Is TV's golden age 'too big to fail'?
BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
“Hey, have you seen this new show? Seriously, you have to watch it!” If this conversation doesn’t sound familiar to you, you probably haven’t gotten out much in the last few years. Then again, why would you, with such great TV to watch?
This week, Cinemax will premiere The Knick, a period drama set in a turn of the century hospital from Steven "I don't make films anymore" Soderbergh. Soderbergh brings an air of prestige to the project, which is his second high-profile TV effort following HBO’s 2013 Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. With Soderbergh and star Clive Owen onboard, The Knick is a conscious attempt on the part of Cinemax to make a name for themselves as a prestige network, ala HBO (although technically, they’re already under the HBO tent). This doesn’t actually represent Cinemax’s first attempt to make a go of this, but if the good reviews for The Knick are any indication, it may be their most successful.
Meanwhile, another lesser premium network, Starz, is launching a new flagship show too, with Outlander. From Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, this time-traveling literary adaptation seems to be generating some decent buzz, too.
But if paying attention to yet another pair of noteworthy series sounds exhausting to you, you’re not alone. More and more, it’s starting to feel like no matter how many great shows are out there, it’s impossible to watch them all.
Plenty of people in Hollywood are already expressing growing concern about the fragmented state of television. An event at the "Produced By" television conference from earlier this year brought together some of the biggest names in cable for a panel on the state of television, that found FX CEO John Landgraf remarking, "I don't know that people are aware of this, but if you think about it, for 50 years there were three broadcast networks… So there were probably at any given moment 60 or 70 scripted original series in America. When the fourth [network] came on, probably 80. Best count I have is there will be about 350 scripted original series produced and marketed in the American television market this year... And I think that 350 will probably push to 400 next year."
That number is a lot, no matter how dedicated a TV viewer you are. With so many options at home, it’s no wonder some are asking why they’d bother with the trouble of going to the movies.
And not only are the shows themselves multiplying, the way we watch those shows keeps on expanding, too, with the introduction of players like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and Yahoo into the mix. In talking about his struggle to keep up with all his favorite offerings, the New York Times’ indispensable David Carr observed:
Something tangible, and technical, is at work. The addition of ancillary devices onto what had been a dumb box has made us the programming masters of our own universes. Including the cable box—with its video on demand and digital video recorder—and Apple TV, Chromecast, PlayStation, Roku, Wii and Xbox, that universe is constantly expanding. Time-shifting allows not just greater flexibility, but increased consumption. According to Nielsen, Americans watched almost 15 hours of time-shifted television a month in 2013, two more hours a month than the year before.
As is often the case, technology has made things harder, where they were supposed to be easier. For years, everyone has known that TV and the Internet were on the path to merge, but what everyone didn’t know is that the advanced technology would allow for an advanced level of programming. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re getting your content off network TV or off Netflix—if you’re watching 15 hours of TV per month, you’ve got a lot on your plate either way.
Then there’s the way TV breaks down by demographics. Although all entertainment has dividing lines in this area, the already fractured nature of measuring TV viewership makes this a particularly significant undertaking. For instance, BuzzFeed recently conducted a poll which found that what black viewers are watching on premium cable isn’t necessarily what white viewers are watching.
Although defining success on premium cable, the gold standard for quality programming in the "third golden age" of television, is also becoming an arduous task. There was a time when it felt like every show that premiered on HBO was destined to be a hit, critically if not commercially, and that when one of their shows did get cancelled, it was a big deal. But if the backlash against The Leftovers is proof of anything, it’s that people are not so precious about the network anymore.
Moreover, HBO has clearly touted out an increasing number of shows, too, in an effort to compete with the likes of Showtime, AMC, and FX. Some of these shows stick, but many don't (does anyone remember Tell Me You Love Me or John from Cincinnati?) This in turn causes HBO’s competitors to up the ante, leading to another string of canceled shows, along with a few that are legitimate hits. But in all of it, what ultimately happens is that the increased amount of prestige programming creates an atmosphere that no longer feels so prestigious. If nothing else, this could lead to an HBO whose slogan might as well be, “It’s not TV. It’s…oh, whatever.”
None of this is helped by the behind the scenes struggles to maintain control over content distribution. In April, Salon’s Andrew Leonard looked at the ensuing mess of the cable wars, and what he found wasn’t pretty.
On Tuesday, Netflix lambasted the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger, declaring it 'a long-term threat' to the healthy ecosystem of the Internet. Comcast promptly riposted, dismissing Netflix as a querulous, hypocritical whiner with a shaky grasp on the facts. Then, on Wednesday, HBO sucker-punched Netflix by agreeing to stream HBO shows through Amazon Prime, and AT&T fired a warning shot across everyone’s bow by announcing its own plans to get into the streaming video business with a 'Netflix-like' service. Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., which could end up resulting in the most influential high court ruling regarding how TV programs are distributed in decades.
And, to cap it all off, the FCC on Thursday released a tentative set of new guidelines for net neutrality that were immediately greeted by critics as an appalling sell-out of 'net neutrality,' and the hallowed guiding principles of the 'Open Internet.'
With all the fighting going on amidst these companies, it only seems likely that some programming will suffer. And with the changes in the television landscape, certain TV staples already have, especially on the major networks. A TIME article from 2012 mentions that as a brave new world for TV began to rise, reality TV, soap operas, and daily news started to plummet in popularity.
Exhausted yet? Wait, there’s more: if you think the actual TV industry is daunting to keep up with, it’s nothing compared to the TV-watching industry. Tweeting is one thing, but the instantaneousness of the Internet also lends itself to discussion and criticism that is both round the clock and completely in-depth. And with the amount of TV to review, analyzations of the medium have become constant. It’s tough enough to stay up to date with TV, but to stay up to date with TV recaps is a whole different ballgame.
In an interview with Vulture, Louie’s Pamela Adlon expressed her frustration with this practice. Adlon lamented, “I love the conversation—I think it’s wonderful—I just think people are premature-ejaculating their opinions. I liken it to reading a book, and you’re halfway through and you put it down, and you say, ‘This is what happened in the book so far, and you know what? If this doesn’t happen I’m going to be so upset.’”
And yet the overwhelming conversation continues, almost everywhere you look on the Internet. While ranking the best TV shows of 2012, Salon patted themselves on the back, declaring, “Way before your favorite show was ever recapped—or you signed an online petition after it was kneecapped—Salon bet big on TV writing.” And they weren’t the only ones. The A.V. Club focuses so much of their current attention on television, that their site includes a specific "TV Club" section which delves into TV reviews on an episode by episode basis.
The relentless attention paid to TV has caused many to sour on the medium. In a mostly positive review for Orange Is the New Black’s second season, Salon’s Heather Havrilesky conveyed her appreciation for how the fractured television of today allows for more niche programming, while still being wary of the way this niche programming doesn’t always live up to our high expectations. Havrilesky writes, “This is the new viewing experience: Great shows are also, occasionally, just pretty good. What’s new here is that a show like OITNB isn’t canceled after one season simply because not every living American appreciates cunnilingus jokes.”
Others haven’t been so diplomatic. Alexander Zaitchik wrote a piece recently, also for Salon, condemning America’s widespread embrace of television. For Zaitchik, it’s still the idiot box. “This celebration of TV’s new “golden age” is out of control," Zaitchik said. "It’s dangerous, and it’s sad.”
He’s definitely not the only one who feels this way. Prominent TV gurus like David Chase of The Sopranos and Community's Dan Harmon have also expressed their skepticism with the medium overtime, preferring to getdrunk rather than watch TV.
For many, the amount of choices is simply too much. In his New York TImes essay, Carr, who professes to being a fan of many current shows, including Girls, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and House of Cards says he can’t find time to enjoy other media with so much TV to watch. And he admits that for him, “Television’s golden age is also a gilded cage, an always-on ecosystem of immense riches that leaves me feeling less like the master of my own universe, and more as if I am surrounded.”
So where do we go from here? What do we do when the world of TV has become so saturated that it’s impossible to change the channel without feeling guilty that you haven’t watched something?
There is hope. Zachary M. Seward did a feature for Quartz in March about the technology that’s intended to provide a more streamlined TV-watching experience, such as organization by subject, channel, and subscription.
Of course, such advances are still indicative of a more specified viewing experience, even if they’re intended to provide ease. The real advantages to the new world to television lie in the potential for diversified content. Yes, this will mean more to choose from, but at least it will eschew the white male narrative that the new golden age of TV has provided so far.
Finally, despite all of modern TV’s faults, the fact remains that it’s up to us pick what we want to consume and when. As is the case with movies, you can’t watch everything. But in the end, you can either take the heightened attention around TV as a hopeless indication of the medium’s pervasiveness, or you can embrace it and try to figure out what works with you. That Salon alone could add so many different perspectives on TV shows this to be true.
Addressing Zaitchik’s claims that TV is a mass waste of our time, Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking concludes:
Ultimately, rejecting TV entirely is tilting at windmills. As our most ubiquitous and influential artform, it’s not going anywhere. We’re not going to end up in a world where everyone smashes their TVs and returns to some imaginary utopia where they consume non-corporate-sponsored high culture. The nature of TV’s content is perhaps more important now than it’s ever been—in a world of DVRs and torrents and Netflix, people are freer than they’ve ever been to weed out the shit they don’t want in favor of the stuff they do. The choice is there. You don’t need to kill your TV, because you’re smarter than it. Why not just stop attacking the poor machine, and make it work for you?
At this point, this is the only choice: make your TV work for you or succumb to the daunting task of basing your life around it. With the plethora of high quality options, this isn’t easy. But it isn’t impossible either. And more than that, it’s necessary, if we want to be responsible viewers in the digital age.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.