Books in the era of 'peak TV'

Michael Bhaskar
Opinion - Publishing Thursday, 19th April 2018

The TV boom: good or bad news for publishing? Michael Bhaskar investigates

A few years ago, digital thinkers wondered if TV's days were numbered. Younger viewers were watching less and less. More channels fragmented the audience, making those water cooler moments, let alone nationally significant event-viewing, much rarer. The schedules were being filled with reality dross, while shiny new media, from games to the internet, were growing in popularity. The equivalences to book publishing were clear: despite still being an information and entertainment powerhouse, TV was, in the long run, done for.

Like publishing, it didn't play out like that. Instead, TV hit a widely acknowledged Golden Age, overhauled Hollywood as the epicentre of experiment, ambition and talent, successfully rode the digital revolution, and arguably became the signature cultural form of our time. In fact, TV is now so much the dominant storytelling mode it's worth asking in detail what this era of "peak TV" means for publishing.

Parallel forces
So what happened? The story is dictated by two parallel forces. First, having marquee franchises that encourage repeat subscriptions became essential. You needed properties that would keep people locked in to their bundles. Smaller channels needed to ensure they wouldn't be dropped from the offering. This in turn led to the global escalation in prices for sports and the creation of "must-have" series: Mad Men, for example, almost single handedly kept network AMC in subscription bundles. Second, there was the demise of so-called "linear" viewing with the rise of internet-enabled, on-demand services exemplified by the BBC iPlayer and Netflix. In the background was a new drive to quality, starting with shows such as The West Wing and The Sopranos. The result was a revolution in output, from the gangland realism of The Wire to the vaulting ambition of Game of Thrones.

Thanks to this new equation, more and more quality TV is being produced: up to 400 major shows a year and rising quickly. Netflix alone will spend $8 billion on producing original content this year. It will air more than 700 series, including a rapidly growing segment of non-English language work. Amazon Studios, which spent a reported $4.5 billion on material in 2017, is still growing. Apple is also looking to move into production, and hired two senior executives from Sony TV to spearhead the efforts. In the UK they have taken on ex-BBC and Channel 4 veteran Jay Hunt. Everyone else, from ITV to NBC, is playing catch-up, forced to invest in big budget series to compete. The result is that we swim in a sea of high quality, box set TV.

At one level this is great news for fiction publishers. In our age of shrinking attention spans, nothing proves there is still an appetite for deep, complex, involving, lengthy stories like this renaissance. People don't just want superficial entertainment; they want characters and stories of a genuinely novelistic kind. They want big ideas, bold concepts. Novels have done this for centuries, and can still do so. And it provides a rejuvenated market for adaptation rights. Whether it's The Handmaid's Tale, Westworld or Altered Carbon, many of the biggest series start life as books; whenever such an adaptation occurs, as with film, it gives book sales a huge boost. It brings upfront cash to the rights owner and provides some reassurance: books and publishing are still the wellspring of storytelling genius.

The risk for books
Yet it would be foolish not to see a risk here. Books and reading clearly offer different experiences from that of watching TV. Above all, reading is still the most personal and imaginative form of entertainment we have. The threat is, then, not direct; good TV doesn't hurt good books, both coexist. But it does add pressure to a crowded market for attention. Every box set started is, potentially, a novel unread; and whereas nobody would see watching Big Brother as an analogous experience, some might think that of serious TV. We don't have much time and headspace, and the siren call of the box set is both easy and rewarding. I have huge faith in the novel, but we in publishing have to constantly think how we can carve out time for our products in the face of this investment onslaught.

Which brings the second and related danger. A Netflix subscription starts at £5.99 a month. Amazon bundles its TV in with Prime. If you use the internet and watch football, the bulk of your Sky subscription is a footnote. TV of course, has always been free. A few years ago, the fact that people were paying for content like this at all would have been regarded as a victory. But compared to your Prime membership, a £20 hardback starts to look very expensive. Linear TV is a different beast from a book; but again, a box set on Netflix is a closer fit, and hence a value challenge.

Regardless of whether this really is peak TV or the Golden Age, lessons can be drawn. One is that series are still so important. In the ebook market we see that in a heightened way. Another, again reassuringly, is that quality matters; quality does get people talking. Third, it's noteworthy that the tech giants have turned their attention away from books and towards this area; this gives us some breathing space, but also makes building new audiences and reaching new markets harder. In turn this has created a new, data-driven form of commissioning still alien to publishing. Fourth, TV is now fully international; such are the budgets of the major series that even the vast US domestic market is insufficient to support them. Series are global phenomena, or they won't work.

Last and above all, the lesson I take is this: that an extreme drive towards creative quality is an incredible bulwark against the threat of decline.

Michael Bhaskar is co-founder and publishing director of the digital publisher Canelo. He is the author of Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess and can be found on Twitter @michaelbhaskar.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.