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This Year Was the Turning Point for Intelligent Television

Despite the oft-repeated assertion that this is the Golden Age of Television, TV has typically not been too kind to smart, well-written shows. When a network puts an underdog series like Bunheads or Happy Endings on the cutting board, it’s hard not to go from panic to complete resignation. Too many of us have had to get used to the phrase “brilliant but cancelled,” and for a long time it’s looked like daring television just isn’t all that lucrative. Thankfully, recent reports prove this might finally be changing: believe it or not, critical darlings are actually making money.

The past few weeks have seen the once underrated Breaking Bad move from cult hit to definite success, and previously hesitant advertisers are taking notice in a big way. After a record-breaking season premiere, The New York Times reported that ad space in the final episodes of Breaking Bad is so highly coveted that a 30-second commercial is worth $300,000. These kinds of high-end ad fees are incredibly rare for cable, usually reserved for network television shows with way larger audiences (ad space for juggernauts like American Idol runs around $500,000). One could chalk this success up to the fast-paced narrative that made shows like Lost into huge hits, but the slow-burning Mad Men also broke viewership records for AMC in its season six finale.

And AMC itself has proved to be worth a lot for a channel that prides itself as a thinking person’s network. Though its shows don’t have the massive ratings of Dancing with the Stars or NCIS, AMC’s content has done so well that they’ve gradually been able to charge cable companies more money to host it. And those companies are paying, whether they like it or not: last year, Dish Network almost dropped AMC after a rise in prices, but complaining subscribers proved the channel was worth the investment. AMC’s dedication to smart TV has paid off: Mad Men and Breaking Bad sweep the Emmys year after year, and The Walking Dead was the tenth most popular show of the 2012-13 season.

The other big success story is Netflix, which saw more growth than ever after the decision to add good original programming. The company earned $1 billion in just the first quarter of this year, and the Emmy-nominated House of Cards is a big part of why. After its release, it quickly became Netflix’s most popular show, drew huge amounts of viewers, and kept them there. “Some investors worried that the House of Cards fans would take advantage of our free trial, watch the show, and then cancel,” Netflix told TechCrunch. “However, there was very little free-trial gaming — less than 8,000 people did this — out of millions of free trials in the quarter.” This doesn’t even include the runaway success of Orange Is the New Black, though Netflix hasn’t released information on how it has affected the network. The show has, however, helped double TV revenue for its production company Lionsgate, along with sister shows Mad Men and Nashville.

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There are a few possible explanations for why good TV is suddenly showing an increase in financial viability, and one of which could be its accessibility. Streaming content on Netflix, Hulu, and VOD means viewers don’t have to leave home for a good story, and the rise of binge-watching proves audiences are eating it up. A recent article from Film School Rejects theorizes that streaming content might be one of the reasons big-budget blockbusters haven’t done so well this summer. Landon Black called Orange Is the New Black “perhaps the most talked-about media object this summer…[and] while I have no way to prove that more people would have seen 2 Guns had we not been watching the former stars of American Pie and That ‘70s Show on streaming ‘television,’ it certainly seems that TV in its myriad forms has regained its rightful spot in offering a truly competitive screen like it did in the 1950s.”

Another reason could be that shows like Breaking Bad are reaching some important, occasionally hard-to-reach demographics. According to the New York Times, “[the show’s] viewership in the 18- to 49-year-old audience bracket…beat CBS, NBC, and ABC combined” for its season premiere. Advertisers are also attracted to Breaking Bad’s success with male viewers, who account for 60 percent of the show’s total audience. A large concentration of male viewers has also attracted advertisers to shows on AMC’s competitor FX, a network that’s also earned a reputation for strong, unique programming.  “FX’s playbook consists of luring creative people with the promise of artistic freedom rather than a financial windfall,” the Times said in a 2012 write-up. That creative promise inspired Louis C.K. to turn down a seven-figure deal for a network TV show, and that seemingly big risk helped turn him into a household name.

After years of big risks and little financial payoff, the buzz of critical hits is now attracting both viewers and advertisers. The cultural worth of shows like Breaking Bad is probably already evident to most Flavorwire readers, but it would be pretentious and reductive to say that this kind of TV is valuable merely because of its critical acclaim. However, praise doesn’t come from nothing, and thankfully, so many of these surprise hits are beloved because they tell compelling, important stories. Shows like Mad Men ask us to look at our nation’s legacy, while Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Orange Is the New Black confront us with its rough present. Because of their subject matter, shows like these are relevant in ways American Idol or NCIS never can be, and fortunately for TV lovers, they’re attracting bigger audiences than ever before. After years of talk, it looks like fans of the Golden Age of Television can finally put their money where their mouths are.

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