FX CEO John Landgraf coined the term "Peak TV" in 2015 when television networks at the time aired 409 scripted series. In 2019, that number climbed to 532. Landgraf says that number will climb even higher in 2020.

There's a clear instigator driving the proliferation of scripted series: streaming. The rise of streaming services including Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX)Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+; and Amazon Prime have led to infinite "air time" for networks to fill. Networks are no longer restricted to a block of a few hours every week to air new episodes.

Additionally, streaming tears down the barriers to entry for television networks. Tech companies like Apple and Alphabet's YouTube are now capable of entering the streaming market and have done so. And traditional media companies, some with serious FOMO, are looking to catch up to the competition in 2020 with major investments in content and original series.

Silhouette of a man holding a remote in front of dozens of screens.

Image source: Getty Images.

Fighting for relevance

There's no way anyone could watch over 500 scripted series in a year; there are only so many hours in a day. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once said the company's biggest competitor is sleep. But Netflix isn't only competing for time with sleep, it's also going up against video games like Fortnite, social media, and the dozens of new series premiering every month across various networks on cable and streamed over the internet.

With a growing number of original series, the struggle for existing networks to stay relevant increases. Even FX is expanding its production to Hulu with the "FX on Hulu" partnership Disney announced last fall. "Without launching FX on Hulu ... we wouldn't be able to grow our brand and take enough quality swings to remain relevant to consumers in the streaming era," Landgraf said.

Likewise, Comcast, AT&T (NYSE:T), and ViacomCBS are all using streaming platforms as a way to expand their reach to broader audiences. AT&T's HBO Max is designed to appeal to a much broader audience than HBO as a stand-alone network. And WarnerMedia's head of streaming, Bob Greenblatt, even said HBO can't grow without HBO Max and the new originals designed to appeal to a new audience.

The only way to stay relevant in the environment is to create new and interesting content that consumers want to watch. Thus, we're in a cycle where new originals force competitors to come out with their own originals. And since streaming services aren't restricted by time slots and television schedules, there's practically no limit to how many new series could premier in any given year.

Not everyone will stay relevant

At some point, we really will hit peak TV. The massive investment in new originals this year from new competitors comes with high expectations for subscriber acquisition:

  • Disney expects 60 million to 90 million global subscribers for Disney+ by 2024.
  • The entertainment giant expects Hulu to reach 40 million to 60 million subscribers by that point as well.
  • AT&T expects HBO Max to reach 50 million domestic subscribers and 75 million to 90 million global subscribers by 2025.
  • ViacomCBS expects CBS All Access and Showtime to combine to reach 25 million subscribers by 2022.

Not everyone will reach their subscriber goals. In fact, Discovery CEO David Zaslav thinks only two or three major streaming services will emerge from the streaming wars. While the number is probably higher than that (we've had at least three major streaming services for years already), it's likely the level of growth in content investments is unsustainable.

We're currently in a land grab for subscribers. Consumers are ditching cable for streaming, and that's noticeably impacted the number of new series cable networks are producing. The number of scripted series on basic cable really did peak in 2015.

As some streamers "tip over," as Zaslav put it, the number of new streaming originals will decline as well. But given the long-term subscriber forecasts set forth by management teams at major media companies, it could be another half-decade before we reach peak "Peak TV."

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.