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Must-see TV?

Is television facing a seismic shift that will change the way we all watch?
September 23, 2015
By Jesse Staniforth

If critics can be believed, we’ve been living in “the new golden age of television” for at least the past decade.

By the time Barack Obama announced that his favourite TV show was The Wire during his first run for president in 2008, there was a clear shift toward understanding the spate of morally complex shows emerging out of the pay-TV landscape as a kind of unified genre: serious television for serious viewers.

Yet are we indeed in the midst of a new golden age of television, or is what’s happened in the last decade simply that technology has made TV more available than ever before — and convinced us that its quality is, therefore, better? At the same time, what long-term effect will this same technology have on the lasting viability of TV’s current model?

Charles Acland Charles Acland

Beginning with The Sopranos (1999- 2007) and The Wire (2002-2008) and running through Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, there has been an undeniable trend toward more serious subject matter. During the same period, Canadian TV saw the arrival of smart comedies Slings and Arrows, Being Erica and Little Mosque on the Prairie.

“Today there’s a notable rise in programs of quality, often with adult content, sophisticated themes, complex characterization and sustained, accomplished storytelling,” says Haidee Wasson, associate professor of film studies in Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema and former associate dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Fine Arts. “They often use cinematic aesthetics and borrow from film genres. They’re very sophisticated stories, and often very dark.”

Charles Acland, professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies, co-edited the 2011 book Useful Cinema with Wasson. He adds that the shows lumped together under the heading of “the new golden age” have an advantage over those from the past. They tend to have larger production budgets that can support more varied visual styles, more elaborate special effects and more expensive writers and stars. Also, since these shows mostly are not on broadcast TV, they can get around the constraints of broadcasting standards. “That means they can take advantage of certain degrees of explicitness, whether in terms of language, violence or sexuality, that the broadcast shows can’t,” he says.

Relative popularity

René Balcer (centre) with Alana de la Garza and Linus Roache René Balcer (centre) goes over a scene with Alana de la Garza and Linus Roache on the set of Law & Order. Balcer’s résumé includes being creator of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

The recent critical attention has mostly been heaped on non-network shows from HBO, Netflix and subscription providers.

Yet René Balcer, BA (comm. studies) 78 — writer, director and showrunner of NBC’s Law & Order and creator of the spinoff Law & Order: Criminal Intent — is quick to caution that praise isn’t the same thing as popularity.

“For better or for worse, network shows like Blue Bloods or CSI still pull 10 to 15 million viewers every week,” he says. “Other than Walking Dead, you’re not going to find any cable show that pulls in that kind of viewership. Those shows are getting five, six, seven million people. You get far bigger audiences for dramas and comedies with network television.”

Quality TV isn’t relegated to cable, though. He notes that Law & Order’s 20-year run effectively straddled two “golden ages” of television — the 1990s, when broadcast television began experimenting with an auteur model, through the post-Sopranos present day.

Acland says that much contemporary praise for quality television shows sounds suspiciously like the acclaim heaped on shows like Twin Peaks and Picket Fences in the 1990s. “Then, people were talking about a new golden age, where you had film auteurs moving into TV,” he says. “Oliver Stone had his miniseries Wild Palms in 1993 precisely because, as he said, there was a new era of creative expansion in television. So much was written at the time about why people were thinking of TV as a respectable art form where they hadn’t in the past. And those shows rode on a critical wave that began even earlier, in the 1980s, with Hill Street Blues, Wiseguy and Miami Vice.”

Balcer concurs, pointing out that in the aftermath of Star Wars’s success in 1977, the allure of the massive blockbuster became difficult for movie studios to pass up, and interest in making smaller, socially conscious feature films effectively evaporated. “What happened in the late ’70s and into the ’80s was subject matter that used to be treated in film — more socially conscious themes — gravitated into television,” he says. “So in the early ’80s you had shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere taking on a bit of an indie, cinematic vibe.”

Slow acceptance

Haidee Wasson Haidee Wasson

Why, then, has that earlier quality been largely forgotten? Wasson feels part of the reason that we have such a poor sense of what constitutes television’s “golden ages” is that for most of the history of film study, “TV” has been considered a bad word and film schools have largely avoided including it in their curricula. She recalls that it took years for the notion of studying film to be accepted by academics — and then film was only allowed into the academy when it could be considered art. Television — more bluntly commercial and more geared toward popular entertainment — has had an even tougher entry.

However, she believes that television, film and other forms of moving-image media are at a point of transformation. “People who think about the history of cinema cannot responsibly ignore TV anymore,” she says.

Another practical reason that television has not historically been studied in academia, she adds, was that until very recently it was nearly impossible to see vintage TV. “The only way you could watch old TV shows was the way you did it when you were a kid — you’d just catch it as it passed by the TV screen,” she says. “You had no control over when it would appear, in what sequence or at what time of the day.”

With the widening availability of television from across the medium’s history, scholars are now discovering that it has offered a far richer canon than previously believed. “The narrative that TV was a low art and is now a high art is also being rewritten as scholars and historians of television go back and recognize there were all these interesting interfaces with the art world,” Wasson says — both in early TV’s high-concept experiments like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and in the corresponding interest artists like Andy Warhol took in exploring the world of televised culture. Wasson recently served as a consultant on a current exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City called “Revolution of the Eye,” which explores the long history of television’s relationship to modern art.

Even with the arrival of VCRs in the early 1980s, the accessibility of old television shows depended on stations airing them. Yet following the rise of DVDs and the sudden availability of complete old series for sale or rent, the public’s relationship with television changed greatly.

Acland believes one of the most important recent developments in television history was the discovery that the public was willing to pay money to own entire seasons of TV shows. “In the late ’90s and early ’00s, it was shocking to the industry that people were interested in actually buying television — not just renting!” he says. “This was a revelation, and so much of the entertainment industry reordered itself to the idea they could produce and broadcast programming, and then be able to have this really lucrative subsidiary market of DVDs.”

Acland notes that while DVDs facilitated the now prevalent practice of “binge watching” programs for hours at a time, we have also seen the miniaturization of television programming, with major network shows designed to be segmented and circulated as short clips on such platforms as YouTube, easily viewable on smartphones or tablets.

LARPs: The Series Online-only offerings like LARPs: The Series could threaten traditional TV delivery.

Web impact

Television has long been dependent on changing technologies. Yet what long-term effects have recent technological changes had on viewing habits?

Wasson says it’s becoming more and more difficult to talk about “television” when fewer young people actually have televisions of their own. “Most of my students today watch TV on an iPhone or tablet or computer,” she says. The new model of TV viewing, she notes, is mainly determined by viewers rather than by programmers, as the shift from DVD rentals to streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu have enabled viewers to shift from seeing episodes whenever they were broadcast to watching entire series in one evening’s binge.

As one engaged in producing new filmed entertainment, Balcer says that differentiating between network TV, cable TV, online shows and streaming as a series of separate media independent of one another is growing quickly obsolete.

“Now it’s all one platform, basically. You can call it television or something else, but really it’s all ‘scripted entertainment,’” he says. “They’re going to have to come up with a new name for it. It’s on 10 different platforms and it doesn’t really matter what it is. Feature films, at least for the time being, will have the edge because you can muster huge international grosses. But once everyone gets wired and half the planet is streaming, I think the economics will dictate that you’ll end up with one form of entertainment, and it won’t be called television, or cable or pay-per-view or online. It’ll have one name encompassing all those platforms.”

Benjamin Warner Benjamin Warner

Benjamin Warner, BFA (film production) 10, is one of the young minds at the avant-garde of this era of new scripted entertainment — one that could upset the current TV model. Warner is the producer of the web series LARPs: The Series. The first 10 episodes of five-minute comedic shorts about live-action role playing were released in 2014. Its success led the producers to raise over $40,000 in crowd-funded support for a second season.

He agrees with Balcer that the malleability of media makes it possible to think in creative terms not previously accessible to many artists. “We had a project we wanted to do,” Warner says. “And as artists and storytellers, we had to figure out before we began to tell our story what the best medium would be to tell it in. We were thinking of our story practically: we wanted to get the project made and seen.”

The internet, says Warner, provided prospects never before possible to bring a project like LARPs into reality. Because the story dealt with what he calls “geek culture” and role-playing games, it had a built-in audience almost by definition heavily connected to the internet, and it spoke to that audience directly with both its form and content.

“We faced the amazing opportunity to make a show and put it on a platform where the people most likely to love it would have the easiest access to it,” he says. “We don’t live in an age where executives need to be the ones who decide if we can or can’t make our project. Our Indiegogo campaign proved that. Tens of thousands of fans want our content, and we want to give it to them, so why does somebody else have to decide if that can happen? Why does there have to be a middleman? For all intents and purposes, our fans are paying us directly and completely to make this show.”

The malleability of the web series form, he adds, means that producers can respond quickly to audience demands. “A web series allows you to connect to your fan base directly through social media, with no one else influencing the show but us,” he says. “We can decide to listen to our fans’ feedback, from the smallest themes to the largest.”

Money makers

As the accessibility and flexibility of media forms increase, says Acland, it becomes more important for media companies to find high-quality shows as flagships for their brands. Networks have employed this practice as far back as the 1980s. Though NBC’s Hill Street Blues had a modest viewership, it was embraced by critics — which provided the means by which the broadcaster could make itself distinct. “It was a form of competition between other networks at the time,” Acland says. “NBC was the network that was broadcasting this ‘important’ show. So the monetary value associated with that is very difficult to assess without considering the entire slate of its programming.”

He says the obvious modern corollary is Netflix, which produces small batches of critically acclaimed shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. While the company has been successful in drawing viewers with those shows, its primary corporate identity is not as a producer but rather a redistributor, to make available a wide variety of existing works.

“Some of the shows we talk about as particular to this new era of high-quality television might be presented as flagship shows designed to brand a channel or distribution service rather than to necessarily make money themselves,” Acland says. The number of Netflix viewers actually watching House of Cards may be small. “The money comes from their ability to attract more attention to the service,” he says.

Bill Harris Bill Harris

Producers’ most pressing question remains: how do they make their television shows profitable? Bill Harris, BA 84, national TV critic for the Toronto Sun newspaper and Postmedia Network, highlights the challenges facing the industry. “In terms of content, TV is in a golden age, but parts of the TV business are in free fall,” he says. “The challenge is that we have an entire generation who believe they don’t have to pay for things.”

This certainly has been an issue faced by the music and newspaper industries over the past decade or more. Now TV is facing it as well, as more people find alternative ways to access their favourite shows, with or without paying. “High-quality TV costs money, and who will pay for this? Advertisers still pay much, much more for space on TV than online. Those ads won’t pay the bills. The challenge for the industry will be to monetize the online content.”

Wasson points out that the greatest profits for traditional TV continue to be made in “residual markets” — meaning television markets outside of those in which the shows were initially broadcast. “Whereas in one country — especially Canada — you might not have enough people to justify a zombie show, if you internationalize the concept of your audience and you have little segmented audiences from 20 countries, then suddenly you can justify a revenue stream for what would have been a niche, off-scale, B-grade production — I’m thinking of The Walking Dead — which is now one of the most successful television shows in the digital age,” she says.

“With digital downloading, both legal and illegal, the geography of television has changed. The concepts of the local and the national have been supplanted by a very different geographic footprint that’s global and more multidirectional.”

Balcer believes the only way to move forward as a content creator in this rapidly changing media environment is to work with whatever medium seems the most practical. “You can’t afford to be a specialist anymore,” he says. “I think you have to go wide. You come up with a story and you think, ‘Which media would be the best to tell this story the way I want to?’”

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