When all else fails, try being good.
So starts New York Magazine’s excellent feature this month on why American television is better than it’s been in ages. In a world where American Idol, Survivor and Dancing with the Stars are used to being the center of attention, smaller shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and 30 Rock are changing the way Americans look at TV.
The Economist report I shared yesterday talks about why television isn’t going anywhere. This NY Magazine piece talks about why some of the most memorable, well produced, well acted and ambitious television shows in history have popped up in the past three years. The report tosses around a lot of ideas, settling on a simple, direct concept – that we’re tired of watching crap.
Like almost any commercial product, it lives somewhere on the axis between commerce and art. And right now it’s more about art than commerce.
In the original “golden days of television”, most Americans had three basic channels. Networks competed for big, big numbers, and the advertisers flocked to the biggest of the big. Today the average American has access to over 100 channels, focusing on everything from food to football, gardening to game shows. New York points out, “what used to be the most mass entertainment around can now boast only one or two shows that can, in any real way, still be considered mass.”
So does that mean that TV is dying? No! It means it’s changing. Now advertisers are flocking to shows that draw big numbers from their target audience. If you want to sell something to college educated men in their early 20’s – you go to The Daily Show. If you’re a teen clothing line, you might want to think about Project Runway. The point is, you don’t need to be huge to earn a second season, you just need to be a great show that appeals to a niche market. 1 million viewers is a lot ... if they are the right type of viewer.
Lowered expectations financially allow higher expectations creatively.
I was in my 20’s during the 1970’s, and it seemed like every weekend a new film hit the theaters that was going to blow your mind. The film industry was on the brink. They were out of touch with reality, blowing money on big budget flicks that flopped left and right. And what saved the day? Hiring a bunch of young nobodies to make films that people could actually get in touch with emotionally. Guys like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese came along and made movies that weren’t just brilliant – people actually went out to see them in droves.
Today the film industry is back to big budget blockbusters, and films like The Godfather and Harold and Maude couldn’t get made today.
Thanks to the shift to niche marketing, TV producers can afford to experiment with creative, inventive new concepts. What does that freedom mean for creatives? Instead of going into film, the Gen Y Spielbergs and Coppolas are popping up in TV land. And with the influx of creativity comes not just consistently better writing, but also better acting and cinematography. I would never have guessed when I watched The Godfather for the first time that in thirty years I’d be turning to TV for such high quality Sisomo, but that’s exactly what’s happened.
I mean, I like a good Hollywood explosion as much as the next guy, but it’s the beautifully shot desert landscapes of Breaking Bad that take me back to the 70’s, not the recent Bruckheimer blow-em-up.
TV is mass enough to be commercially viable and narrow enough to allow some creators to give free rein to their once-repressed geekery.
That means networks can take a chance on shows that we wouldn’t have dreamed of seeing on TV even five years ago. To highlight just how creative TV has gotten, I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite (bizarre) premises for current shows. I would have loved to been in the room when these were pitched.
- A high school chemistry teacher tries to support his family by selling Crystal Meth when he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer (Breaking Bad)
- Brooding suited man with a secret identity smokes and drinks his way through the world of advertising (Mad Men)
- A high school glee club performs pop songs a-la Broadway musicals (Glee)
- A lovable serial killer is a cop by day, mass-murderer by night (Dexter)
- A novelist decides to become a Private I out of boredom (Bored to Death)