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Vacation Robo-Post: What Changed TV in the '00s

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On Dec. 31, 1999, the citizens of a world anxious that the Y2K bug would destroy civilization gathered anxiously to watch the clock strike midnight, huddled around their TV sets. Like barbarians! Today, they might catch it online, over their mobile phones, or better yet, TiVo the whole thing, catch some sleep and watch it first thing in the morning. Here’s a (very incomplete) list of the social, business and technological changes that shaped TV in the ’00s:

DVRs. Digital video recorders were not invented this decade (I got my first TiVo in 1999), but they were popularized in the ’00s. By the end of the decade, they were in a third of American homes and were affecting personal schedules, advertising revenue and TV programming. (You can thank them, at least in part, for The Jay Leno Show.) What was (and is) a great convenience was (and is) also a great challenge for a TV business trying to figure out how to pay for itself.

The Crawl. Fox News introduced the streaming band of headlines (sometimes called a “zipper”) across the bottom of its screen the morning of 9/11. Other networks shortly followed, and although crawls have evolved over the years (and disappeared from some channels while multiplying on others), they became a symbol of an anxious, hyperstimulated society and the frantic speed of information.

The Rise of Cable. Forget the Emmys and cable’s critical cred; by the end of the decade, far more people at any given time were watching cable programming than the broadcast networks that used to define TV.

Reality TV. Again, not exactly something new under the sun in the ’00s, but after Survivor drew 50 million viewers for its first finale, mainstream primetime TV had a new full-fledged genre, alongside sitcoms and dramas. Even now, after reality’s mid-decade buzz has worn off, it’s a regular staple of primetime programming that doesn’t seem likely to go anywhere (as much because of its cost structure as its popularity).

HDTV. Another technology popularized in the ’00s, the spread of giant, sharply detailed screens made the living room a major competitor to the movie theater and created an emphasis on visually stunning, cinematic production in shows like Lost and Heroes. As well as introducing a new world of challenges for makeup artists.

TV Anywhere, Anytime. I could create separate entries for DVD, On Demand, Hulu, iTunes and so on, but this whole slew of options for watching, buying and scheduling your own TV further weakened the dominance of traditional primetime. When TV became portable and the audience became their own schedulers, people began paying less and less attention to networks and more to curating their collections of individual shows. This created new ways to experience TV, and sometimes—as with Family Guy—gave series new leases on life.

Social Media. Twitter, blogs and discussion boards changed the way people experienced, shared and interacted with TV. And in some cases, they may have even made certain types of TV possible; the immersive experience that is Lost, for instance, would be hard to imagine in a pre-Internet world.

Consolidation. While viewers may not have noticed the effects of the corporate changes in the TV business, they were real and far-reaching. Continuing the trend of the ’90s, vertically integrated companies encouraged networks to buy shows from in-house studios; broadcast and cable channels started sharing programming within the corporate family; and the tensions arising from these changes contributed to behind-the-scenes struggles like the 2007–08 writers’ strike, in which writers fought ever-larger media companies over digital revenue.

Online TV. But even as media companies became bigger, the outlets for media became more disparate. YouTube let individuals create their own channels and works from The Guild to Ask a Ninja and many more began to define online TV and webisodes as a genre. It’s a fair guess that online TV, or some yet-unimagined iteration of it, will have a major place on a list like this in another 10 years.

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