Between the Internet, DVRs, and DVDs, television viewers have been almost completely freed from the vagaries of network scheduling. We can watch our favorite shows whenever we want.
It’s been 10 years since PopMatters opened its virtual doors as a website dedicated to covering all things pop culture. In those 10 years, plenty has changed on the popular landscape: books can now be read on handheld computer devices, movies can be seen projected digitally with no film involved, and the music business has imploded to the point where obscure indie rock bands can make the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart, frequently making their money from live concert gigs instead of album sales. But running a close second to the music industry (in terms of change) may be the way that television has transformed over the past decade.
The Shows of 1999
10 years ago, the most-watched show on American TV was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? It was so popular that its three weekly airings took up the top three slots in the Nielsen ratings for the 1999-2000 season. A quick glance through the rest of the top 20 reveals pretty much what you’d expect: fondly remembered hits like Friends, Frasier, and ER; sports and news programs that are still on the air today (Monday Night Football, 60 Minutes, 20/20); and shows that have faded into obscurity. Is anybody out there harboring warm, fuzzy memories of Stark Raving Mad or Daddio? What’s worth pointing out about those two flashes in the pan is that their inevitable cancellations led to far more notable roles for their actors in the next decade. Daddio starred Michael Chiklis, who buffed up and went badass on FX’s first original drama, The Shield, a couple of years later. Stark Raving Mad was a buddy comedy featuring Tony Shalhoub and Neil Patrick Harris (stuck in “Hey, it’s Doogie Howser and he’s grown up!” mode). Shalhoub went on to name recognition and success on USA’s Monk, while Harris later rehabilitated his career with his appearances in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and on How I Met Your Mother.
Over on the cable side of things, HBO was drawing critical acclaim and 16 Emmy nominations for its new show, The Sopranos, while Sex and the City became only the second cable show to receive an Emmy nod for Best Comedy. But that was nothing special; HBO had been going toe-to-toe with the broadcast networks in terms of Emmys and critical respect for most of the ‘90s. What was a surprise was how much The Sopranos would influence dramatic television over the next decade. A little more expected was the continued rise of cable television as a force to be reckoned with, both in terms of ratings and in quality of programming.
Although the TV landscape looks quite a bit different today than it did in 1999, television and its programming have evolved constantly over the history of the medium. What really set the past decade apart are the fundamental changes in how we view television. And there are a lot of them. The most significant may be the advent of high definition television. HDTV existed in 1999, but even the cheapest sets cost around $3,000, and hardly any channels were broadcasting in HD. To make matters worse, the sets that were available used either rear-projection or traditional tube technology to produce their pictures, making them big and bulky. With the advent of LCD and plasma technology, today’s high definition sets are lighter and larger, and as the prices continue to drop, more and more people are buying in. In 2009, 53 percent of Americans own HDTVs, up from 35% in 2008 and 23% in 2007. Clearly, HD is quickly becoming the standard in North America.
HD offers huge advantages over traditional televisions. The resolution is much, much sharper, and the aspect ratio is widescreen, allowing most movies to be viewed with either much less letterboxing or none at all. Most programs are filmed in HD now, making shows like Lost look spectacular. It also reveals little details, such as why Sawyer nicknamed Kate “Freckles”. Actress Evangeline Lilly does indeed have freckles, but they were not visible in standard definition. And then there are sports. Football is amazing in high definition. Widescreen cameras allow the viewer to see much more of the playing field than before, and the colors on the field, on the uniforms, and in the crowd seem to pop out of the television. Similarly, hockey in HD shows about two-thirds of the rink at a time, and the improved resolution makes it easier to follow the puck. It’s a big step up from Fox’s failed “glow puck” experiment from the mid-‘90s.
Another massive change has been digital broadcasting. Cable companies have offered a digital option for a long time, and satellite systems like DirecTV and Dish Network have always broadcast their signals in digital. But it was the digital switchover, which occurred in June of 2009 in the United States, which really altered television, albeit largely behind the scenes. Analog TV signals, which had been used as the standard for broadcasts since the 1940’s, are no longer available in the U.S.A. Much of Europe has also made this switch, and Canada will follow in 2011.
Similar to how the Windows operating system is somewhat shackled by its need to be backwards compatible with every previous edition of Windows, analog had become highly limiting to television broadcasters. Technology that was originally intended for black and white TV signals had gradually been forced to carry more and more information through the air. But an analog signal simply can’t carry an HD broadcast: it doesn’t have the capacity. A digital signal allows for much more data to be passed along, which is necessary not just for HD but also for the several hundred channels most cable systems now carry. In the United States, the vast majority of televisions were already digital or hooked up to some sort of digital intermediary like cable or satellite when the switchover occurred. For those that weren’t, incessant message crawls ran for nearly a year on local stations informing their viewers of the coming change and how to get more information about it.
TV on DVD
HDTV and digital broadcasting were both big changes in the television landscape that could be seen coming from a long way off. A change that wasn’t so obvious in 1999 was the advent of DVD and its impact on the way we watch TV. The format was just beginning to take hold in 1999, as the release of The Matrix becoming the first major DVD hit. With its innovative special effects, it was one of those movies that seemed to demand to be seen on a higher quality format than the decades-old VHS tape. Beyond the upgrade in picture resolution, though, DVD offered a combination of large amounts of storage space and dirt-cheap manufacturing costs. This made it possible to put an entire season of a TV show into a relatively small five- or six-disc box set. Before DVD, there was very little market for consumers to own episodes of a television show, largely due to the space limitations of VHS.
Older shows with strong nostalgia value kicked off the TV on DVD trend. Paramount, for example, ignored the expansive space available on each disc in favor of getting as much money as possible from Star Trek’s hardcore fans. They gradually released the entire original series from1999-2001 in a 40-volume series which featured a mere two episodes per disc. But it was Fox television that really blazed the trail in the field. The first season of 24 was a modest ratings success, but its real-time format made it nearly impossible for new viewers to join in partway through the season. In an effort to drum up interest for the second season, the studio put out season one in a low-priced box set approximately a month before season two’s premiere. They essentially used the DVD release as a commercial for the second season while giving curious viewers a chance to catch up. The end result was big sales numbers and a 25% increase in viewership for season two.
Before this trend, viewers generally had to wait four to five years for a show’s reruns to enter syndication before they could watch the older episodes again. DVD bypassed the syndication market entirely, allowing fans to watch their favorite shows whenever they wanted. The method that Fox pioneered for 24 is in use by nearly every television studio today. Regardless of what time of the year the new season of your favorite show starts, you can bet that the previous season will be available in stores and at online retailers about a month beforehand.
DVD has also given new life to shows that were essentially dead. Television history is littered with stories of shows that were cancelled only to be rescued by the letter-writing campaigns of die-hard fans. But DVD showed that programs that were previously thought to be duds could actually become highly profitable. Joss Whedon’s Firefly lasted barely three months on Fox during the fall of 2002, but it sold strongly and steadily after it was released on DVD a year later. Those sales numbers helped convince Universal Studios to fund a theatrical movie follow-up to the series called Serenity, which was released in 2005 Even more impressive is the story of Family Guy. That show debuted to great hype and critical buzz, but was languishing by the end of its second season. Fox constantly moved the show around on its schedule, making it difficult for viewers to find. Predictably, the network cancelled the show by the end of season three. But reruns on Cartoon Network’s [Adult Swim] programming block helped spur gigantic sales of the DVD sets. These sales convinced Fox to make the unprecedented move of bringing the show back to its network three full years after it was originally cancelled. The show is now a mainstay of Fox’s Sunday night animation block, regularly beating out The Simpsons as the network’s highest-rated show of the night.
DVR’s and TiVo
In January of 1999 at the Consumer Electronics Show, a new video recording device called TiVo was introduced to the world. Released to the public later that year, TiVo and its competitors would go on to gradually replace the VCR as main method for recording your favorite shows. These digital video recorders, or DVR’s, have several advantages over VCR’s. First and foremost there are no tapes to worry about. DVR’s use a hard drive to save shows and those hard drives have way more memory space than a 6-hour VHS cassette. Most DVR’s have enough space to hold several dozen shows at one time. DVR’s can also be easily programmed to tape shows whenever they air, theoretically catching every single first-run episode during the course of a season. Plus, they can often record two or more shows at once, allowing a viewer to come back and watch shows even if they originally air at the same time. A DVR ostensibly lets a person set their own viewing schedule, able to watch shows on their own time and not on the network’s. But this newfound freedom also seems to lead to people watching more and more programs. I know that at the height of the TV season, my free time is uncomfortably ruled by my DVR, as I rush to watch and delete enough shows to keep my hard drive from hitting 100%.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, thanks to the internet. Next to HDTV, the biggest change in television in the past decade is possibly the proliferation of broadband internet access. Even though iTunes started as a music service, it quickly branched out into the television and movie fields. Individual episodes of shows or even entire seasons can be purchased and downloaded to your computer from iTunes for a couple of bucks. And for those who don’t mind watching television on a tiny, tiny screen, these episodes can also be downloaded to iPods for people to watch on the go.
As recently as the middle of the decade, if one missed an episode and wanted to find it online, their best shot was to head to a torrent site and download it, possibly illegally, from a peer-to-peer service. But even that has changed now. The broadcast networks offer many of their programs streamed for free on their official websites. And Hulu.com, launched in March 2008, has hundreds of shows, both old and new, available for streaming. But all of this free TV comes with an old caveat: advertising. To watch a program for free, one must sit through a series of ads, usually 30 seconds apiece, where the regular commercial breaks would occur during the television broadcast of the show. Still, 30 seconds is a big improvement over the several minutes of ads you would see while watching the show on traditional TV. Clearly, the television industry has found a way to harness the power of the internet where the music industry failed.
Between the internet, DVRs, and DVDs, television viewers have been almost completely freed from the vagaries of network scheduling. We can watch our favorite shows whenever we want. Besides live reality shows like American Idol and sporting events, the idea of “appointment television” basically no longer exists. Don’t want to pay the $10 a month for HBO or Showtime? Just wait until the latest season of True Blood or Dexter is released on DVD. Do you want to watch CSI, Fringe, Supernatural, The Office and 30 Rock, and Grey’s Anatomy, all (for now) scheduled at the same time on Thursday night this season? Use the DVR to record your top two choices and watch the others online over the weekend, and you never have to miss an episode. There’s that nagging free time issue again, though. Just because you can find ways to watch all of these shows doesn’t mean you should.
As television continues to splinter into ever smaller niche channels, its quality may simultaneously be the best and worst in the history of the medium. The success of The Sopranos opened the floodgates for more high quality shows that weren’t afraid to take risks in their storytelling and characters, but also paved the way for Showtime, FX, and AMC to compete directly with HBO for discerning viewers. At the same time, though, E!, MTV, and VH1 gradually left their previous niches (entertainment news, music for teens, and music for baby boomers, respectively) behind in favor of progressively more awful reality programming. With 500 channels fast becoming a literal reality and the plethora of new ways to watch the shows, there really is something for everyone out there. But the days of a television show being a shared communal experience between millions of people and a “water cooler” discussion topic the next day may be over. If you want to talk to a co-worker about last night’s episode of , say, House, you’re just as likely to have them respond, “No spoilers, I haven’t watched it yet!” as you are to have an engaging conversation. And that’s a little sad. But that’s how TV works in the 21st century.