While you were watching “Better Call Saul,” you weren’t watching “The Handmaid’s Tale.” When you found the time for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” you missed “Master of None.” And as you caught up on Season 5 of “The Americans,” you were deprived of that great John Oliver episode everyone was talking about.
For American TV audiences, falling hopelessly behind has become as common as sharing HBO Go and Netflix passwords. The overwhelming sense of too many choices defines our TV culture, like “The Ed Sullivan Show” did in the ‘50s and the rise of cable did in the 1980s.
For members of the Television Academy, the problem of overabundance is no joke. To come up with the prime-time nominations list that will be announced Thursday morning, voters were initially faced with a record-breaking 848 programs. Those voting in the performance categories had to choose from 2,382 performers, double the number in 2008, when the Golden Age that sparked Peak TV began.
“The Sopranos” had just turned the series finale into front-page news; “Mad Men” was entering its second season, “Breaking Bad” its first; and “Downton Abbey” was just a gleam in Julian Fellowes’ eye.
We were so innocent then.
If any of those shows premiered today, would they be able to rise above the noise, compete with the teeming population they helped spawn?
It was three years ago that FX President John Landgraf shocked a Television Critics Association audience with his proclamation that there was too much TV, that the industry was in the final stages of a bubble. Everyone latched on to his catchphrase – Peak TV – but not his sentiment. In the last two years alone, Emmy-eligible comedy series have jumped from 81 to 104. Drama series have risen from 143 to 180.
And it’s not just series; last year there were 29 TV movie entries. Now there are 40.
To average viewers, that boils down to, like, a billion and three shows, across network, cable and streaming platforms, half of which appear to include Margo Martindale or Gerald McRaney somewhere in their cast.
So unless the 20,000 Emmy voters, many of them busy making those shows, have figured out how to binge-watch in their sleep (if only this critic could master the art), it’s unlikely they’ve seen every eligible show, or even every eligible show that conventional wisdom has labeled “good.”
Lucky for the academy, contenders aren’t judged on entire seasons, but those submissions of episodes for each category are now overwhelming. (To be eligible, the series must be released between June of last year and this May, and available to at least half the country.)
Even so, Emmy voters are now faced with at least twice as many initial entrants as their peers in the film academy, which makes the usual comparisons between the Emmys and the Oscars moot.
The Emmys now, officially, have much more in common with the Grammys.
Both are crowded media with multiple entry points thanks to technology, and they have grown exponentially thanks to streaming. Where the film academy has roughly 7,000 voters, the Recording Academy has nearly double that.
That’s a lot of adults who’ve had to slog through their kids’ favorite Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber singles every year, not to mention some pretty bad EDM. Emmy voters on their umpteenth episode of “The Bachelor” can likely relate.
TV, however, is still experiencing a Renaissance that music is not, although that is not always obvious at the actual Emmy awards.
The onslaught of too many quality shows has clearly worn some voters down. As of 2016, they’d nominated “Veep” four years in a row, “House of Cards” for the last three years and “Game of Thrones” every year since it first promised winter was coming in 2011.
All excellent shows, but with so little acknowledgment of new, or even other, great series. It’s hard not to think that Emmy voters are also each sitting on a 98 percent-full DVR queue. We all had the best of intentions when we first pushed “record.”
Ironically, though, it’s this very glut of good shows that makes the Emmys more relevant than ever … or perhaps more useful.
Viewers need guidance. Emmy nominations and wins provide that guidance, and the occasional left field recommendation. How else would anyone who doesn’t regularly peruse critics’ blogs notice “Mr. Robot” among all the other weird and esoteric fare?
With “Game of Thrones” not eligible and “Downton Abbey” out of the running, with “Modern Family” aging and “Veep” feeling a bit guilty, we may see more of a mix-up Thursday. Or maybe not. Academy voters are, after all, just people. And study after study shows that when people are given too many choices, they tend to choose what’s familiar.
Just admit it – how many times have you found yourself turning to the soothing Muzak of the Weather Channel or a “Quincy, M.E.” episode mid-stream for respite from those “recommended” shows that Netflix won’t stop recommending.
It’s no wonder that networks have been campaigning harder than ever to elevate their shows above the fray. Raise your hand if you haven’t seen Aziz Ansari’s face gracing a “for your consideration” ad on a billboard or the side of a bus. Some of the same L.A. billboards that hawked Oscar contenders earlier this year will likely be doing that again when the Emmys are long over, but right now, Melrose Avenue looks like it’s decorated with pages of TV Guide.
It may not be the best business plan, associating your show with gridlock, but it’s certainly apt – a visual representation of all the shows backed up on the road to Emmy recognition.