In the last decade, the medium for delivering video entertainment has gotten smaller and smaller and far more portable. Home televisions began to give way to computer screens and laptops. Cell phones became more than just phones, putting access to primetime television literally in the hands of millions of viewers. Streaming video has turned Hulu into a household name and has cable TV providers running scared as Netflix places itself to become a giant slayer of network viewership.
It is a shame that the death of television has seemingly arrived, like some midseason cancellation, just when things were starting to get good. In the last decade, audiences have seen shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men demonstrate that feature films don’t have a monopoly on serious drama anymore. It’s become more clear than ever that given a long leash and talented creators and performers, the small screen is perfectly capable of delivering intelligent, thought-provoking entertainment on par with it’s more storied cousin, cinema. TV has made major strides in the past few years. But working within the strictures of the studio system, the envelope can only be pushed so far. Bringing copious swearing and nudity to the world of broadcast is all well and good, but it is probably not a recipe for being taken seriously in the long term.
TV is a powerful cultural force, but despite some notable creative successes, it remains largely a pretty maligned artistic medium. If the concept of TV is going to make a great leap forward, it has to transcend the actual medium of television. It will have to leave behind the studios, the executives, the distribution models, and the advertisers that made it the pre-eminent form of entertainment across the globe. But at this point, that may not be as big a transition as it sounds like. After all, the medium of television has already been loosed from it’s traditional cathode ray moorings, and studios and networks are clamoring to make reinvent themselves for the digital age. To paraphrase a well worn Chinese curse, television, as not only an industry but a medium, finds itself living in very interesting times.
With so much television not actually shown on television anymore, the medium that we associate with sitcoms and cop dramas is more and more disconnected from the physical artifact it leaves one wondering - if you take television out of the TV, what are you left with? If you put a television show onto a laptop screen or a handset– or make a show that is designed to be watched on one – then are you even making a TV show anymore? Or are you making something else entirely?
The answer has implications for not only shows that you watch on a laptop or a cell phone, but for programs that stick to the television proper. These shows, which are fewer and farther between every day, no longer have the cultural monopoly on serialized fiction that they once did. And as the medium and the industry become more divorced from one another, it leaves both struggling to forge a new identity. It’s a notion that must be plenty scary to execs and employees working in television. But it’s also a hugely exciting prospect for creators and artists who want to push the boundaries of the medium. If no one knows what TV is anymore, then it is suddenly free to be anything we want it to.
Consciously or not, today’s viewers have are beginning to understand TV in a different way than any generation that came before it. They understand it as a medium independent of the box that still dominates living rooms the world over, a form of media independent of the artifact that is it’s namesake. TV finds itself in a situation comparable to that of the film industry in the early ’90s when inexpensive cameras and bargain film stock drove the boom of independent cinema. Cheap equipment and easy distribution invite more people into a medium, and more people invariably means more talented people, if only due to volume. Perhaps we’re not talking about a wholesale reinvention here, but it’s not out of line to suggest that a huge influx of new creators with new ideas about TV will profoundly affect the medium. We may not be seeing the beginning of the end for television, but the end of the beginning, a maturing and broadening of the form.
This infusion of new ideas and varieties of content is—of course—not without it’s drawbacks. As easy as it is to look back at the early ‘90s as some sort of flawless golden age of independent cinema, that’s at best a rosy portrayal of the facts. The truth is that for every top-notch movie that came out of the early-‘90s indie film movement (and there were plenty), there was also legions of chaff tossed through the cinematic thresher. And this already looks to be true of television delivered over the Internet, as smaller screens necessitate smaller shows; shows that are less impressive in their scope, less ambitious in their aspirations, and less adept in their execution. Shows like the NBC-produced CTRL represent a disappointing reversion to the mean. They also offer the lesson that every opportunity to succeed—to do new things, to rethink boundaries and explore the frontiers of a form is also an opportunity to fail—to stick with what has worked, to plug tired clichés into new formats, to ignore what’s interesting in favor of what has worked before. Shorter runtimes and lower budgets can be seen as an excuse not to try—to go for schlock humor in place of smart writing and easy gags in favor of carefully constructed storylines. After all, it’s just a few minutes, right?
But it is these same strictures that are embraced by independent online shows like The Guild, which value interesting characters and relatable situations turned on their heads over predictable, slap-happy stunts. They also demonstrate an understanding of the nature of the new state of the medium, a honed sense of the shorter than short form, the smaller than small screen. Producers like Felicia Day know that when shows are so brief, snappy writing and clever dialogue are more important than whiz-bang special effects. These are shows that are tailor made for smaller screens. The most clear four-inch screen in the world is still a four-inch screen, and watching a car burst into flames on a four-inch screen will probably always fail to inspire awe in a viewer. So rather than shows that rely on being visually impressive, the next generation of TV producers and directors will need compelling storylines that don’t depend on striking visuals. In some ways, these shows are closer to podcasts than television shows. They’re lean and compelling, produced on the cheap and driven by eccentric characters and crisp dialogue. And while they can reasonably be seen as the next step in the life cycle of the sitcom, these shows also represent the legacy of early 20th century radio serials perhaps more closely than any of their modern peers.
It’s shows like The Guild and Joss Whedon’s self produced, Emmy-winning Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog that demonstrate what could be the not-just-promising but profitable future of TV. There’s a place in the market for short form, low-budget television programming, delivered over the Internet and working outside of the confines of the traditional studio system, and that is only going to become more and more true.
None of this is to say that the era of big budget shows with more cinematic elements and high-powered visual effects is over. It’s not, by a long shot. TV as we know it may be a dinosaur, but it’s a world-striding one, and if it’s death is going to come by a thousand cuts, it’s a fate that will take time. While people continue to watch more and more TV on their computers, there’s not much evidence that they’re watching less TV on their televisions. Network TV will more likely than not remain the pagan idol of the American living room, and continue to produce the shows that most people watch on their laptops and handsets for the foreseeable future.
But what was once an unassailable bastion of culture, the one medium that, from the shooting of JR Ewing to the Super Bowl, did more to advance cultural homogeneity in entertainment than any other. And that medium, that peculiar type of TV that everyone was watching, may not be long for this world. It’s replacements will be a staggering variety of shows. Comedies to dramas, high art and low brow , hour long weekly dramas and two-minute sketches produced several times a day. Rather than watching the extinction of TV, we’re seeing it’s Cambrian explosion – a period in evolution when a staggering variety of new forms of life all get their shot and, for a while at least, anything goes.