TV Analysis: Is the Golden Age of Television ending?

lost_the_life_and_death_of_jeremy_benthamTV Analysis: Is the Golden Age of Television ending?

We see a lot of detective shows, cop shows, lawyer shows, all because this genre has succeeded in the past and continues to succeed. It is familiar. Television has had some of its greatest shows of all time in the last 20 years. They have called it the golden age of television, but with many critically-hit shows ending, is the golden age also coming to an end?

“Breaking Bad,” “Lost,” “30 Rock,” “West Wing,” are all a part of the golden age, alongside many other financial and critical successes. These shows captured audiences’ attention with their high-quality production. With so many hours of content, audiences became emotionally invested in the situations and the characters of each show.

7885870_600x338When you think financial success and critical success, they don’t coincide often anymore in movies. Production companies are onto a successful formula: the action movie, the superhero movie. Movies that don’t require the audience to assess everything, rather put their legs up and relax. This formula has, and is continuing, to bring audiences to theaters, even with rising ticket costs. Not all of these movies are bad, but some are because they can have the lowest quality production, or script, and put a superhero’s name on it and make millions of dollars.

Television shows are different, but have been experimenting with similar formulas. A lot goes into green-lighting a show, and many new shows are cancelled before the first season is even over, making the writers scramble to come up with a fitting conclusion. Television shows are initially planned to last longer and aren’t meant to die young, they also don’t get the budget that films do, because you can’t put a significant amount of effects (practical and visual) into a television show that delivers 12 hours of content a year. It is too expensive, so networks invest in more logistical projects, which often require more creativity.

a-scene-from-breaking-badIf you take a look at our top 20 television show of all-time list. Many of them are modern. AMC, HBO, and FX have been the unsung heroes of the golden age. AMC had two critically successful shows: “Breaking Bad” (which ended earlier this year) and “Mad Men” (which is nearing an end.) They also have turned “The Walking Dead,” a graphic novel adaptation, into a financial success when not even HBO would invest in it.

HBO has continuously brought us shows with movie-level production quality. “Game of Thrones,” a show many networks wouldn’t touch do to its graphic content, was able to blossom on this network. Along with minimal restrictions where show-runners and writers don’t have a limit to the explicit content of their narrative.

FX has been renowned for the creative freedom it gives its show-runners. Turning an extreme low-budget pilot into a long-running success with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” giving one of the greatest working comedians complete creative control with “Louie,” and investing in an animated series on a non-animation based network with “Archer.” (All still running)

1227282_1370431629368_fullWith so many successful shows, it was only a matter of time before networks tried to replicate those formulas. Many spin-off shows have been announced. “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” has been a critical disaster compared to its counterpart “Once Upon a Time” (which wasn’t great to begin with.) The following shows have announced a spin-off: “Breaking Bad,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “The Walking Dead.” Networks want to invest in things they know work, and no one knows anything, except what shows have been successful.

A common theme in a lot of the golden age shows is that they were original concepts spawned from great pilot scripts. Networks took a chance on them and invested in them. Investing in original content isn’t safe, the audience wants to turn on something familiar, which is why we see many adaptations, spin-offs, and reboots. This is why we have so many detective, cop, and lawyer shows, because they are familiar to audiences. They are a formula that works. Many original shows become successful later on when word-of mouth has spread.

masters of sex 6Some say it is the dark age for movies, that movies haven’t been anything remarkable since the eighties. The studios have found their formula, things a non film-goer would want to check out just so they could be a part of the water-cooler conversation. Television is different, a greater success has come from a high quality demand (much like video games). People will watch a show for a gimmick, but they will stick around and invest many hours in it only if it’s good.

Is the golden age of television ending? Are networks trying to formulate their approach and bring audiences in with style over substance? It’s too early to say. Of course there are more unsuccessful shows out there than successful shows, and even though many television classics are ending, there is still plenty to get into. “Mad Men,” Boardwalk Empire,” “Game of Thrones” are all still living on, not to mention “Masters of Sex” which has been successful with critics and could become popular in time.

The golden age may be coming to a bittersweet end, or it may be growing yet. We’ll see how the next few seasons play out.

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5 thoughts on “TV Analysis: Is the Golden Age of Television ending?”

  1. I wouldn’t say it’s “ending”, I believe media as a whole (film and Tv alike) is going through an awkward transition. Mainly due to availability changes, like the addition of streaming services.

    3 years ago Netflix was known as the service posting mostly B-list movies and outdated TV show catalogs. Now it’s self producing Emmy nominated content like House of Cards. Not to mention shows like Orange is the New Black, Derek, the 4th season of Arrested Development, and several others. All of which have taken advantage of Netflix hands off approach to giving content makers creative freedom. That attracts people, and most of these shows have aired in the last 2 years, online only.

    Plus it has other implications in more traditional media. Most notably, influencing the popularity of Breaking Bad; a show that wasn’t as well received until the first several seasons became available on Netflix, prompting the fandom for the last few seasons.

    Then we get into the availability of shows from foreign markets, that otherwise wouldn’t of been successful in the states. Hulu Plus, for as much flack as it gets, continues to provide stellar shows from the UK like Pramface. Shows that would of otherwise never been shown in any fashion on an American TV.

    Amazing content is still being made and shared, granted in a non traditional fashion that’s changing the way we think about media, and how distribution channels (both broadcast and cable). It’s hard to adapt right now. AMC wanted to can Breaking Bad in its second season. Even Vince Gilligan attributed Netflix for saving the show. 7 Emmy awards later with record viewership, I bet AMC is glad Netflix tipped them off.

    But I digress from your point: traditional television. It’s the nature of networks to formulate success. You want what takes minimal effort (production and cost wise) with maximum output. If you could formulate that success, then you are set. I think the simple answer to your question is: these things come in waves. Sorkin made The West Wing, and then Studio 60 (a show that did not score well with critics or viewers), followed by The Newsroom (the first season is highly regarded). It’s a perfect showcase of quality, regurgitation, and quality. I think with networks and distribution channels like FX and Netflix enabling creators with freedom, other channels and networks will have an issue enticing writers/creators to return to a restrictive environment. After all, Louis CK turned down millions to make his show by hand.

    Whether Netflix/FX/others who follow act as safe harbors for good creators, or act as a beacon for what other networks should aspire to give their creators, that is what’s yet to be seen.

    -Good article though, man.

    1. Great input! Netflix has had a dramatic effect on how we watch television, mostly in a good way. Not many people even have cable any more since Hulu and Netflix are more affordable and offer a wide variety of programs.

      Now we have HBO Go and many other networks trying to cash-in on live streaming, which is a good thing, because it’ll help high quality content (that may look unattractive on the cover) be discovered and (as we’ve seen with “Arrested Development”) resurrected.

      I agree with your “coming in waves” answer, what’s more interesting though is how television evolved into the 21st century, where shows have become less episodic and more continual. I feel like television programming has vastly evolved since the eighties and early nineties. People can become much more attached to a narrative that is 70 to 100 hours long.

      The route I wouldn’t like to see it go is the same with film, where success is duplicated and replicated to the grave, but in the end it is a business, and whatever makes money makes money. We can only hope for some good quality television out of all of it in the end.

      1. Your comment on continual story progression over episodic is spot on. Pretty soon though, even with continual story lines, creators are going to realize that these shows are being marathoned through, rather than watched weekly. That vastly changes how episodes should begin and end. The normal structure for the past 40+ years of Drama has been “previously on, 1 minute intro, setup for episode premise, plot, concise ending that leaves one loose end to lead you into the next episode”. Now they have to take into consideration that a lot of that fluff and setup is unnecessary to some degree.

        As we’ve both asserted before, it really is a huge transition in ever way. From analog film to digital, episodic to continuous stories, episode marathoning, streaming, how to gauge social networking and incorporate that without weakening the experience, etc.

        Another interesting tangent, on the whole topic of TV change, is the idea that most people do not have one screen in the room while watching TV anymore. We mostly have phones, tablets, laptops, or any number of devices that now accompany us. Even dramas are attempting to cash in, such as the Game of Thrones Smartglass integration that gives additional information about the story, and anything else they see appropriate. It seems gimicky to most, but the living room is changing and story tellers have to account for the venue/watching experience as well. Seeing if that comes to fruition will be interesting.

        The whole thing is interesting. We could have a great conversation on the matter. So many ideals on how it should go down.

  2. Think of all the things you could be doing in your life of value and actually having a life instead of sitting in front of a screen escaping from the real life god gave you.

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