TV Musings, or: Where Are We Going? And Where Have We Been?

I was watching the – dreadful – Emmys on Sunday, and while texting/tweeting with others during the show, a few questions came up from people (i.e. my mom): 1) What even is “Fleabag”? 2) Seriously, how could you not give JLD a lifetime achievement award? 3) Seriously, “Game of Thrones” again? 4) Who in their right mind thinks Mrs. Maisel is marvelous? (Questions 2 and 4 were mine.) But, taking a broader view, I thought about how much TV has changed, not just in the last several years, but over the course of my life.

I wrote my sixth-grade (!) thesis about the history of television. The majority dealt with the history of broadcast networks (including the long-gone Dumont network and the rise of Fox as the “fourth” network), the introduction of color TVs and the remote control, and the history of the cathode-ray tube as invented by Farnsworth. My report pre-dated channels like UPN, the WB, and their amalgamation, the CW. If it had a general point, other than to ruminate on the creation of classic TV – from “I Love Lucy” to “All in the Family” to what was the most important show to sixth-grade JJ, “Beverly Hills, 90210” – it was that cable had made TV a more niche medium. You had a channel just for sports. A channel, in theory, just for music (though even then there were complaints that “MTV doesn’t play music anymore!”). A channel for news. etc. Channels had distinct identities, and even finding what was on proved a chore: I had to go to the TV guide channel and wait for it to scroll to see what was on, and what was coming up next:

You knew a channel by its number as much as by its name: NBC in my house was “four,” and if you woke me up at 3 a.m. tonight I could still tell you that the important channels at the time were:

2 – CBS; 4 – NBC; 5 – Fox; 7 – ABC; 11 – WPIX; 13 – PBS; 14 – HBO; 15 – TNT; 20 – MSG; 22 – MTV; 24 – USA; 30 – Nickelodeon (later switched with Lifetime to 6!); 45 – TBS.

Big broadcast shows still existed: “ER” pulled in 20-30 million viewers, and shows like “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and – jeez – even “Home Improvement” regularly got audiences that would be considered massive by today’s standards. Even among my friends, shows like the MTV VMAs, The Real World, and The Simpsons were appointment television.

It was a big deal and cultural shift when HBO started making their own shows, even if some efforts (“Dream On”) weren’t quite as good as others (“Oz,” “The Larry Sanders Show”). It became a much, much bigger deal when HBO released a genuine Hall of Fame show in “The Sopranos,” and followed it up with other hits like “Sex and the City.” For the most part, people were watching, and watching on the same night, at the same time. The idea of a “water cooler” show still existed. In fact, so many nights were spent on the phone with someone – even during the commercials! – talking about what we just saw/what we expected to happen.

My house got a Tivo in 2000 or 2001, and I remember thinking that was a game-changer: the idea that we could pause live TV, or watch something later, was naturally going to fragment viewing. For the most part, you knew people would have watched the show when it was actually on, but it was a way to make sure you never missed an episode. This might be apocryphal, but there was a well-known theory that even die-hard fans only watched three out of every four episodes of a show, so the idea of full serialization was impossible, because everyone would be missing key plot details at some point.

When I went off to college, we didn’t get cable in my freshman dorm, so I relied on rabbit ears. Luckily, I was one of the only people on my hall with a TV, and so certain nights meant a revolving door: Wednesdays at 8:00 was “Dawson’s Creek,” and that crew left so that the 9:00 people were in time for “The West Wing.” Even after my first year, when we got cable again, and when I was in law school and got a DVR, things remained pretty stable. Sure, there were more channels every year, and a glut of good programming, but the cream seemed to rise to the top, and touchstone moments like “The Sopranos” finale resonated culturally.

In my inexpert opinion, things changed dramatically starting around 2007. For one, you had the writers’ strike: all of a sudden, ratings plummeted, and they never really recovered. Writers also struck partly because they wanted residuals to streaming, something that hadn’t been contemplated in prior agreements (even DVD sales weren’t adequately addressed, and DVDs were on their way out). And sure, cable had by this point exploded: from 20 channels to 200. What began as HBO had now grown to HBO2, HBO3, HBO West, etc. But it seemed that networks were chasing the same thing over and over again: the new “LOST” (remember shows like “Flashforward” and “The Event” and “The Nine” and “Journeyman”?), the new “West Wing” (yeesh, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), etc. Meanwhile, shows that were low-rated but high in quality (“Parks and Rec,” “Community,” “Trophy Wife,” “Happy Endings”) were always on the verge of cancellation. Even “How I Met Your Mother,” which miraculously lasted eight seasons, was a “bubble” show after its second and third seasons. Shows that would at one time have been broad hits (think “My Name is Earl”) were pulled. And shows that started hot out of the gate were often renewed and then saw ratings drop precipitously for ensuing seasons, once the magic had worn off: “My Name is Earl,” “Prison Break” (both 2005 debuts), even yes, “LOST” (huge hit in 2004, won the Emmy for Best Drama in 2005, and then watched the audience dwindle each successive year).

There was, as is often the case in the entertainment industry, further copycatting: Tony Soprano begat Walter White and Don Draper and anti-heroes galore. There was also panic – I vividly remember NBC having shows with 0.x ratings, a far fall from “Must-See TV.” True story: they tried to have Ryan Murphy essentially rescue the network with “The New Normal.” How’d that work out? (As a complete aside, NBC has a great Thursday one-two punch currently in “Superstore” and “The Good Place” and I encourage everyone to watch both!)

Without mentioning the 800-pound gorilla in the room that is Netflix quite yet, you can see why the idea of limited series and seasons (say, four at most) is appealing, and why Netflix is cancelling or ending shows so early. I think about a show like “Love,” and while three seasons feels short, I’m glad they got to tell their ending. “Glow” will finish after four; same with “The Good Place.” In a way, it’s nice to know these shows will get closure; it’s just an interesting world where people don’t want to invest in a show if it’s going to get cancelled (again, see “Flashforward” or “The Event” or – gosh, remember “Revolution”?), and yet those shows won’t get renewed without some base audience. I remember being really into “Falling Skies” starting in 2012, while commercials for it were everywhere. I hung around for all five seasons, but by the start of the second season, unless you were a die-hard, you’d have no way of knowing it’s on (thanks, TNT, for spending more time marketing “Franklin & Bash” and “Rizzoli & Isles”). And it’s an argument you hear again and again, especially about Netflix: it’s a better business model to attract new subscribers and retain old ones with new, attention-grabbing shows than to renew something that will only have an audience decrease. (This of course says nothing of artificially keeping prices down, as most shows usually grow more expensive – traditionally this was as they would also obtain syndication rights at a magical 100 episodes).

And yes, now streaming is a dominant form of entertainment – the aforementioned “Fleabag” is an Amazon show, and Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon shows like “Mozart in the Jungle,” “Transparent,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Orange is the New Black,” “House of Cards,” “Master of None,” and others have all been nominated for or won several Emmys and awards of that ilk. It is a binge-watch world: I loved “Russian Doll” but watched it over a 36-hour period; same with “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” “GLOW,” and even both seasons of “Master of None.” By comparison, I watched “Seinfeld” for years. It’s also a model that’s at odds with itself: Netflix (for now, anyway) has myriad episodes of “The Office” in its library, but if “The Office” had been a Netflix show from the jump, it might have only been two short seasons, like its British originator. The last two weeks have been non-stop “Friends” celebrations (25th anniversaries are evidently quite meaningful to fans of the Central Perk frequenters), but does “Friends” get to 200+ episodes these days if it aired on a streamer or channel?

TV has often been a swing-and-miss medium: networks would order dozens of pilots, take its best few to series, and promote the hell out of them hoping that a nine- or 13-episode order would result in a new hit. But shows like “Seinfeld” wouldn’t have time to grow in today’s culture: it’d be DOA, and wouldn’t be given the two or three seasons it needed to find itself. Shows now have to be perfect right out of the gate. Even if they keep up that consistency, they’ll get less and less promotion, and likely will be put out to pasture by season four. There’s a great argument to be made for ending a show too early rather than too late (see: season 3 of “LOST” for what happens when a serialized drama treads water). And shows do now have the ability to be “rescued” by a streamer – cancel it on, say, NBC, and then hope that Hulu jumps in for an additional order. (See for instance something like “The Mindy Project.”) But from my viewpoint, we now have a few key problems:

  • Shows have to be perfect immediately, or they won’t be watched/renewed. (Anecdotally, this is why so many shows are reboots of original properties: they have built-in name recognition to get eyeballs. It’s much easier to re-launch “Murphy Brown” than to create a new one from scratch.)
  • No one is watching the same thing at the same time, meaning nothing hits a cultural nerve. The closest we get (besides one-off events like the Superbowl) are shows like “This is Us.”
  • Between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Quibi (a real thing!), Disney+, and YouTube TV, the sheer tonnage of programming beyond traditional channels is going to make cord-cutters essentially pay the same rates as they were before.

I don’t know that any of this is a neat and tidy summary of things, nor do I have solutions to rectify it. I don’t think there will ever come a time when everyone – everyone – is watching a show like the “M*A*S*H” finale again. Not to bring up movies, but this strikes me a little bit like the “Avatar” problem – that was, for nearly a decade, the biggest-grossing movie in history. How many people talk about it today? When you mention classic or great movies, does anybody you know bring up “Avatar”? So even when millions of people are watching something, it’s almost become digestible. Maybe that’s a larger commentary on our current attention span; it’s certainly reflected by the lightning-speed at which the news passes by in the modern day. There was a great SNL sketch about “Shrek,” where Sterling K. Brown professes how great a movie it is, and it’s funny because “Shrek” – a high-grossing movie with several successful sequels – is not a movie anything talks or seemingly thinks about anymore. It landed in 2001 with a good box office, won the first-ever Oscar for best animated movie, spawned several sequels and….that’s it? That’s “Shrek.” I said “digestible” earlier but maybe the more accurate word is “disposable.”

In writing this, I realized that I am nostalgic for the way it was. When good TV is made, it’s a joy to share it with others, and its impact lasts. Sure, there has always been garbage – I purposefully omitted TV’s race to embrace reality TV and all things – ugh – Kardashian – but on the whole there is still TV that can be hilarious, or serious, or educational. The start of the fall TV season used to give me a rush – now, it gives me “Stumptown.”

My fiancee jokingly (maybe) refers to me as Mike Teevee, the character from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” whose “punishment” is that he is made to live inside the television. When that movie was made, for all intents and purposes everyone in the world would be watching Mike. Now? People would want to see what else is on.

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