Will any shows from the Golden Age of TV endure?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Will any shows from the Golden Age of TV endure?

If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of television out there — by the increasing number of shows being praised by your peers, by the cascade of critically acclaimed programming on the ever-enlarging expanse of channels and pay tiers and streaming services — you’re not alone. At the Television Critics Association’s winter meeting in January, John Landgraf, the CEO of FX, highlighted the ongoing explosion in scripted programming. According to a report on Landgraf’s speech in Variety, 2017 saw 487 scripted series air on networks, cable, pay cable, and streaming services — up from 455 in 2016, which was up from 422 in 2015. Only 153 of the 2017 series aired on network TV — ABC, NBC, etc. — while 175 were on basic cable. Streaming services are the biggest driver in the latest TV boom; outlets like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu accounted for another 117 series. HBO and the other premium cable channels made up the final 42.

“Overall, the total series output on television since 2002 has grown by 168 percent,” Variety reported. By way of comparison, America’s population is up about 13 percent in the same time. The number of hours in the day has remained static, at 24. Simply put: There’s vastly more content (to use a vulgarity that reduces art to a consumable but feels proper when describing the aforementioned torrent) than ever before — and that’s not including the ever-increasing number of feature films or video games that take hundreds of hours to play or YouTube channels making millionaires out of 6-year-old kids. The fragmented nature of our viewing habits means a TV show on a pay cable station can get by with a few hundred thousand viewers if critics like it and it pulls in awards; the biggest “hits” in the world of scripted entertainment are watched by less than 5 percent of the population, if we are to trust the ratings. Of course, with a plethora of viewing options — live airing, DVRed recording, streaming on TVs and laptops and iPhones — relying on something as prosaic as the Nielsen ratings to measure popularity is a mug’s game. We need to scan Google searches and Twitter trends and Facebook topics to see what’s really driving the conversation at any given time.


For several decades, the syndication model provided repetition that helped create a common cultural currency. That model has now weakened — syndication has become less appealing to audiences — as the marketplace has been flooded with new programs and as new technologies have created new viewing options. This will likely make the sitcom almost obsolete as anything other than a day-of laugh-delivery device. The Simpsons at the peak of its powers is a show rooted in its time, one that relies as heavily on pop-culture references as it does on repeated lines of clever dialogue becoming inside jokes among initiates. Strip the show from its moment — as future audiences will experience it — and take away the repetition needed to impress the cleverness of its wordplay on viewers, and what are you left with? Something that lasts? A masterpiece that rewards critical scrutiny for future generations? Or something that fades into the ether, a pleasant memory for those born between 1970 and 1990, and perhaps an artifact of interest to scholars studying the 1990s, but few others?


  1. Graham says:

    In the nearly 20 year debate on the impact of the internet/streaming on music business, in addition to industry and artist revenues, physical media, etc., we have seen some discussion on how it affected music consumption by younger people.

    Last I checked, the general conclusion was that millennials are more likely to sample multiple decades of music and have mixed tastes, rather than the generational taste and attachment to the music of their own youth seen in boomers and to some extent Gen X. Also, not to conceive of things in terms of the “album”, at least as far as popular music goes. [No idea how they consume classical long-form music, if they do not being in music themselves.]

    On one hand, this suggests the basis for a broader familiarity with music than the last couple of generations tended to have, at least within the popular canons. On the other, possibly a shallower more cafeteria-like method of consumption reduces familiarity with how particular pieces fit with others of their time, etc. A less holistic take, to slightly abuse the term.

    It seems as though television has been following a similar path now for nearly 20 years, and many have noted that even some of the shows most widely talked about among critics, among internet cognoscenti, and even strong fanbases, have actually small viewerships. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and so on.

    I was born in 1970, so my early TV references are mostly dead now. Not too much of 70s TV survives, or even 80s. Those decades have niche survivors in syndication and a few shows you rarely see but have left markers in the form of remake movies [Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice, Dukes of Hazzard] and so on. And even those movies were of dubious longevity. 60s TV, which I imbibed in reruns in the 70s and even into the 80s, lasted longer despite it mostly being terrible. It seems to have started to recede more quickly in the cultural memory now, though. More and more people have never heard of Gilligan, Jeannie or Samantha.

    What it all means, I can’t say. Maybe we are becoming The Culture a little earlier than Ian Banks foresaw. I wonder what are the implications of that?

  2. Graham says:

    Of course, some shows get to become memes and live on through multiple incarnations. The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits had at least 3 and 2 incarnations, respectively, and contemporary phenomenon Black Mirror is [though far more terrifying] obviously their offspring.

    On that, I find that this classic TZ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_a_Good_Life_(The_Twilight_Zone) and this 1980s TZ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wordplay_(The_Twilight_Zone) each seem more and more sinister to me with every passing day. The latter could be considered foreshadowing by the universe.

  3. Kirk says:

    I think that the root of all this is the digital memory of the internet, which is going to be as much of a cusp event as that of writing.

    See, here’s the thing: The internet has killed the marketers, i.e., the “music industry” and “Hollywood”. They used to control what was released; time was, once the film was out of the theaters, it was dead and buried. The medium itself was ephemeral. In a sense, it was still similar to the “old days” of live performances–The marketers controlled access. If the circus didn’t come to town, no circus. Now, we have hot and cold running circuses piped into our homes, and the whole paradigm has changed.

    When your great-great grandparents were likely born, they had no access to the performances or non-concrete arts that the generations before them had, and they had to re-invent the wheel with each generation. Now, you can watch Nabokov or any of the other greats from years gone by, and build on them. It’s a huge change, and one we’re not even remotely done seeing the impact from. This stuff is only in the first few generations of adaptation, and once the impact is fully felt, who knows what the effects will be on culture?

    Performance arts were never really capable of being transmitted much past the generations of the creators; now, that prison of time is broken. You can hear and watch recordings of long-dead actors, musicians, and comedians. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin still speak to us, disseminated far past the limits they would have had imposed on them, even in the 19th Century. Before Edison, the idea that a future generation could listen to Caruso would have been an impossible dream, attainable only through time travel. Now? Not so much… If you were born past the invention of film and recording technology, you’ve achieved a sort of immortality that wasn’t possible before. Your remote descendants will be able to hear your voice, and know you far more intimately than the ancestors we know today as mere names on a family tree.

    As such, the nature of entertainment will change. Something like Firefly, a series which lasted a single season, has achieved a heretofore impossible achievement, becoming a beloved cultural icon after actually being aired but once on prime-time television. The entertainment industry should have taken that fact as a bellwether, and a warning.

  4. Graham says:


    Some excellent points. I remember reading not too long ago something to the effect that Joseph Haydn had been in eclipse through most of the 19th century, his music rarely performed, and that in an age when live performances for tiny fractions of the population was the whole of music. Then some music critic revived interest in him in the mid 20th century. Suddenly Haydn is one of the pillars of Viennese music in every enthusiast’s mind and ear. As he should be. All thanks to the survival of the music on paper and the emergence of a recording industry.

    [Apologies if that topic was raised right here on Isegoria. My memory is less readily accessible than the web.]

    People today not only can access all this stuff, they can access it more or less as if it was all produced at once, and often in multiple versions. It is as though the existence of writing on paper set cultural permanence in motion, the millennia later invention of recording gave it a quantum leap into other media, and the existence of the internet/digital media in general makes it all accessible all the time, give or take. That last is a notable difference even from a generation ago.

    Still we manage to lose some things. At times I have been considered a preservation extremist. I want things like literally every book published to be available in multiple DRM-free formats on the web in reasonable time, and every single thing extant in libraries from the past to get the same treatment. It’s not clear that that will ever happen- even Google efforts will be selective. Plus there will be ongoing copyright and other commercial constraints, plus there will be a degree of political/cultural/sensibility-driven censorship.

    So while the internet allows us for the first time to create a complete archive of all the output of human history we possess at the moment of its creation, it won’t quite ever be as complete as it could be. SO we’ll still lose stuff.

    Still better than cave paintings or oral poems, though probably not as durable.

    On Star Trek, Captain Picard was fond of quoting ancient history and mythology. Classical music survived. Riker’s trombone playing demonstrated the survival of jazz. Nobody listened to rock, country or rap. I wonder how many of the titans of the 20th century will see their names live as long as Achilles and Hector and Agamemnon, or Alexander, who wanted the fame of Achilles and has now endured a solid 70% as long as his idol.

    Cultural memory is funny. Herostratus burned the Temple of Artemis solely to gain lasting infamy. The city fathers of Ephesus legislated damnatio memoriae against his name, and yet thanks to one stray mention in an ancient commentary, Herostratus’ name and infamy have now endured over 2000 years. And I aim to mention him frequently on the interwebs, on the grounds that anyone going to such a nefarious length to be remembered, should be.

  5. Slovenian Guest says:

    It’s certainly not the golden age of sitcoms.

    Perfect timing for bringing back Seinfeld though!

  6. Graham says:

    The death of the sitcom is an old meme but I suppose at any given trough it could be true, including now.

    There aren’t many good ones now — mediocre fare like Man with a Plan, which is serviceable, carry the load. The last good era probably ended in 2012–13. But, I rather like Mom. It’s a 2013 season breakout, so even it is starting to age.

    They’ve had to revive both Will and Grace and Roseanne. Both once successful, but that’s really cannibalizing the past.

  7. Lucklucky says:

    Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. Twilight Zone, All in the Family.

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