The most dire forecasts suggest the number of scripted shows in 2023-2024 could be cut by as much as half the roughly 600 aired last year on broadcast networks, streaming services and cable television. The disrupted fall TV season — following overlapping strikes by Hollywood writers and actors — presents additional challenges, with no guarantees that some of the shows planned for this fall will air at all.
Carter Covington, 50, who’s been a TV writer for 17 years and co-created several shows including “Faking It,” which originally aired on MTV, worries the industry contraction will make it harder to sell shows about marginalized communities.
With fewer shows getting sold, producers are more focused on landing guaranteed hits and awards show fodder, Covington and others said.
“When people want hits they become more risk averse, which means that the market for original ideas is much tougher,” said Covington, who is gay and has championed shows depicting the queer community. “What I keep hearing is that it’s a harder sell right now.”
Of the 659 series regulars to appear on scripted prime-time broadcast during the 2022-2023 season, 70 were LGBTQ characters, according to a study by the gay rights group GLAAD. This is 22 fewer than the year before, a finding the report called “disappointing” in light of the public’s appetite for LGBTQ themes and embrace of shows with gay characters, including “Abbott Elementary” and “Stranger Things.”
Kyra Jones, an actor and writer who is Black, expressed similar concerns. She said she was aware of a situation in which a writer working on a network show featuring gay themes was told to add more straight characters.
Jones, 29, said she thought the pushback might have more to do with political divisions in the country at large — in particular, the backlash against “wokeness” — than the situation in Hollywood.
“That feedback is pushing us more and more toward … White, straight, conservative America,” Jones said. “That’s not what I write. That’s not what most minority writers are interested in creating. So sometimes it feels like there is a sanitation of what we’re creating.”
Executives at several networks declined to speak on the record for this report. Two were willing to be quoted on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the topic, and they offered different perspectives.
“I think that this belt tightening, that these new contracts, mean that the studios are going to have to be more picky about the products they produce,” one of the executives said, “and that means going straight down the middle, and less risk-taking on projects and even performers.”
The other executive said there’s plenty of proof that minority-themed shows and movies make money, so there’s no reason to step back from them, even if there’s less money being spent overall.
“I think people recognize it’s good for business, so I don’t think that will be the case,” the second executive said. “But I understand the concern. That would be a big step back.”
The pandemic coincided, in part, with a period dubbed “peak TV” when the money washing through Hollywood seemed endless, spawning TV shows on the flimsiest premises. Wall Street shrugged as streaming services lost money chasing Netflix, but those days are over. There were some 600 shows produced last year, according to data compiled by FX; by some estimates, that number could be reduced by as much as one-third or even half.
Inflation has further changed the economics of the industry. Now multiple networks and streaming services have begun to raise prices or offer consumers lower-priced options with ads. As a result, many analysts and observers say, consumers will end up paying more for less, even as networks rush to get new content on the air after the 118-day actors strike ended in early November and the writers strike wrapped up in September after 148 days.
The new contracts add significantly to studios’ overhead; the actors guild said the new deal — which includes multistep pay bumps for actors and profit-sharing on streaming projects — represents more than $1 billion in gains over three years. Writers made significant gains on streaming-show residuals. Moody’s Investment Services estimated that those two deals — along with a new contract for directors, who did not strike — could cost Hollywood $450 million to $600 million over three years, according to multiple reports.
“We’re going to pay more and have less options,” said Todd Holmes, associate professor of entertainment media management at California State University at Northridge. “And I certainly hope that doesn’t reduce diversity, diversity of viewpoints, but it could have that as a side effect.”
UCLA has been conducting ongoing studies of Hollywood diversity. Its latest release, which focused on television and was just issued in November, found that people of color were underrepresented on nearly every front during the 2020-2021 television season. The study identified 12 key television jobs — from broadcast lead actors to credited writers on digital productions — and found only two where minorities kept pace with their White counterparts. These were cable scripted leads and credited cable writers. Minorities were underrepresented in all other categories — in some cases by significant margins. In the category of “broadcast scripted leads,” for example, minorities constituted just 32.6 percent.
Jonny Gomez, 36, a Writers Guild of America member who’s written for such shows as the NBC hit “This Is Us,” had a job to return to at Apple TV Plus when the writers strike ended — making him luckier than many. Once his contract ends, though, he’ll be hunting for new employment like so many in Hollywood at the moment. It’s always hard to find a job, he said, regardless of your background.
“The way that I see it, I don’t get hired because I check a box or fill a category. I get hired because I can contribute in any room telling any story,” Gomez said, but he acknowledged that shows with minority themes can have a tough time competing when studios or streaming services are looking to cut costs.
“Shows that are predominantly minority-driven — Black and Brown, queer — they’re the first on the chopping block because they’re expected to be breakout hits, and if they’re not they’re the first to go,” Gomez said.
Most analysts and Hollywood observers say the industry is at an inflection point: Be it fewer shows, better shows, more shows from other countries — as Netflix appears to be trying — Hollywood is getting shaken up like perhaps never before.
“The last few years have brought great gains for more actors and directors and writers of color, and there’s a fear that if the number of shows get scaled back, that means that all those gains get erased. I don’t think anyone can answer that,” said Richard Rushfield, author of an industry newsletter. “But I think Hollywood has sort of swallowed that we have to be more diverse.”