Elsewhere in today’s New York Times, Alan Sepinwall has an incisive and funny op-ed on why the NBC Jay Leno decision marks the end of broadcast television as we know it. The move, he says, was for numerous business reasons “as inevitable as it is sad.” He recalls Tina Fey accepting an award from TV critics:
She thanked us “for making ‘30 Rock’ the most successful cable show on broadcast television,” and added: “Oh, it’s a great time to be on broadcast television, isn’t it? It’s exciting! It’s like being in vaudeville in the ’60s!”
We all laughed, but it was the sort of laughter designed to fight off tears, you know?
Tears? Really? Because from where this critic is sitting, the decline of the networks—and the corresponding rise of cable—has made for more and better TV for at least the last decade.
I don’t mean to pick on Sepinwall, who really does nail it in his essay, and who I think is just expressing understandable sympathy for people like Fey, and a nostalgia for the days of television as a medium of communal experience. I suspect we probably pretty much agree on the overall state of TV.
But this is a good jumping-off point to look at a sentiment that I hear expressed a lot in these tough business days for broadcast TV, both from people in the business and people who write about it: that the decline of broadcast as a medium equals the decline of TV as a medium, period.
Not true. I’m a TV critic, but I don’t work in the TV business. To me, the fact that a company like NBC or ABC is having a hard time making the numbers add up is interesting. It is, maybe, a harbinger of the future in my own print corner of the media business. But it is not, finally, my problem. My concern, as a TV viewer, is: Are there better shows to watch on TV or not?
The strike and other such bumps notwithstanding, the answer is yes. The answer has been yes, as a general trend, for the past decade and change. But most important: The answer is yes for exactly many of the same reasons that the broadcasters are dying.
Start with the obvious: since at least 1999 when The Sopranos launched, cable—the Col. Mustard holding the biggest candlestick in this murder mystery—has consistently made better, more rewarding dramas than the networks. This is not just because they can show swearing and T&A, either. The smaller cable audiences—and the fact that some rely on subscribers—allow them to program for smaller audiences who want to be surprised and challenged.
Take every bit of R-rated content out of The Wire, and it still could never have run on a broadcast network, not today or in 1995—too dark, too hard to follow (and, by the way, probably too black). The old network model required that you avoid alienating tens of millions of people who would change the channel upon seeing something different. It often produced great shows anyway, but it was a limit regardless—and though our fond memories tend to erase it, there were a dozen Websters for every M*A*S*H.
Not only that, but the shrinking of audiences and the requirement to target demographics even made for better broadcast TV. Buffy the Vampire Slayer would never have become a TV series in the three-network era. And while you may hate Fox for canceling Arrested Development, neither would it ever have made even three seasons back when it would have needed to draw 20 million viewers even to survive. Lost, in the ’60s, would have to have either been greatly simplified, or it would have ended up The Prisoner: a lamented, brief-lived show that left fans wondering for decades what ultimately happened at the end. (Now The Prisoner is being remade by AMC.)
Certainly, whenever a broadcaster has to save money and chooses to invest in reality shows, or procedurals, or Jay Leno, it means that some other, more ambitious, more interesting show is not being made there. But these shows are being made on cable. And made better.
One reason it’s so easy to lament TV today is that there’s also so much more bad TV than there used to be—because there’s more of it, period. And the lowest-common-denominator stuff on the networks is certainly lower. (See Momma’s Boys.) Not to mention the thousands of hours of fillers cable airs in any given day. But that problem is easily cured by, well, not watching it.
Another reason broadcast TV’s past sometimes looks so golden is that our memories are selective and we cheat on the time frames. People will compare whatever happens to be on TV today with the best of what was on TV over a span of years or decades in the past. Yes, TV in the broadcast era gave us Cheers and The Twilight Zone. But not at the same time.
On the other hand, if you compare the choices available on all TV today with any given single season from, say, the ’60s or the ’70s, today wins handily. (I’m going to leave out the ’50s “golden era” only because to debunk the overratedness of that period is another post entirely.)
[Update: By the way, I'm focusing on drama and sitcom here, but I would up the ante and say it's true for almost any genre—besides live adaptations of plays, maybe—you could think of. Cooking shows, sports, home-improvement shows—yeah, I'll say it, even news.]
Take the top 30 shows for the 1975-76 season. Yes, I’m seeing some classics: Sanford and Son, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family—though that show was past its peak years creatively. But I’m also seeing Police Woman, Baretta, Donnie and Marie and something called Good Heavens, a comedy starring Carl Reiner as an angel, which finished #16 despite airing for only three months. The difference is, then, there was no vast tier of lower-rated network shows and cable series in which to find the real quality. This was pretty much what you got.
And the serial drama essentially didn’t exist. I would submit that had it aired when it was set, in the summer of 1976, Swingtown would have been an opus of mature, character-driven storytelling. And Swingtown kind of sucked.
OK, but what about the average show on TV today, amid all the dreck and filler? Isn’t the average show worse? Yeah. No. I don’t know. Maybe. But what does that matter? Who watches the average show on television? TV doesn’t work like that: I don’t turn on my set and get delivered a random composite of the currently available programming. Though that does, in fact, somewhat describe the experience of watching TV in the pre-cable, pre-TiVo era.
I don’t want to get too Pollyannaish about the future. The networks are—for now—still major funders of talent on TV, and I’m concerned that they’re moving creatively backward rather than forward. I don’t know if a Lost or a Friday Night Lights would have a chance in network development for 2009. I want to see 30 Rock stay on the air too. And the communal experience of big TV: yes, that is definitely gone, though I’m not sure that’s much of a loss. (Though, again, that’s another post.)
And, of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results: it’s possible, ironically, that the more successful cable becomes, the more it becomes a haven for middle-of-the-road network-style programs. (Which is more or less what has happened, for instance, at TNT.)
But I’m also looking ahead and seeing a January with Lost, Big Love, Flight of the Conchords and Battlestar Galactica coming back. And I feel pretty good about it. From the experience of a TV viewer and not a TV producer, the death of broadcast has, so far, been pretty good to me. I only hope it keeps dying this well for years to come.