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2022 Year Review: Analyzing the Most Successful Programs and Trends in USA Fiction

2022 Year Review: Analyzing the Most Successful Programs and Trends in USA Fiction
Focus on Fiction by Erica Bighiani

With 2022 coming to an end and 2023 just starting, it is time to take an overview of the best American TV series and trends of last year, to better understand what the new year will bring our way.
2022 was full of debuts, from unexpected surprises to long-awaited series: most of them went really well, while others just did not perform as well as they had anticipated, both content and ratings-wise.
Starting from broadcast TV, the network CBS saw the best linear debut of the 2022-23 season with Fire Country, a drama series about convicts joining a firefight program in North California – one of them, Bode Donovan, is sent to his hometown and is hiding a big secret. This series has had the best network ratings so far, with an average 9% share (compared to the network average 7% in prime time) and 5.6 million average viewers. With such a good a performance, it does not come as a surprise that CBS has already ordered a second season.
This was also the year of the return to Westeros, to every Game of Thrones fan’s delight: on August 21st, the anticipated prequel House of the Dragon debuted on HBO taking us back to King’s Landing, where the destiny of the Targaryen house is threatened by a war to take over the throne, more than a hundred years before the beginning of the original saga. This was one of the most hyped TV series of the year, and it absolutely did not disappoint: it was the second-best debut ever for an HBO/HBO Max original series, with almost 10 million viewers between linear TV and streaming (with the cable channel counting over two million viewers). Overall, this was an amazing result, with the series averaging a 3.2% share (compared to the channel average 0.3% in prime time) and 1.9 million viewers, compared to the channel average 265.000 for that same timeslot.
But House of the Dragon was not the only prequel series to a well renowned fantasy saga to debut in 2022: in fact, just two weeks after the premiere of the new Game of Thrones’ series, Amazon Prime Video released another long-awaited fantasy prequel – Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, set thousands of years before Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, in a time of peace during the Second Age of Middle-earth. The core of the series is the eventual forging of the rings under the order of the evil Sauron, including the one ring that will give him the power to rule over every race of that world. Indirectly in competition with each other, The Rings of Power performed pretty well on its streaming platform, but was ultimately overtaken by the success of House of the Dragon, broadcast both on the cable HBO and the streaming platform HBO Max.
Another successful TV show of 2022 was Tulsa King, created by Taylor Sheridan (who is also behind Yellowstone) and premiered on November 13th both on Paramount+ and Paramount Network. In this mob drama, the New York mafia boss Dwight “The General” Manfredi (played by Sylvester Stallone) is exiled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and decides to take revenge on his mob family by creating his own criminal empire. The first episode was watched by 3.7 million viewers, becoming the best debut of the year on any cable channel, even surpassing House of the Dragon. Unfortunately, the rest of the series is only on Paramount+ and we cannot determine how well the other episodes are doing, but this title seems very promising, so much so that Paramount has already ordered a second season.

Last year also confirmed two strong TV series trends that most likely will keep on developing in 2023: the western genre and the post-apocalyptic / zombie genre.

The first one is rapidly expanding and has been strongly influenced by the ongoing success of Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, whose fifth installment debuted on November 13th, just after the premiere of Tulsa King. The Dutton family saga has been keeping the American audience glued to the screen since 2018 with extremely high ratings for the cable channel, which usually has an average 0.8% share in prime time; the fourth season, for instance, had an average 9.8% share and almost 8 million average viewers. It is still too early to have a sharp vision of the fifth season’s overall success, but its premiere outbested the previous seasons’ ones, with a record of 10.3 million viewers.
Yellowstone’s triumph has already made way to two prequel series. The first one, called 1883, marks the origin story of the Dutton family in Montana in the 19th century, and debuted in 2021 with an average 6.4% share and 4.6 million average viewers. Started as a limited series, it was so appreciated that a second season is already on its way with a new cast and a new plot as well. The second prequel is 1923, premiered on December 18th, 2022, in which the Dutton family, starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren as its patriarchs, has to overcome the problems of the first years of the 20th century, such as the Great Depression, pandemics and Prohibition. According to Paramount, 1923’s premiere brought in 7.4 million viewers across linear channels and its streaming platform, marking Paramount+’s best debut ever.
But the western genre hasn’t been explored just as an enrichment to the main Paramount series, but also as new projects created by other players: for instance, Netflix has just given a straight-to-series order to American Primeval, drama series exploring the birth of the Old Wild West through the collision of cultures and religions of the colonizers against the Native American people, and to The Abandons, set in Oregon in 1850 where a few families live as outsiders and try to protect their land from enemies, in a time where justice is not always within the limits of the law. Moreover, Amazon Prime Video co-produced with BBC The English, a period drama premiered on November 11th and set in the 1890’s in which an English woman, Cornelia Locke (played by Emily Blunt), travels to the dangerous Midwest and teams up with Eli Whipp, a Native American man, to find the man responsible for her son’s death.
The second trend, concerning the post-apocalyptic and zombie genre, coincides with the closing of a symbolic TV show of this category: in fact, on November 20th the series finale of The Walking Dead premiered on AMC, driving the highest viewership ever for the cable channel with almost 2.3 million viewers. But the series’ fans already have plenty of new and upcoming content to make up for its ending: the Walking Dead franchise is expanding significantly, with the eighth and last season of Fear the Walking Dead premiering in May 2023, the first season of Tales of the Walking Dead having debuted on August 14th, and a plethora of new spinoffs currently in development, each of them exploring the lives of beloved characters of the original series, from Daryl Dixon to the relationship between Hawthorne and Grimes.
But clearly this genre is not necessarily associated with just this franchise: pandemics and environmental disasters have been explored more and more lately, almost as a prolongment of today’s reality between Covid-19 and global warming. Therefore, broadcasters tried to navigate these issues by creating promising new stories even for the years to come – one of these is The Last of Us, just debuted on January 15th, 2023, on HBO. Based on the videogame of the same name, it is set in a future where a fungi infection caused a pandemic that killed almost the entire human population. The premium cable’s new series has already captured people’s hearts, averaging 4.7 million viewers and thus becoming the best debut ever for an HBO original, outdoing the results of House of the Dragon.
This trend, straddling the sci-fi and horror genres, has been constantly growing and will likely keep on doing so even in the next years, given the attention that these series are able to attract. For instance, the cable channel MGM+ (formerly known as Epix and recently gone through a rebranding) has just started developing two brand new projects: Earth Abides, in which a pandemic sweeps almost the entire human population off the planet, with just a few survivors struggling to live in this new reality; and Ark, which is about a near future where the oceans’ level has significantly risen, forcing humans to search for another planet to live in.
We will see what 2023 has in store for us, but still considering what might be ahead: even though 2022 marked another increase in peak TV, with 599 English-language scripted series debuting across all platforms, the new year may be extremely hard for the television industry. As Warner Bros. Discovery did in 2022, many other companies will have to tighten their belts this year and reduce the number of projects to invest on, as a consequence of the ongoing recession hitting household finances and advertisement spending. Compared to last year, in fact, this January brought less series orders than usual, and over the last few weeks many projects and renewals have been cancelled to save money, as the price for production and top talents has steeply increased.
Looking at the year to come, TV players will have to rethink their strategies to value and develop what really feels like a worthwhile investment of time and money. This may lead to fewer new fiction titles, but hopefully of higher quality.
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