How Did We Get Here?
“Do you know why I put up with this miserable job Mr. Donaghey? Why I fetch these folks’ lunches and clean up their barfs? Because they make television. And more than jazz, or musical theatre, or morbid obesity, Television is the true American art form.” –Kenneth the Page, 30 Rock
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I chose this quote to open the column because it reflects the American relationship to television quite perfectly. For better or for worse, television, in its many forms, contributes more to our culture and daily lives than any other form of entertainment or art, and rivals the impact of cultural cornerstones like religion and politics. The landscape of television at any given time in its history mirrors the pulse, attitude, and social construction of that era in our society. This quote, in particular, reflects our attitude toward television in the late nineties. In a word, we were slaves, without control and without choice. At the turn of this still fledgling century, there was no , no On-Demand, no Hulu, no Netflix, and no TV-on-DVD. HBO scripted production was in its infancy with Sex and the City, early Sopranos, and Oz. TV shows were consumed in their scheduled time slot, and there was no way to skip commercials. Advertisements and syndication were the established means of generating television revenue. If a show couldn’t pull in viewers to sell ad time, it was dumped and replaced immediately.
We were dedicated to this system, because it was all we knew. It had remained largely unchanged for decades. The networks controlled content, and left us with only the choice of tuning in or .
My how the landscape of television has changed in eleven short years.
In this series, we will examine the breakthroughs and advances that brought us to this point and all of the exciting directions TV is headed.
Here are the four(ish) biggest advances in Television since 2000:
1) TV on DVD
It has been a decade since . The simple version of the story is that the show could not find a steady viewership during its three seasons on the air, so did not renew the show for a fourth season. The real story is that viewers could not find the show. After garnering great ratings in a strong timeslot between The Simpsons and The X-Files during its first season, Fox began the second and third seasons of Family Guy with the show competing against dominant shows like Friends, Frasier, and Survivor. After the predictable ratings disaster, Family Guy finished out each season being shown irregularly in . It’s doesn’t take a genius to understand why the show couldn’t find a stable audience.
But then something magical happened. The show was put out on DVD, and the sold like nothing ever seen before. Family Guy: Volume 1 became the highest selling television DVD of . The network took a look at the huge pile of money they were making from the DVD sales, and had an . The way in which TV series were consumed was expanding, and there was money to be made. Family Guy was brought back, and despite what you may think of its quality now, it nonetheless. As does the power of DVD sales over the minds at the networks. After the sales of his show’s first season DVD shot up to number 1 all-time, Comedy Central offered $50 million to continue making the series. Though he didn’t take the money, this example still shows how motivating this new profit center could be.
2) HBO & Showtime Scripted Content
The next great step forward came from our friends at premium cable. In 2001, HBO and Showtime made TV series that couldn’t be shown on other networks. Sex and the City, Oz, and Queer as Folk were good shows, but maybe their allure was more about their uncensored nature and less about their overall quality. Sex and swearing were the hooks that reeled in viewers and subscription dollars. But then The Sopranos found its legs. From the first season, The Sopranos became an Emmy main stay, and even more, it was the show “everyone” watched. For the first time, subscriptions to were bought not just for movies, but for shows the network had produced. Over the next few years, HBO launched more dramas like Deadwood, Carnivale, Six Feet Under, and possibly the greatest TV show ever, The Wire. It was the dawn of a new era, and the beginning of the end for network drama.
On the comedy front, the success of Curb Your Enthusiasm can best be measured in the shows it has inspired on network TV like The Office and Parks and Recreation.
Not to be outdone, Showtime has produced some great dramas like Dexter and The Tudors, but their real success has come in the comedy department. Weeds and Californication are two of the best things on TV, and dramedy newcomers Nurse Jackie and The Big C are on their way to joining them.
What these networks and their shows really did for television, was demonstrate the profitability of quality. Instead of focusing on demographic appeal to generate ad dollars, they trusted their audience to recognize and tune in for it. This idea is carried forward by…
Breaking Bad and Mad Men are the two best shows on television right now. They may not have huge ratings (approximately 2 million viewers/episode), but they have staying power and extreme viewer loyalty. Like Lost before them, the producers/creators of both shows have earned the right to decide when their shows will end. This type of trusting relationship between network suits and creators places the creative control in the hands of and can only enhance the quality of the show. AMC has truly become a basic cable version of HBO. The only difference is AMC shows quality movies with proven re-watchability, while HBO trots out a lineup of the freshest Hollywood crap.
FX on the other hand, has really taken a page from Showtime’s playbook. They have their solid dramas (Justified, Sons of Anarchy, and Rescue Me), but have really made their mark with progressive comedy. The pentfecta of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer, The League, Louie, and newcomer have really pushed network comedy to a new level of raunch and a new level of funny. They are the 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Community for people who didn’t go to college. These comedies are the latest products of a movement toward quality and originality that started with The Shield and Nip/Tuck. If both FX and AMC can continue to restock the shelves with quality shows and stay in their respective lanes, they will dominate the next decade of TV.
No disrespect to TiVo, but DVR is the real . No more VHS tapes and no more VCR programming. No more TV Guides and no more commercials. The introduction of the DVR has changed television viewing on such a grand scale that content providers are still scrambling to adapt.
Whereas shows like Friends, Frasier, or The Practice were once “appointment television”; that phrase no longer . The average viewer, even if they are not busy during a show’s scheduled timeslot will choose to wait the 30-60 minutes, so that the show can be enjoyed sans commercials. This approach is economical in that it cuts total viewing time (and total attention span) down by 30% and fun in that attempting to get the fast-forward up to 5 arrows then hit play before the show starts is a game more Americans play than Call of Duty. This shift in how we watch TV has affected how networks market, distribute and generate revenue from programming. This has led us too…
3b) Netflix, Hulu, On-Demand
Before we discuss where the networks got involved, we have to start at the beginning with Netflix. The Netflix business model is so simple and perfect, that it makes me wanna bang my head against a wall for not thinking of it first. Americans love movies, but hate going outside too often. These facts + Internet = Netflix. Once they had built a solid subscriber base, the fine folks at Netflix introduced Watch Instantly. Whether they were responding to a demand or created the demand for content delivered instantly is unclear. What is clear is that America’s patience for content delivery has been reduced to less than 30 seconds. Recognizing the growing love for TV-on-DVD, Netflix began to offer entire seasons of TV shows via Watch Instantly. The huge success and viewership of this model caught the eye of the . With advertisers realizing their commercials were mostly fast forwarded, and the networks generating no ad revenue from Netflix, the time had come for the executives to have an idea. After much ripping of clothes and gnashing of teeth, Hulu and On-Demand were born.
Now I know these are different services on distinct platforms, and that On-Demand provides much more than free episodes of , but for the purposes of this article they are the same. The services are essentially a DVR, but with the catch that you cannot fast forward through commercials. The networks had killed two birds with one stone. They had found a way to reinvigorate ad revenue while also providing content via the internet. Sure they were 5 years behind, but better late than never right?
4) Arrested Development and the Death of the Four Camera Sitcom
Now before fans of The Larry Sanders Show, Ally McBeal, and Sex and the City start charging me with pitchforks, kitchen knives, and extremely sharp No. 2 pencils, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge them for being pioneers. The four camera sitcom was dug in like a tick from 1989-1998. During that ten year period, a four camera show won every Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. The shows mentioned above along with The Wonder Years were the only non-four camera shows to even be nominated. won in 1999, Curb premiered in 2000, and Sex and the City won in 2001, but still four cameras dominated, garnering over 60% of the nom’s and winning three out of five from 1999-2003. But then a small show on that nobody but a handful watched, won in 2004. was billed as The Royal Tenebaums shot like COPS. It never disappointed. Though it won countless awards and had critical success, the geniuses at FOX couldn’t market the show, and it died after only . Its short run dealt a death blow to traditional sitcoms however. Though the undead juggernaut that is won the following year (beating out a deserving, but still unwatched Arrested Development), there were only two four camera shows nominated. In 2005, there was only one, and that number has not increased since. Since Arrested Development won its Emmy, only 5 different four camera shows have been while 15 less traditional sitcoms have garnered nods. It is safe to say four cameras are dead. And Thank God. I’d rather watch the horrible human beings on It’s Always Sunny than the horrible human beings on Seinfeld any day.
So this is how our current television world has come to look the way it does. Set your DVR for Part 2 to see where we go from here.
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