The End of Prestige TV: How Streaming Killed HBO and Ended the Golden Age of Content

HBO’s era of creative and economic prosperity is over, and Netflix is to blame.

netflix logo and a scene from the sopranos
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The transformation of HBO Max into just plain Max is more than a mere rebranding. It’s not a sign of the death of HBO, as some have said; the brand is still going strong under the Max umbrella, which includes everything from classic shows to naked dating reality competitions. HBO’s problems are not a consequence of the advent of Max. The shift that we’re witnessing is, rather, the death of a way of making television.

Peak TV in a nutshell. Peak TV, or Prestige TV, or the Golden Age of Television, is a long, recent era of TV production characterized by high-quality series. Its boundaries are fuzzy, but we can pinpoint the beginning in 1999 with the premiere of The Sopranos. Other examples include The West Wing (1999), The Wire (2002), Lost (2004), Battlestar Galactica (2004), Mad Men (2007), Breaking Bad (2008), The Walking Dead (2010), Game of Thrones (2011), and House of Cards (2013).

The importance of being HBO. As that list reveals, HBO (or the “HBO style,” which also influenced the making of shows on other platforms, such as Breaking Bad) was crucial in this era. However, it's reached a point where it's started to decline. The numbers don’t lie: In 2023, 516 original series were released, a 14% drop from the previous year. Analysts had been predicting the decline of Peak TV since 2016 or 2017, but the explosion of streaming breathed new life into the production of series.

Unfavorable times for the HBO style. With the beginning of the new century, HBO made a change in pacing. The Sopranos and The Wire are good examples of this. Stories that required ten or more hours to be told led to slow, often introspective rhythms, which clashed with the fast-paced style of classic TV. That style is now vanishing due to the popularity of streaming culture, especially the one imposed by Netflix. By releasing entire seasons in one go, Netflix promotes binge-watching, and as such, a style that favors lighter, easily digestible episodes that keep viewers from getting bored.

2023: annus horribilis. The current decline of Peak TV coincides with a crisis that goes beyond HBO: two strikes that jeopardized the industry; a player as powerful as Warner Bros. initiating cuts and restrictions (starting with HBO Max and spreading to other platforms like Disney+); Netflix announcing steep subscriber losses in 2022 (which the company has already overcome, but that marked the beginning of a cost-cutting era for the streaming giant). All this has impacted high-quality television that's expensive to produce—now in clear recession.

A new era for television. Every rise has its fall, and Peak TV had to end sometime. Variety explains that, as a result of the pandemic, 2020 saw an unprecedented increase in productions. The COVID-19 restrictions had sparked a streaming boom. However, production at this level was unsustainable, and now we’re witnessing the recession: the undertow of the streaming tsunami erased the insane production rates, imposing a set of visual and budgetary standards that have little to do with the early 2000s HBO.

Cheap TV. In addition to all these recession-era restrictions, Netflix has imposed a set of visual and budgetary standards that stray far from the opulent style of Peak TV: less financial investment, a less cinematic aesthetic, an abundance of CGI, and digital textures masked with bright colors. The aforementioned Variety report noted that 44% of streaming production comes from Netflix, so it’s only natural that the platform has imposed its style and culture. 

The result is clear: The era where TV was more than just TV is over.

Images | Netflix, Warner Bros.

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