All Commentary
Wednesday, October 9, 2013

TV’s Third Golden Age

Programming quality is inversely proportional to regulatory meddling

Over the summer, Netflix made history, receiving 14 Emmy nominations for its original TV programming. The number of nominations was not remarkable. What was unprecedented was that the nominated comedies and dramas—now recognized as the highest quality available for television—are not for broadcast television. They're not cable shows, either. 

Netflix is the leading provider of on-demand Internet streaming media—and its “TV shows” are produced for the Internet. The company's 38 million subscribers can stream the new videos to their computers, tablets, and smartphones, as well as their online TV sets.

Most of the nominations Netflix garnered, including outstanding drama series, went to the hour-long political drama House of Cards, which debuted on the streaming service at the beginning of the year. David Fincher, who directed the first episode, won the Emmy for outstanding directing.

The star of House of Cards also got a nod. The prime time Emmy Award nomination for outstanding lead actor went to film and stage veteran Kevin Spacey, who told an audience at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival in August that TV has entered a “third golden age.”

Spacey isn’t the first to make the claim. In the last decade, TV aficionados have begun to talk of a new golden age of television beginning around the turn of the century with HBO's The Sopranos

The first golden age of television took place at the beginning of the medium, over half a century ago—and at first glance, it could not look more different from the era we enjoy now. 

In the 21st century, we have several national broadcast networks, hundreds of cable and satellite channels, and an increasingly dizzying array of video entertainment options emerging online. At the beginning of television, original prime time programming was only available on two and a half networks, CBS and NBC—with latecomer ABC the stunted offspring of NBC.

TV dramas now are cinematic in their production values, carefully edited, and serial in their narrative structure. In the first golden age, mistakes by the actors and mishaps in staging went out live to the TV audience—and the best-remembered dramas were complete, single-episode stories, written and directed as stage plays for the camera.

Perhaps most significantly, the shows that stand out today—Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Breaking Bad, and Spacey's own House of Cards—are produced for cable networks, premium channels, and private subscription services, with little or no advertising.

In contrast, the era that first became known as the Golden Age of Television was arguably pure advertising. Sponsors not only attached their names to the TV shows they sponsored—Kraft Television Theater, Goodyear TV Playhouse, The U.S. Steel Hour—they developed shows, produced them, and paid the networks to put them on the air. 

As Professor Robert J. Thompson writes in Television's Second Golden Age, “This arrangement led to some legendary stories of sponsor interference.” Alcoa, producers of aluminum, would not let a tragic drama be set in a trailer park, because trailers are made of aluminum. The Mars company, makers of M&Ms, instructed the producers of one of their shows not to let the scripts mention anything that competed with Mars candies—not even ice cream or cookies! A particularly chilling example of sponsors' editorial interference took place in a program about the trials of Nazi war criminals. The American Gas Association required a reference to “gas chambers” to be removed from the story for fear that it created negative associations with its product. 

But there were surprising benefits to the 1950s arrangement. In his book Television’s Greatest Year: 1954, TV critic R. D. Heldenfels points out that single sponsors were more patient than network executives, willing to wait for good ratings—or they settled for lower ratings because a show increased the sponsor's prestige. 

TV producer Sherwood Schwartz goes even further, claiming that the reason the quality of television was higher in the 1950s than in the 1960s was that, in the ‘50s, “The networks were conduits and they had no control of programming. Sponsors had more power, and the creative people who created the shows had more authority” (emphasis added). 

As Paul Cantor explains in “America's First Television Czar,”

When sponsors were largely responsible for developing prime-time shows, the television industry had a more free-wheeling, bottom-up structure. Just about any business was a potential sponsor, and anyone with an idea for a TV show could shop his proposal to a wide variety of prospects.

Art requires risk-taking, and while the screenwriters of the 1950s may have felt that the sponsors they wrote for discouraged certain risks, a much more serious threat to creativity would soon come from the public sector. 

In the 1960s, the Kennedy administration decided that television content was the legitimate purview of the federal government. Newton Minow, JFK's chair of the FCC, instructed broadcasters to “provide a wider range of choices.”

Yet, writes Cantor, “Minow’s speech resulted in centralizing power in the television industry and thus actually reducing the range of choices in programs.” 

Schwartz again:

Minow gave networks authority and placed the power of programming in the hands of three network heads, who, for a long time, controlled everything coming into your living room. They eventually became the de facto producers of all prime-time programs by having creative control over writing, casting, and directing.

New shows were aired that displayed the sort of social consciousness the network heads thought would please the Kennedy administration. Media professor Mary Ann Watson described the products of this brief trend as “New Frontier character dramas”—with heroes such as a dedicated public-school teacher, a New York City social worker, and even, as Thompson describes one show's protagonist, “a state legislator trying to pass social programs over the objections of the evil Speaker of the House.” 

But few of the politically correct dramas lasted. Instead we remember the 1960s for shows like Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee-Haw—“arguably,” as Cantor puts it, “the blandest decade of American television.”

If we agree with Spacey about the three “golden ages” of TV, then the waxing and waning of government's interference with television content over the next several decades correlates to the rise and fall of quality in the medium.

The late 1970s marked the beginning of the deregulation trend that we associate with Ronald Reagan's presidency (even though it began under Jimmy Carter), and the 1980s are now remembered as the renaissance of the TV drama for shows like Hill Street Blues and Thirtysomething

According to Thompson,

The free-market philosophies inherent in deregulation fostered the growth of cable services that ultimately pushed the networks toward quality… Seen as just another business, network TV was given tacit leave by the FCC to do whatever it took to compete in the marketplace.

But the chill was put on this second golden age when Attorney General Janet Reno loudly announced, as Thompson puts it, “her commitment to reducing violence on television, suggesting that government legislation might be necessary if the industry was unable to shape up on its own.”

Thompson notes, 

The gritty realism that characterized Steven Bochco’s 1980s TV series (Hill Street Blues) was held up to a great deal more scrutiny when Bochco went for an encore (NYPD Blue) during Bill Clinton’s first fall season as president.

Broadcast television at the end of the century may have staggered under the burden of another interventionist government, but cable TV began to grow and expand into the formats we used to associate with the networks—transforming them as it went. 

Not only do cable and online programs enjoy less interference from government regulation; they can also do away with commercial interruptions. 

The turn-of-the-century slogan “It's Not TV—It's HBO” was more than just a clever bit of copywriting; a premium channel's business model is entirely different from the one that dominated the broadcast industry for half a century. 

“If you're not paying for television, you're not the customer,” says Jeffrey Bewkes, head of HBO's parent company. “You're the product.”

From the inception of the medium, the job of the commercial broadcast networks has been to deliver quality audiences to their customers: the advertisers. 

This means that for decades, the most popular form of entertainment in America was not focused on pleasing the audience; its objective was delivering receptive consumers to the sponsors. This model remained dominant as long as the market was hampered by a federal bureaucracy that controlled broadcast licenses. But as the market has become freer, it has eroded the older model, finally allowing TV’s viewers to become customers. We shouldn't be surprised when entertainment seekers get what they pay for, whether the entertainment is free or comes at a premium. 

This doesn't make the advertisers the bad guys in this story. They once acted as surrogates for the audience when a cartelized industry did not allow that audience to act as customers of their own entertainment. The sponsors simulated, in effect, some of the competition and diversity that comes from a free market.

From its beginnings, every permutation of the TV industry has involved complex trade-offs between art and commerce on the one hand, and between creative expression and government interference on the other. But whenever the medium and the market have gotten freer, art and creative expression have achieved greater leverage. 

With this year’s Emmy Awards recognizing Internet shows among the best available, television has left behind the age of the airwaves, the dominance of advertising, and, we can hope, the restrictions of government interference.