Spaceships, Dragons, Reese Witherspoon: Your Guide To The New Television Arms Race


The television arms race has gone nuclear. There’s really not another great way to describe it. We’ve been operating at quote-unquote Peak TV for a few years now, with traditional cable networks and new streaming services pumping money and resources into their content departments at a record pace. The result has been hundreds of new shows and limited series on dozens of channels, many of which you’ve probably forgotten, if you even heard of them at all. (Did you know Hugh Laurie made two seasons of a post-House doctor show on Hulu? I bet you didn’t!) And that was before the real money came in. Which it now has. And things are getting wild.

Netflix and HBO were the big players in this prestige commercial-free universe, but with a big hit from Hulu hauling in awards, two new giant competitors, and Jeff Bezos opening his checkbook in a big way, things have reached a new level. To illustrate, let’s look at a timeline of events from the past six months or so. You’ll be blown away by just how much has happened. Reese Witherspoon is about to be a busy lady, man.

We start with television’s biggest night.

September 6, 2017: The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies rock the Emmys

Netflix took home a few trophies at the 2017 Emmys (writing on Master of None, Veep, John Lithgow for The Crown, etc.), but the big story of the night was The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies dominating the drama series and limited series categories. Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd won; Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Alexander Skarsgard won; directors and writers won. Just a huge night for both shows. The biggest winner, though, was probably Hulu, which took a big leap from also-ran to real player thanks in no small part to The Handmaid’s Tale taking home the first Outstanding Drama award for a streaming service.

September 26, 2017: HBO breaks the bank for Game of Thrones

In an article about ballooning budgets for television shows, Variety reveals that the final six episodes of Game of Thrones will come in somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million each. That is, to be clear, a lot of money. It works out to $90 million for the season. That is also a lot of money. It’s still not the top full-season figure, though, as Netflix reportedly spent $130 million on the first season of The Crown, which seems impossibly high for a show that a) is about well-dressed British people frowning and b) has not featured a single fire-breathing CGI ice dragon. I mean, so far. Fingers crossed for season three.


November 11, 2017: Apple gets into business with Reese Witherspoon

Apple has a streaming service now. Kind of. It will. And once it does, it will feature a show about Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston and morning television. Some details:

Apple has already given the show a two-season order of 20 episodes. The as-yet-untitled series is being described as using the book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by Brian Stelter as “additional background for the show,” rather than as a source for a direct adaptation. There are no scripts yet so we don’t know much about the series aside from the fact that it will follow the world of morning TV.

A few industry insiders (just me) misread the headlines about the news and for like four seconds think that Apple is making a real morning show hosted by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston.

November 15, 2017: Amazon heard you like Game of Thrones

Amazon, the only website in the world where you can buy canned soup and watch an award-winning series about Mozart in a jungle, gets fed up with its competitors having all the big expensive hits about mythical creatures of fictional yore and drops $250 million on the rights to Lord of the Rings. Not a Lord of the Rings series, mind you. The rights to make one. For perspective: This is the same amount of money Amazon founder Jeff Bezos paid for the entire Washington Post. Share this fact with your journalist friends. They will love it.

Anyway, the price goes up from there. Way, way up.

Once production budgets, casting, writers, producers, and visual effects are factored in, the total for the Rings series — which will be set in Middle-earth and explore storylines preceding The Fellowship of the Ring — could hit $1 billion. Yes, $1 billion for a TV show. (Via)

Everything about Amazon in 2018 — the canned soup thing, the $1 billion TV show thing, the Washington Post thing — would be wild to explain to someone from, like, 1992.

January 12, 2018: HBO also heard you like Game of Thrones

HBO’s new top banana, Casey Bloys, appears at the Television Critic’s Association press tour and reminds people that the network is developing five — one, two, three, four, five — Game of Thrones prequel-type series. I’m cheating a little bit here because these were all announced before our timeline started, but I think it’s important to note anyway. Also, it’s my list of events. I’ll include what I want.

January 24, 2018: Meryl Streep comes to TV

Big Little Lies adds Meryl Streep to its cast, which feels like showing off. Like, it’s great, and Meryl Streep is great, and I’m sure her character will stare into the ocean with such intensity that the waves will retreat and start breaking in the opposite direction, but I’m just not entirely sure where we go from here, prestige-wise. I honestly feel like this is a bigger deal than Amazon dropping $250 million on Lord of the Rings. Unless Amazon casts Meryl Streep in that show. Which, as of about 20 seconds ago, is something I want to see so badly it is causing me physical pain.

Cut the check, Bezos.


February 6, 2018: Oh hi, Disney

Hey, it’s been a little while since a new deep-pocketed international corporation got into the streaming television busin-…

“We are developing not just one, but a few Star Wars series specifically for the Disney direct-to-consumer app. We’ve mentioned that and we are close to being able to reveal at least one of the entities that is developing that for us. Because the deal isn’t completely closed, we can’t be specific about that. I think you’ll find the level of talent on the television front will be rather significant as well.”

That was Disney CEO Bob Iger, just casually mentioning that his company — which now owns Marvel Studios and Star Wars and is in the process of acquiring Fox — plans to produce a whole heap of Star Wars television shows for a new streaming service. There’s going to be a time in the not-so-distant future where you will be able to watch multiple shows based on Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, in the same weekend, depending how much money you want to throw at standalone streaming services. The future is wild, man. Expensive and wild.

February 13, 2018: American Crime Story: Netflix Steals Ryan Murphy

Netflix signs Ryan Murphy — he of Feud, and Glee, and American Stories Crime and Horror — away from Fox/FX for a deal reported to be worth $300 million over five years. This comes six months after Netflix signed Shonda Rhimes — she of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal — away from ABC in another megadeal, and after the streaming giant threw gobs of money at Daves Letterman and Chappelle, among many other big-name comedians and creators who you remember/know/miss.

Netflix is basically the New York Yankees.

February 27, 2018: Netflix says it will release 700 original movies and shows in 2018

I feel like this started with a joke someone told that didn’t land quite right.

NETFLIX EXEC: Okay, Steve. You’re next. How many shows and movies are we thinking for 2018?

STEVE: [holding a piece of paper that says “230”] Oh, at least 700. No, but seriou-

NETFLIX EXEC: Great, 700 it is. Carol, how’s user growth look?

STEVE: No, wait. I think you misunderst-

NETFLIX EXEC: Steve, please. It’s Carol’s turn to speak.

Poor Steve.

March 8, 2018: Disney does a star war

Disney announces the first of its Star Wars streaming shows: A live-action series helmed by Jon Favreau. Specifics on the series are a little slim so far, so let’s all start a rumor that it’s a Better Call Saul-style porg prequel and see if we can goad them into making that.


March 8, 2018: Netflix lands Obama (maybe)

The New York Times reports that Netflix and the Obamas are in negotiations for some sort of deal to create some sort of show. Nothing is signed or finalized yet, and some of the other streaming services are throwing their hats in the ring, but here’s the gist.

Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to the former president, told The Times, “President and Mrs. Obama have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire. Throughout their lives, they have lifted up stories of people whose efforts to make a difference are quietly changing the world for the better. As they consider their future personal plans, they continue to explore new ways to help others tell and share their stories.”

Which is great. I would watch that show. But the big story here, for my money, is the timing. Look at the dates of the last two entries here. Disney announced its big new Star Wars show and like two hours later Netflix was all “Well… OBAMA!” I choose to believe the did this on purpose, just to be a one-upper.

March 12, 2018: Big Little Thrones

HBO and Big Little Lies star Nicole Kidman announce a new limited series psychological thriller called The Undoing. Big Little Lies showrunner David E. Kelley will run this show, too, because HBO is apparently going all-in on Big Little Lies and Game of Thrones for the foreseeable future. Maybe we’ll get a crossover. Cersei would fit in pretty well in Monterey.

March 12: 2018: Hulu is in the Reese Witherspoon business now, too

Hulu lands the much-hyped new series Little Fires Everywhere. The series has Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington attached to it and will explore “the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, the ferocious pull of motherhood — and the danger in believing that following the rules can avert disaster.” It’s a huge get for Hulu after a bunch of lackluster follow-ups to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s also fun to think about it like this:

HULU EXEC: Okay, Dana. How’s our Reese Witherspoon show coming along?

DANA: Uh, we don’t have a Reese Witherspoon show.


DANA: [furiously flipping through notes] Yeah, we don’t have one.

HULU EXEC: What the… What kind of serious television network doesn’t have a Reese Witherspoon show?!

DANA: I’ll get one right away, sir.

HULU EXEC: Jesus Christ!

Anyway, cancel your plans from now until, let’s say, 2025. You have a lot of things to watch.