In the fall of 2009, Modern Family debuted on ABC, and its acclaimed 24-episode first season would later win a Primetime Emmy Award for best comedy series. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, meanwhile, were in the nascent stages of streaming video content directly to users. George R.R. Martin's fifth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons, was two years away from being released.
Here at the beginning of the end in 2019, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, an Amazon Prime Video series, recently won best comedy series at the Emmys; its season was made up of only six episodes and lasted all of 151 minutes — 31 minutes fewer than Avengers: Endgame. In the coming weeks and months, Disney, Apple, NBCUniversal, and WarnerMedia will launch streaming platforms loaded with prestige content and legacy favorites, joining Netflix, Amazon, Hulu (which is also now owned by Disney), YouTube, Vudu and a host of other boutique services in the battle for attention and subscribers. George R.R. Martin still hasn't written a follow-up to A Dance with Dragons, but the series based on his books, Game of Thrones, became the biggest show on television and ended its successful, controversial run this past May.
Clearly, things have changed — and if history is a guide, they'll change even more by the time the fall of 2029 arrives. But what does this mean for television? Better yet: What even is television?
This is the first question that needs to be answered if we hope to consider its future. Here's a stab: In the most basic sense, television could be thought of as episodic filmmaking, regardless of its overall length and frequency — for example, the short, irregularly produced Fleabag — and the future of television goes hand-in-hand with the future of episodic filmmaking.
There are two different ways that streaming consolidation could change the nature of TV. The first is that it could cause the streamers to endlessly iterate established models of success in the desperate hope that they can differentiate themselves enough to merit the monthly $5-$15 that moves out of your bank account and into whatever byzantine financial apparatus is financing their content. This means the Game of Thrones descendants will multiply and battle to the death, much like the characters on Game of Thrones (presumably with less incest). This means entrenching around established properties like Friends (coming to HBO Max, the Warner service!), Seinfeld (watch all the episodes on Netflix!), and The Office (NBCUniversal's Peacock!), which will bring with it an associated retreat into identities, aesthetics, and sensibilities that are decades old and already set. And this means an allergy to risk-taking or innovation: without an audience specifically seeking out risk-taking and innovation from the particular service in question, there's no conversation into which this kind of material can enter, no context for it to exist within. There's no arthouse cinema for TV, no used bookstore — at best, you have subreddits and Twitter stans, trying to make themselves heard in the morass of the internet.
Of course, this scenario isn't much different than the one in which television has existed since its inception. Peak TV is a mirage, an economic assessment, an evaluation of surplus. There may be Peak TV in terms of the number of shows, but if Twin Peaks: The Return showed us anything — and I'd say it showed us a lot — its sheer uniqueness, the sui generis shock of David Lynch's artistic vision applied to an 18-hour template, proved that we are far, far, far from Peak TV in terms of the aesthetic variety of programming. There is very little experimental or avant-garde footprint on television, and this is not an insult or a criticism: it's just a statement of fact. But even with that said, the streamers have created a broader palette for television, and that's because they've broken down the strictures and mandates of what it means to make — to be — TV. (Again, say it with me now: Fleabag.) If that's to continue, we need to venture further into formlessness and experimentation, not back toward striving after monocultural golden-geese.
Ultimately, open-ended storytelling is a cruel mistress: it demands a level of consistency across episodes that makes it difficult to incorporate any sort of journey from the main path because that journey then needs to be folded back into the larger whole. It's why dream sequences and bottle episodes tend to see shows at their weirdest and most adventurous — they can be disregarded immediately afterward — and it's why half-hour shows like Barry, BoJack Horseman, and Atlanta tend to be both the best and strangest things on TV right now: with less content to deal with at any given time, a blessed four or five hours versus the monstrous 20 of some shows, you can take a step back and actually think about what the hell you're doing rather than just try to survive week-by-week.
But this leads us to the second way that streaming could impact the medium, and that is in the margins. The half-hour, eight-to-10 episode season is (relatively) cheap, (relatively) low-risk, and (relatively) creator-friendly, and as studio-funded filmmaking becomes more franchise-oriented, open-ended, and iterative — sound familiar? — artists will increasingly look toward the half-hour format for an opportunity to stretch their creative legs.
Streaming has helped foster the growth of this particular form, with its abandonment of conventional time slots and commercial-based formats, and I expect that will only continue. Over the next 10 years, we'll see an odd parallel of what's happening in film: on the one hand, we'll have tentpole-sized blockbuster series like Amazon's Lord of the Rings, and on the other, we'll have auteurist, personality-based shows like (wait for it) Fleabag — indie in sensibility if not the folks writing the checks. What could be most in danger are the "prestige," hour-long format, six-plus season epics like Mad Men and Breaking Bad that made TV what it is today. (Even Succession, an obvious heir-apparent to that kind of show, feels like an anomaly more than the norm.) Endeavors like these need buy-in, and they need to serve not only an audience but a corporate mandate: they need to help create an identity. Apple doesn't need an identity: It needs content that can reach its bazillion customers. Same with Amazon, and the same with Disney, albeit for a different reason.
Of course, it's easy to talk about these companies as though they are massive faceless organisms when, in fact, they are made up of many people, and given the size of the tent and the war chest, the right executive at any of them could accomplish an enormous amount. (Think Ted Hope at Amazon, distributing the likes of Manchester By the Sea and The Handmaiden.) But regardless, smaller streamers and networks, operating outside of the vast Maxes and Pluses of the world, will need more characteristic, defining shows, and this could be where new forms blossom. In the past, networks could survive merely as the beneficiary of cable packages, but now you need to convince a consumer to pay for you and you alone, especially if you aren't one of the five or six behemoths. If the economics of it could be deciphered, that might mean there's a market out there for an A24-esque provider to come in and corner the market on zeitgeisty, genuinely experimental domestic and foreign programming.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)