Television: Why You’ve Never Had It Better (Or Worse)

Flavorwire is celebrating Memorial Day with The Year in TV, a series of features on the 2012-13 TV season, which ends this month.

TV: you’ve never had it better. It’s a curious thought, in a way, given the way that network television has devolved into a ceaseless parade of reality shows and talent quests over the last decade, but for all that there’s more shit on television than ever, there’s also more quality viewing than we’ve ever had before — thanks, largely, to the ongoing creative renaissance of cable TV, which is well into its second decade and continues to give us an apparently endless parade of excellent series. The increasing quality of programming — along with the prospect of trading the uncertainty of Hollywood for a regular paycheck and steady employment, perhaps — has duly attracted better acting talent. Things have gathered a momentum of their own.

In 2013, there’s even an argument to be made that the small screen has overtaken the silver screen as the pre-eminent medium for quality storytelling — the opportunity to explore the lives of characters over a period of years, rather than two manic hours, has always provided the potential for more in-depth narrative arcs. Compare how a character like Dexter might be treated in a two-hour film, as opposed to being able to unfold his nuances over the course of hundreds of hours of TV, for instance. TV provides creative opportunities that movies cannot, and in the last decade or so, writers and directors have really exploited this to the full. These days, you even have people like Alec Baldwin saying things like, “The movies are abandoning serious acting to television.” Whether you’re a TV producer or a TV viewer, things are pretty rosy.

Except, consider this: if television didn’t exist, and somebody proposed it in its current form, they’d probably be laughed out of the room. We have to… watch things when you tell us? And sit through advertisements at least 25% of the time? That we can’t fast forward? And we have to pay a subscription every month? And we can’t just choose the channels we want, we have to buy a package of a gazillion channels we don’t want to get to the one we do? And it costs how much?! Um… thanks, but no thanks.

As with many things in our world — and especially our ever-changing entertainment industries — TV exists in is current for because it has always done so. (Or, at least, it has for as long as most people can remember, which is basically the same thing.) It’s a sort of reverse inertia — TV continues to exist because in its current form because that’s the form in which it currently exists. But you can only rely on this for so long: a certain demographic, for instance, have landlines because they’ve always had them, and are happy to remain that way. Their children, however, largely can’t conceive of ever needing such a thing, and they’re right — a cellphone does pretty much everything a landline can do, and you can put it in your pocket and walk away with it.

Similarly, the experience of watching, say, Mad Men on Netflix and the same show on TV is so radically different that it’s hard to believe that anyone who’s had a taste of the former would ever return to the latter by choice — on Netflix, you can watch at your convenience with no advertisements for $10 a month, whereas on cable you have to set aside an hour on Sunday night to be bombarded with ads for shit you neither need nor want, and pay a lot more than $10 a month for the dubious privilege of doing so. (And no, the irony of this complaint being aired in regard to Mad Men doesn’t elude me.)

The difference, of course, is that you have to wait to watch things on Netflix. The problem here for traditional TV is not so much that people are going to wait a year or so to watch the next season of their precious programs; it’s that people will seek to recreate the streaming experience by circumventing TV entirely. And in 2013, that’s super easy to do. If you’re remotely savvy in the ways of Bittorrent or UseNet, you can have a program a few hours after it airs. It’s unavoidable that a small minority will do this; if you give the majority of your customers to do it, or risk it becoming the norm, you’re in trouble.

Another example: I’m a basketball fan, and the NBA offers something called League Pass Broadband, which basically allows you to pay an annual subscription fee to stream games on your computer. If you live overseas, it’s a great deal — you can watch any game you want, at your leisure. Awesome! If you’re in the USA, however, you can’t — anything shown on national TV is blacked out due to cable TV’s exclusivity contracts, as are games involving your local team. This means that in NYC you get no Knicks games, no Nets games, and very few games involving prominent (read: good) teams, which get shown on national TV.

It’s a classic example of refusing to sell the consumer what they want. And it’s doing this is what drives people into piracy. If I want to watch a Knicks game, I have to either buy a cable subscription that involves the MSG channel (and an avalanche of other channels I don’t want) and an actual TV set (which I also don’t want.) If I want to watch the game a little later that night because I want to meet someone for a drink on the way home, I also have to buy a DVR. Or I could head to one of the dodgy Russian sites that, ahem, I’ve heard might stream games live from illicit rips of cable broadcasts, and just watch it there. Or torrent it to watch later.

As the music industry has learned to its enduring detriment, treating your customers like cash cows who’ll do what you want, not what they want, is a recipe for disaster. Once they discover an alternative, they’re very hard to win back — and if that alternative becomes the norm for a new generation, you’re effectively trying to sell landlines to a generation with cellphones. In other words, you’re screwed. If you’re trying to sell music to a generation that’s grown up seeing it as a commodity to be taken for free, then commercially you’re dead in the water, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation.

This is the situation that TV is facing at the moment. Let’s not forget that before the bottom fell out of the music industry, things were similarly awesome — in the glorious pre-Napster ’90s, consumers had pretty much no choice but to pay $25 for a CD if they wanted new music. The major labels had a stranglehold on production and distribution. Everyone did lots of coke and wore shirts with too many buttons undone and made money hand over fist. And then Napster appeared, and the whole thing went tits up very, very quickly.

Why it went south is a salutary lesson. Instead of realizing that their existing model was no longer viable, the major labels acted like they had a god-given right to continue doing what they’d been doing since the 1960s, and engaged in an ongoing game of whack-a-mole that rivals the War on Drugs for expensive futility. Sadly, the world doesn’t work like that: Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, a book I’m fond of quoting because it’s so good, talks of in idea called “The Cycle,” whereby new inventions breed open systems that get consolidated into closed systems… and then get swept away in a process of “creative destruction,” where a previously omnipotent technology or network can be entirely replaced by a better alternative.

The incumbent’s natural response is to try to suppress this challenger, like Saturn eating his children, but when the challenger is a faceless network of people that spans the entire world, then it doesn’t matter how many kids you eat, because there’ll always be more. This is the point at which TV finds itself now, because if you’re trying to sell cable subscriptions to a generation who are growing up on watching things ad-free for very little money, you’re also flirting with trouble.

Commercially, TV is in a strange place — it’s between its past and its future, and yes, sure, everything is always between its past and its future, but you know what I mean. It’s both successful and ailing. Look at the data published yesterday regarding network TV, for instance — the crucial stat, as Vulture point out, is that the four major networks “collectively lost about 10 percent of their adults-under-50 audience this season.” Young people are tuning out TV, because the experience of watching it sucks.

The current model of TV is outdated and fundamentally unsustainable — but what comes next is very much open to question. Alternatives are already arriving, of course. People spoke of Netflix’s House of Cards as a revolutionary concept because it released all its episodes simultaneously, but really it was only revolutionary in that it was a new program doing this; anyone who watches anything online watches TV this way, in binges of several simultaneous episodes while they’ve got the time to devote to doing so. Once you get out of thinking in the traditional TV programming mindset, it’s hard to see why any program wouldn’t be released like this.

Similarly, look at all the anticipation for the premiere of Arrested Development last night, on… Netflix. Now, clearly Netflix isn’t flawless — between its astonishingly misguided attempt to commit corporate suicide a couple of years back and its recent Streamageddon, you really do have to scratch your head and wonder if the company knows what an opportunity it has to become a 21st century behemoth, and/or if whoever’s running it has the first fucking idea what day it is in general.

But even if Netflix manages to piss away the position of strength in which it’s in, the future of TV is surely on the web, not on cable. As our own Jason Bailey wrote earlier this month, “Everyone’s trying to get into the online viewing game now — Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, GreenCine, Crackle, Fandor, Redbox, Ultraviolet, etc. — and the pie slices are getting progressively slimmer.” This is what Tim Wu might have called the consolidation phase, wherein the joyous free-for-all of the early days of a new technology starts to get rationalized into a polyopoly, and the minor players wither away.

I suspect that the outcome of this process will determine whether we look back at the last ten years as the beginning of an ongoing golden age of TV, or a brief flaring of great content that fell away when the bottom fell out financially. If TV fails to adapt, then advertisers will slowly leach away — they’re not stupid, and they know their ads aren’t being watched by people online. That means the Hollywood stars and big-name directors go back to Hollywood, and the low-end trend toward cheap shitty content (reality shows, basically) will become ubiquitous. I hope that doesn’t happen, because it’d be sad to see. But the ball is very much in the networks’ court.