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The Futures of the Major TV Networks Are Coming Into Focus

Amazon’s big splashes are about to hit the air, Netflix’s play for quantity chugs on, and for HBO, it’s all about ‘Game of Thrones’

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The Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, currently underway in Los Angeles, often serves as a helpful litmus test for the networks and the streamers that produce the medium’s best programming. The TCA tours—which happen twice a year—congregate the biggest networks and the critics and reporters that cover them into one place. It’s mutually beneficial: the press get access to the minds behind the programming they cover, and the networks in turn can use any (positive) press to churn the hype machine for the programs that merit it. As a result, the TCA summer tour also offers a window into what direction our Peak TV tastemakers might be headed, for better or worse. Everyone—your HBOs, Netflixes, and Amazons—wants eyeballs, but the sheer glut of options available for consumers makes sticking out of the pack trickier than ever. Below is a handy guide for assessing how the biggest networks and streamers are positioning themselves for 2018 and beyond.

Netflix

Unofficial Network Tagline: We are legion.

Biggest Upcoming Programs: Ozark Season 2, Cary Fukunaga’s miniseries Maniac, Matt Groening’s Disenchantment, the Octavia Spencer–led miniseries Madam C.J. Walker

Key Quote: “Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive.” — Netflix vice president of original series Cindy Holland

When it comes to the streaming wars, Netflix remains far ahead of Amazon and Hulu in terms of sheer quantity—every week, it seems, there’s another attempt by the streamer to take hold of the zeitgeist. Even if it’s not an exact science, there are enough critical hits (GLOW, One Day at a Time, Stranger Things) to justify the misses.

Netflix is playing the volume game, and while that sometimes makes its strategy difficult to discern—it’s strange, for instance, that the Emmy-nominated GLOW hasn’t officially been renewed for a third season—its sheer dominance is proof positive that whatever it’s doing is working.

Amazon

Unofficial Network Tagline: We’ve got money, and we finally might know how to use it.

Biggest Upcoming Programs: Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs, Homecoming, The Lord of the Rings series, The Expanse Season 4

Key Quote: “There is a limited number of truly great things. Luckily, we are at a company that would never stop us from buying anything, that embraces big swings.” — Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke

For the past 10 months, Amazon has been undergoing a massive reinvention—not only through its approach to original programming, but also in terms of the people in charge. Gone is former Amazon Studios head Roy Price after The Man in the High Castle producer Isa Hackett accused him of making lewd comments and propositioning her in a cab; in his place is Jennifer Salke, formerly of NBC Entertainment.

Salke’s directive—as evidenced by the shows Amazon has in the pipeline—is to make bigger splashes, even if the company can’t do it at the same frequency as Netflix. The Lord of the Rings series could end up being one of the most expensive dramas ever made; The Romanoffs has the pedigree of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner; and Sam Esmail’s Homecoming series marks the TV debut of Julia Roberts. These are all big, exciting swings—we’ll know in time if they’re enough to scare Netflix.

AMC

Unofficial Network Tagline: If it’s not The Walking Dead, it’s probably good.

Biggest Upcoming Programs: Better Call Saul Season 4, Lodge 49, The Little Drummer Girl miniseries, Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Key Quote: “We see our show as a bit of a palate cleanser so you can go back to the hard work of watching shows about complicated robots.” — Lodge 49 showrunner Peter Ocko

While AMC isn’t operating as it was during its Prestige TV heyday, back when Breaking Bad and Mad Men were at the height of their powers, the network is rapidly on the rise again, becoming more than a Walking Dead content mill. Sure, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead (which was renewed for a fifth season during its TCA presentation) are still around, but other shows in the pipeline are more prestige-leaning. There’s another John le Carré adaptation coming in The Little Drummer Girl—after the Tom Hiddleston–led The Night Manager won three Golden Globes—as well as Lodge 49, which feels like The Big Lebowski went on a surfing bend. (We also appreciate showrunner Peter Ocko’s thinly veiled Westworld shade.)

This is to say nothing of Better Call Saul—a show that, entering its fourth season, might be nearly as good as Peak Breaking Bad—and The Terror, which will return for its second season, set at a Japanese internment camp in World War II. If nothing else, AMC has an interesting, diverse slate of programming. The network has fallen behind the likes of HBO and FX on the Emmys front in recent years; maybe this is its push into a brighter future.

HBO

Unofficial Network Tagline: We’re still not like the rest of TV.

Biggest Upcoming Programs: The Deadwood movie, Big Little Lies Season 2, Game of Thrones Season 8, untitled Game of Thrones prequel, The Deuce Season 2, LeBron James’s The Shop

Key Quote: “There are no plans to dilute the HBO brand in favor of increasing volume of programming.” — HBO programming president Casey Bloys

HBO, still an arbiter of quality, Emmy-nominated programming, has hit a few roadblocks this year. Netflix supplanted HBO’s stranglehold on the Emmys, up to a point—for the first time in nearly 20 years, HBO didn’t garner the most Emmy nominations from a single network. Slightly more concerning, however, was the reported vision of AT&T exec John Stankey—whose company is now the corporate parent of HBO—who said in a company town hall meeting that he wanted to increase HBO’s output considerably, while, somehow, not suffering a lapse in quality. The pearl-clutching that followed Stankey’s comments was admittedly overstated—TV is, above all things, a business focused on making money—but it did make it clear how many cherish HBO’s status as a producer of high-quality television.

Bloys’s remarks at the TCAs don’t necessarily signify that Stankey’s proposed shift in strategy won’t happen, but at the very least, what HBO currently has in the pipeline is true to form. It’s not a lot, but what the network does have coming is undeniably exciting. The biggest news is certainly the Deadwood movie, a long-gestating project that seemed trapped in development purgatory ad infinitum, if only because of how difficult it was to get the cast of the original series back together in one place. And while the TCA tour didn’t touch on Game of Thrones outside of the plans to stick to just one prequel series for the time being, the final season is officially coming in the first half of 2019. Odds are, you’re watching it.

Facebook Watch and YouTube Premium

Unofficial Network Tagline(s): We’re new, and still figuring it out.

Biggest Upcoming Programs: Cobra Kai Season 2 (YouTube Premium), Ball in the Family (Facebook Watch), Origin (YouTube Premium), Sacred Lies (Facebook Watch)

Key Quotes: “I think it will be a long way to go before, you know, we’re at that level of other platforms who have had big, huge breakouts.” — Ricky Van Veen, Facebook head of global creative strategy

“I’ve always been a believer that you could make great shows for less money, and it’s not the episodic spend that makes something great.” — Susanne Daniels, YouTube global head of original content

The internet-driven newcomers are far behind their television peers, though incremental progress is better than nothing at all. YouTube Premium—which used to be called YouTube Red, and I can’t imagine why the company decided to change the name—had its first big hit with Cobra Kai this year, and hopes the first season of Origin, from Resident Evil mastermind Paul W.S. Anderson, can become its second in the fall.

Facebook Watch is even newer—still attempting to conceptualize its role in an ever-growing pile of networks and programming. Unfortunately, while the cult-centric drama series Sacred Lies should’ve been its selling point, the company’s TCA presentation will be best remembered for the panel’s inability to answer why Fox News is represented so strongly on the platform, as well as right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s show. Both have a long way to go before achieving any semblance of streaming dominance—especially with Disney and Apple’s own streaming services waiting in the wings—but YouTube Premium is better positioned between the two.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.