people moved from broadcast to cable and then streaming.

But of late, even this world has been affected, touched by the same bug with which it once contaminated others. It was less than five years ago that “The Walking Dead” attracted 17 million viewers for an episode on AMC.

In a way this is just math: A greater number of shows means fewer people to watch any one of them.

But a more bedrock business reason also applies: There’s little incentive for many of television’s biggest purveyors to throw resources after broad hits. In fact, it is sometimes actively not in their interest to do so.

“If you’re Netflix, it makes a lot more sense to have five small shows that are liked by five different family members than one show that all five family members can watch together,” said a Hollywood agent who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the news media. “You’re much less likely to unsubscribe from the service in the first option. There’s always going to be something someone wants.”

The TV hit, in other words, isn’t just scarce: It’s structurally impossible.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-chief executive, is fond of explaining on the company’s earnings calls that the service wants to have “everyone’s” favorite show but is fine with those shows all being very different. Nunan calls this “intentional narrowcasting.”

Those responsible for producing the entertainment say the shift to a television world of many shows for the few instead of the reverse has transformed their roles.

“As a producer it gives you an incredible amount of opportunity, because it means you don’t need to worry about a large percentage of the viewing audience,” said Michael Shamberg, nominated for the best-picture Oscar for broad cinematic events such as “The Big Chill” and “Erin Brockovich” and executive producer of television shows such as “Reno 911!”

Shamberg said it’s not an accident that when a cultural property is liked widely, it usually comes from an earlier era, a la “The Office” or “Friends.” Unlike today’s shows, they were designed for a broad audience.

The networks still try to sometimes succeed at this, say experts, particularly CBS, which has sitcoms such as “Young Sheldon” and action dramas such as “NCIS.” But by now, broadcast has generally bled too many viewers to pull off viewing events of truly broad scope.

“Sheldon,” for instance, closed its season just two years ago with an average of nearly 15 million viewers but fell to under 10 million viewers this year. Some of broadcast television’s biggest recent phenomena, such as Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” have seen their numbers basically cut in half in 2020-2021.

One of the few exceptions — for now — is the drama of live athletics such as the NFL, which continued its dominance with the two most-watched regular prime time shows on broadcast television during the 2020-2021 season, or reality franchises such as “The Bachelor” and “Real Housewives,” sports of a different kind.

Part of the challenge is that even if cable or streaming had a broad hit, there would be little way to know it. None of the streamers have a history of being monitored by objective ratings services, leading to circumspect news releases and questionable metrics. With no official measure, a sense of a show’s audience is mainly left to memes and outside research firms. There is a movement — slowly — to introduce harder data.

Casey Bloys, content chief for both HBO and HBO Max, said he believes the demise of the broad TV hit is a legitimate phenomenon.

“Viewers have a lot more choice, and that’s going to have an effect on the attention any one show commands,” he said.

But he doesn’t think this necessarily means catering to narrower bases. “When you’re developing, you never think ‘it’s just going to be a single, so I’ll stop there,'” he said.

Some of the architects of broad-TV culture say they’re fine seeing the dismantling of what they built.

“For 50 years or so,” said Preston Beckman, a former executive at Fox and NBC who helped create NBC’s “Must-See-TV” block, “TV was created based on its ability to aggregate large audiences and deliver that audience to advertisers. But I don’t think that has to be the case. I don’t get drunk thinking about how much better the good old days were.”

It is, however, a topic that’s prompted spirited debate among researchers. Some see the trend as another sign — or maybe even a cause — of the country’s seemingly unbridgeable divisions.

“Decades ago you could disagree with someone on virtually everything and still both sing the theme song to ‘Gilligan’s Island,’” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “That common ground is gone.”

Thompson noted the trend did come with a major cultural advantage. “The good news is that television has been liberated from the need to appeal to tens of millions of people, and that allows you to do all kinds of things creatively,” he said.

(Audiences can discover shows later — HBO says an average of 10 million viewers have watched “Mare” if one includes the month since it finished — but heavily delayed viewership doesn’t spell the same shared experience.)

Grindstaff, the UC Davis professor, said she sees both sociological benefits and drawbacks to a post-hit world.

“I think for a lot of marginalized groups who’ve never had their stories told in the mainstream, the atomization has been pretty affirming,” she said. “Because what kind of stories were we getting when there just were a few big hits? Too many that were interesting just to straight, White males.”

But she also sees a danger in the death of the big hit. A viewer who was watching “All In the Family” or “Roots” in the 1970s, she said, might be confronted by their own biases. Now, someone can sail through a lifetime of television without encountering alternative points of view.

“There’s just no mechanism for reassembling all these more representative stories into a larger whole,” she said.

Those who work in television wonder what the lack of broad hits will mean for this era’s legacy.

“When I first got to Hollywood, I went and saw a screening at the Writers Guild theater of ‘Rocky,’ ” said Shamberg. “No one knew what it was, and Sylvester Stallone stood at the door of the theater. A year later it won Best Picture and was a unifier in popular culture. Forty-five years later we still talk about it and make movies in that world. So many TV shows used to do the same thing.”

“I don’t know what shows from now we’ll still be talking about in 45 years,” he said. “'Tiger King?'”