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Beyond Peak TV

It’s no longer enough to flood the zone with new television in general. Now, the zone is flooded with specific individual brands—over and over again.

Ringer illustration

After more than a year without a tentpole Marvel release, the past few weeks feel like a downpour after a long drought. The pandemic left MCU fans hanging after the dramatic conclusion to Kevin Feige’s carefully calibrated Phase 3, inadvertently lending an extra feel of finality to the events of Avengers: Endgame. Without more substantive releases like Black Widow or Shang-Chi, die-hards were forced to subsist on little more than the thin gruel of set updates from the likes of Eternals. (It’ll be just like The Revenant!)

The status quo has now changed. Never mind WandaVision managing to ease Marvel into TV proper after a decade of TV-inflected stories on the big screen; with just two weeks in between to catch our collective breath, the sitcom tribute already has a follow-up. The six-part miniseries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was originally supposed to kick off the Disney+ era of the MCU. The new phase continues the main story line—the world’s recovery from a five-year “Blip,” Thanos’s defeat, and the ensuing casualties—while also translating it to a new medium and platform. That intended sequencing explains why Friday’s premiere was far more concerned with big-picture exposition than WandaVision’s literal suburban bubble, though the two are connected as stories of once-secondary characters processing their loss.

WandaVision and Falcon are two very different shows: one a surreal story of spellcraft, the other a military action thriller. Yet the variety, combined with the proximity, is very much the point. Nobody planned for the pileup that’s led Marvel to unleash two high-profile projects virtually on each other’s heels. (Loki will follow not long after, with a June premiere coming just a month and a half after Falcon’s finale; Hawkeye doesn’t have a release date yet, but the Hailee Steinfeld series is slated for sometime later this year.) But in a way, the backlog has hastened the onset of what hubs like Disney+ were practically designed to facilitate: complete and total saturation of a given strain of IP. The MCU always has been a one-stop shop in terms of genre; within one series, you can take your pick of space opera, fantasy, war drama, or heist. Now, Disney+ plans to press the advantage of time. Not only would some viewers never feel the need to look elsewhere for their entertainment, but completists will also have a problem working non-Marvel material into their viewing schedules in the first place.

For another example, look no further than another Disney-owned ur-franchise. The Bachelor struggled, to put it mildly, in its too-little-too-late incarnation with a Black male lead. But poor publicity and sinking ratings haven’t stopped ABC from pulling its own version of Marvel’s aggressive zone-flooding. For the first time in the influencer factory’s near-two-decade history, there will be multiple seasons of The Bachelorette airing in 2021. The result is an unrelenting onslaught of various Bachelor spinoffs, with just a brief holiday break for Bach Nation acolytes to come up for air. In early summer, you’ll get a Bachelorette season; in late summer, a traditional installment of Bachelor in Paradise; in the fall, a second Bachelorette season; and by early 2022, a full-circle arrival at the next chapter of The Bachelor proper. Presumably, ABC hopes several additional cycles will have washed out the bitter aftertaste of the latest season by the time it’s ready to restart from the top.

Nearly six years after FX president John Landgraf coined the term “Peak TV,” we’ve never been closer to replicating the classic Simpsons clip of Homer getting force-fed donuts in Hell. But in 2021, it’s not TV as a whole that’s overwhelming us with its sheer scale; it’s individual name brands replicating themselves to the point of transforming into self-sustaining bubbles. Real-life biodomes may not have worked out so well, but that hasn’t stopped media conglomerates from working to ensure consumers never feel the need to step outside. Nor is Disney, the leader of this approach, finished with its rollout: Star Wars will soon ramp up its own output, furthering the service’s stated goal of 100 new series per year.

Conventional wisdom hasn’t always held that this is a strategy worth pursuing. With saturation comes the natural threat of oversaturation—leaning so hard on a given title that it wears out its welcome and gives audiences fatigue. A classic example, ironically, lies in ABC’s own recent history: the rise, fall, and extended half-life of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the turn-of-the-century sensation bludgeoned into obscurity by a five-nights-a-week schedule. (The syndicated version of the show was briefly canceled in 2019, its final host The Bachelor’s own, embattled Chris Harrison. It all connects!) In 2000, Millionaire was one of the biggest shows on air; by 2002, it was just another contest among many.

Nor is this latest escalation guaranteed to pan out. The proliferation of streaming services fueled by subscription dollars has long suggested a bubble, or at the very least a hard ceiling; just how many monthly fees are viewers expected to pay? And while not coordinated by any central authority, the clashing cacophony of post-pandemic sports suggests there’s a reason not to have too much going on at once, lest an audience get pulled in too many directions. That The Bachelor is going the 24/7/365 route even as its viewership is already on the downslide prompts natural skepticism about the gambit’s ultimate success.

But the idea of intentional saturation also speaks to just how much incentive structures have changed since the early aughts, when Nielsen ratings once ruled supreme. Streaming services now care less about viewership for any individual show than about creating the impression they’re a necessary destination more deserving of one’s dollars than competitors. (The Bachelor still airing live is exactly what makes it the least intuitive fit for a year-round schedule.) And while Disney may be leading on this front, it’s hardly alone; just look at the staggering array of spinoffs HBO has in the works for Game of Thrones, with three more announced just last week. Not all of these ideas will make it to series, but even if they do, it would suit WarnerMedia’s endgame just fine.

Very few people will watch every Marvel show as it drops—or Star Wars show, or Game of Thrones spinoff, or Bachelor episode and aftershow. But by guaranteeing a nonstop stream of new material, plus an ever-growing back catalog of content to catch up on, Disney and its competitors aim to create the sense of almost impossible bounty. (It’s an approach Netflix already pioneered with its signature maximalism, but one that’s fused with older companies’ assets of recognizable IP.) You may not have the energy to tune in every single weeknight, but whenever you have the urge to visit a galaxy far, far away, there are plenty of new corners for the curious to explore.