Thanks, "Game of Thrones": It's not your imagination—TV shows are killing off your favorites to stand out from the crowd

A new in-depth report by Vox shows just how pervasive this move is—especially now that there's more TV than ever

Published June 1, 2016 6:48PM (EDT)

Sean Bean as Ned Stark in "Game of Thrones"   (HBO)
Sean Bean as Ned Stark in "Game of Thrones" (HBO)

TV isn’t just killing off lesbian characters—it’s killing off everyone.

In recent months, there’s been an outbreak of queer and bisexual characters meeting their demise on shows like “Empire,” “The Catch,” “Blindspot, and “The 100.” The fan outcry drew attention to the fact that this pretty much always happens: Since CBS’s “Executive Suite” became the first show to do so (just seconds after Julie had The Big Epiphany about her sexuality), 155 lesbians have died on TV. But if TV is “burying its gays,” that’s perhaps in part because LGBT characters aren’t the exception anymore, they are the rule.

A recent survey from Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff found that during this May’s Sweeps month—when shows regularly pull out their biggest crap-your-pants shocks in order to draw big ratings and, thus, attract advertisers—57 characters died on TV. That figure has “nearly tripled” since 2014, when a comparatively small number of characters (20) took a ride with Clemenza, so to speak.

VanDerWerff cites the execution of Ned Stark during the debut season of “Game of Thrones” as television’s “Psycho” moment—in which showrunners realized that protagonists (as much as anyone on “GoT” is a lead) were just as expendable as everyone else. “It was arguably the moment when Game of Thrones made the leap from cult hit to sensation,” VanDerWerff writes. “Social media chatter went through the roof in the wake of the execution. Suddenly the show was drowning in YouTube reactions and tweets, in blog posts and Emmy nominations.”

But the proliferation of deaths in the years since aren’t just television exploring the possibilities of the medium in an age where TV is being dramatically redefined. It’s simply because there are so many shows currently airing, streaming, or however else they are being broadcast that writers and producers have to go to increasing lengths to break through the absurd volume of noise.

To put it in perspective, The Hollywood Reporter put out a daunting, mind-numbing list of all the shows that aired on television in 2015—one that stretches to 30 pages. Last year, there were 412 original scripted programs (these would be shows like “Fargo,”Quantico,” and “Mr. Robot”) and over 1,400 shows in total (that includes reality television and other “non-scripted” entertainment). This, however, does not tabulate Internet-based programming, as in shows that air on Hulu or Yahoo. (None for you, “Casual.”)

Let’s now say—for sheer expediency—that each one of those shows averaged 15 hours of programming a season. That’s 21,000 hours, an impossible amount of TV for any one person to consume.

That glut means that a lot of shows are simply going to get ignored. According to Bruce Rosenblum, the CEO and Chairman of the Television Academy, the Emmys expect to have a “record number of submissions” in 2016. Rosenblum told Variety that last year, there 6,000 eligible actors, writers, directors, and creative personnel. This year there will be 7,000.

These figures represent a great deal of effort that isn’t being recognized—whether it’s by Emmy voters or audiences. When the networks pulled the plug on 17 shows in a two-day period this May, the most alarming thing wasn’t the demise of promising shows that never got a chance to find their audience (“The Grinder,” it was good while it lasted). It was how many programs the general public likely didn’t even know existed. Had you ever heard of “Second Chance,” “Game of Silence,” or “Containment?” I hadn’t, and I write about pop culture for a living.

That doesn’t just affect mediocre shows that likely would have died anyway. So many smart shows deserving of a larger audience struggle to attract viewers. Entries as diverse as “Broadchurch,” “Togetherness,” “Show Me a Hero,” “You're the Worst,” “Manhattan,” “The Knick,” “Rectify,” “The Missing,” and “Ash Vs. Evil Dead” all averaged just under a million viewers. Lifetime’s great, underloved “UnReal” averages just over that mark.

The embarrassment of riches on television isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Remember the ol’ days when you could complain that there were “so many channels and nothing on?”) The “throw everything against the wall” approach to programming, however, is unsustainable both from a financial and creative standpoint.

FX president John Landgraf has repeatedly predicted what he called the era of “Peak TV,” when producing such a massive magnitude of programming would cease becoming profitable for networks, who would then begin to shrink the amount of shows they put out each year. For instance, Netflix is reportedly spending $5 billion a year to keep up with cable titans like HBO and AMC, while Amazon is throwing down around $2 billion. “We make more shows than we can afford, collectively,” Landgraf said.

It’s an open question whether those networks have gotten the necessary bang for their buck. While Amazon boasts shows like “Transparent” (which won the Emmy for Best Actor) and “Mozart in the Jungle” (winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy), the service lags far behind Netflix in viewer hours. As The Wrap reports, the average Netflix subscriber consumes 7.7 hours of its programming every week, while Amazon Instant users log just 3.5 hours.

Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just expensive for networks and streaming platforms. It forces shows to do whatever it takes to keep people interested—like resorting to mass murder for ratings. As VanDerWerff writes, a finely executed death can “raises the show's dramatic stakes. ... It almost automatically creates lots of conversation.”

But if we’re getting “sweeps week deaths” almost every single week, the device has also begun to feel very expected.

For those who are caught up on “Jane the Virgin,” the critically acclaimed telenovela ended its second season on what should have been a breathtaking cliffhanger: Our titular heroine (Gina Rodriguez) finds her wedding night interrupted when her new husband (Brett Dier) is unexpectedly shot. Michael Cordero’s potential death should have been a major mic dropper, but fans called the plot twist weeks back. On a show with such a surprisingly large body count, someone had to be next.

If there’s simply “too much television,” as Landgraf has said, the bigger problem is that so much of it ends up being the same—in a TV landscape where everyone is forced to constantly raise the stakes to get people talking. Every show wants that “breakthrough” moment: When Will Gardner was gunned down on “The Good Wife,” it signaled the show’s creative renaissance. It was also the beginning of its decline.

In a piece at IndieWire, Ben Travers warns that today’s audiences “see too many antiheroes, too much cynicism, and too many deaths.” In today’s era of Peak TV, less isn’t just more. It might save television as we know it (or at least your favorite character).

By Nico Lang


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