Deeper Dive—Charter faces long odds throwing its gold at the glutted Golden Age of TV

Hey, from "Lethal Weapon" to "CHiPs" to "Beverly Hills Cop" to "Bad Boys," who doesn't love a good buddy cop action-comedy-drama?

Sure, most of us do. But it's "Rush Hour" for original series at the moment. And I'm wondering if it's a good idea for a cable company to be rolling the dice in Burbank right now with so many shows and so much noise being cranked out by the major streaming services and premium cable network brands. 

This week, Charter Communications greenlit “L.A.’s Finest,” the female-driven, “Bad Boys” inspired buddy cop drama  … that NBC just said “thanks, but no thanks” to. 

Last year, Charter formed alliances with AMC Networks and Viacom, and set up a production shingle in L.A., headed by former NBCU executive Katherine Pope, all with the intent of getting into the original series game.

RELATED: Charter greenlights first show through its ‘Spectrum Original Content’ shingle

"Our content partnerships offer us a great opportunity to provide Spectrum customers with the dynamic, authentic and unique programming that drives value for their Spectrum subscription," Charter said in a canned statement, when asked yesterday by Fierce about the strategy. 

The cable company describes Spectrum Original Content is a shrewd, strategic play, significantly underwritten by production partners. 

"Charter announced last year that it would undertake partnerships to co-finance and develop high-quality original series that would be viewed first by Spectrum customers before being available on other platforms as well," Charter added. "Katherine Pope was brought on board to spearhead these initiatives and secure these rights on a cost-effective basis, with the ultimate goal of further differentiating Charter's market-leading video products in ways that create value and drive subscribership."

Charter, of course, isn't offering any insight as to what the typical split is with its partners, or how much of the nut it's underwriting. I can't imagine the sum is unsubstantial. With Netflix driving up production costs by making elite talent so scarce, people in the TV business are talking about episode price tags going into the $20 million range. "L.A.'s Finest" stars Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba. It probably won't approach that lofty expense. But it won't be cheap. 

There's an argument original shows build brands, draw subscribers and reduce churn. But with so many shows to watch right now across Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and every other platform that has been producing originals for much longer, even if Charter gets really lucky, and Pope is the next Chris Albrecht, how much noise can they really make in today's cluttered environment?

“While Charter hired a head of content in January, and signed deals with Viacom and AMC to co-produce original series, it does not seem likely they will be able to create a significantly impactful roster of original programming,” Rob Silvershein, a senior analyst for The Diffusion Group, told me via email yesterday. “So no, I highly doubt they have what it takes to make a significant impact. Having a slate of quality originals are undoubtedly key for OTT aggregators/distributors like Netflix, but they are less important to traditional cable or telco operators like Charter that do not own their own studios and have long relied on TV networks to produce the content.”

Whither the Golden Age

The Golden Age of Television arguably was started in the 1990s, when HBO—known then only as a repository for theatrical movies entering the premium cable window—transformed its brand by giving a former off-Broadway actor, Albrecht, a modest sum to produce some original shows. Albrecht shocked the world with “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos.”

Later, in the 2000s, AMC Networks handed an obscure movie producer, Christina Wayne, a left shoestring, which she used to fashion together watercolor hits “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.” All of the sudden, AMC was must-see TV in the basic tier of every pay TV service in America.

Taking this original series playbook to the loftiest of extremes, Netflix will hand its originals chief, the not-so-obscure Ted Sarandos, $8 billion this year to continue transforming its brand into the far-flung regions of the globe. Hey, when your market cap increases by $20 billion every couple of months, keep doing what you've been doing. 

Indeed, the strategy of using sticky original shows to support subscriber models has been around for a while. But it seems like it's getting pretty mature. 

Four years ago, I interviewed another programmer who had successfully orchestrated the originals-based brand-building exercise, FX President Jon Landgraf, for an article in Emmy Magazine in which I compared the growing number of original shows to the “peak oil” theory that had been thought up in the energy industry back in the 1950s to explain declining oil production returns. 

Next thing I knew, Landgraf used my headline, “Peak TV,” to describe the original series glut at a Television Critics Association keynote, and all of the sudden, he was the television industry's big wise Casandra.

OK, I digress! My point is that I (er, Landgraf) have not been proven right just yet. But we’ve been waiting for this original series bubble to burst for four years now. Sure, people are watching more television than ever. But the market can't expand indefinitely. And if I were a cable executive, I'm not sure I'd invest $2 million or $5 million or whatever it is an episodemoney that could be alternatively invested into something like CBRS testingto find that out.