Show of hands: How many watched the Emmy Awards on Sunday? How many had seen even 10 percent of the nominated shows?
I thought so.
In 2015, no fewer than 409 scripted series aired on broadcast and cable TV and online platforms. That’s nearly double from 2009 (211 shows). And a lot of these programs are really good. For some time, the unprecedented combo of quantity and quality coming out of our sets has appeared unsustainable. Speaking to TV critics in August of last year, the FX network chief John Landgraf said, “My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America, and that we’ll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond.”
The phrase caught on, including with TV critics, like Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, who (understandably) are wont to kvetch about finding the time to watch and come up with opinions about all those shows.
Landgraf’s coinage borrowed from a formulation which had been in circulation for about 15 years, and which began with the concept of “peak oil.” The first time that phrase pops up in the databases at my disposal is a 2000 Newsday op-ed by James Howard Kunstler. But it referred to an idea developed decades earlier, as Daniel Yergin explained in The New York Times in 2004:
Adherents of the ''peak oil’’ theory warn of a permanent oil shortage. In the next five or 10 years, they maintain, the world’s capacity to produce oil will reach its geological limit and fall behind growing demand. They trace their arguments back to the geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who in 1956 accurately predicted that American oil production would reach its apex around 1970. In a recent book, ''Hubbert’s Peak,’' Kenneth S. Defeyes, an emeritus professor of geology at Princeton, wrote that ''Global oil production will probably reach a peak sometime during this decade.’' Current prices, he adds, ''may be the preamble to a major crisis.’'
In ''Out of Gas,’' David Goodstein, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, also argues that world oil output will peak ''most probably within this decade’’ and thereafter ''will decline forever.’'
Peak oil begat peak TV, and at this point peak X is peeking its head into the unlikeliest places. Some examples from just the last few weeks:
- “We’re at peak ‘white racial apocalypse’” (Headline in Salon.com)
- “The many levels of peak stupid in Solomon Dalung’s ‘Athletes don’t need training to win medals’” (Headline in Ventures, an African news site)
- “August U.S. auto-sales data released Thursday showed a decline in the seasonally adjusted annual rate of car purchases, confirming the notion of ‘Peak Autos.’” (TheStreet)
- “In a year of “peak iPhone,” Campaign asked industry leaders how the next new smartphone could enhance their lives and what piece of technology they would really like to own.” (Campaign)
- “The time of peak wilderness is past and we are rapidly headed toward ‘the last wild,’ warns a new report by researchers in Canada and Australia.” (The Globe and Mail)
By the way, the last quote shows one of the things that happens when clichés go wild: They start to become meaningless, or at least lose their original meaning. “Peak wilderness” would theoretically have occurred the instant before humans appeared on the earth -- i.e., a an extremely long time ago.
Back to the original formulation, what ever happened to peak oil? In his 2004 article, Yergin disagreed with those who thought production would decline within the decade, presciently predicting, among other developments, the emergence of new extraction technologies such as fracking (though he didn’t use the word): “In the decades ahead, more and more of our gasoline, heating oil and jet fuel will be made of so-called unconventional oils. These include petroleum mined from Canada’s oil sands, once prohibitively expensive to extract, and liquids derived from natural gas.”
As a result, while worldwide production hit a temporary peak in about 1970 (just as King Hubbert predicted), it went back up again and has continued to increase year by year, as this chart shows. (Numbers in the Y axis indicate thousands of barrels per day.)
Make no mistake. We will one day reach a point of peak oil. It’s just that no one can really predict when it will be.
And what about TV? Is it, likewise, impossible to say whether the number of shows will keep on increasing or start to subside? Sorry, I don’t have time to muse about the answer. I’m still trying to finish the first season of The Americans, and The Night Manager and Mr. Robot are queued up on the DVR.