It was something we could all talk about together

Wednesday, November 13th, 2019

Television defined the American median:

It was something we could all talk about together.

There was a comforting sense of homogeneity to the TV of this era. It didn’t ask too much of you, and it was always there when you needed it, a friendly and familiar presence. It wasn’t designed to be great; it was designed to be consistently fine.

The apotheosis of this style of television was the long-running, insanely popular 1990s sitcom Friends, a show that literalized the idea of what television was in its title. Friends was a show about a bunch of attractive and mildly glamorous but essentially ordinary white people hanging out and talking about their lives. It was a show you could watch and engage with but also one that you could just have on as background noise, with the characters’ idealized, fictional, not-too-difficult lives serving as the backdrop to your own. That was television’s reason for being: to keep ordinary people company in their own homes.

Unlike broadcast networks, Netflix knew exactly what subscribers were watching, and when, and how often:

The company had three major revelations.

The first was that television-style content, which on both cable and broadcast had always been delivered on a specific schedule, in a linear sequence over the space of weeks, could be divorced from time. Netflix not only allowed viewers to watch its shows whenever they wanted, it posted entire seasons online at once and then encouraged viewers to “binge-watch,” or consume the whole thing all in one go. Appointment TV, in which you regularly dated a show you liked, was no more; Netflix was TV as a series of intense one-night stands.

The second revelation was that TV could be portable. Netflix was an app, not a channel, which meant you could watch it on your computer, on your phone, in your car, and possibly even on your refrigerator. Netflix shows came to you, wherever you were. The service was platform agnostic.

Finally, Netflix realized that demand for new scripted content was practically infinite and began producing accordingly. In 2013, the year Netflix committed itself fully to originals, the total number of scripted series produced annually across all of Hollywood jumped by 17 percent.

In the 1980s and 1990s, fewer than 50 original scripted television series were produced each year. In 2008, there were more than 200. By 2018, the number was just shy of 500, and streaming networks were the biggest producers. Netflix, which will reportedly spend $15 billion on content this year, wasn’t competing with ABC and NBC and CBS. It wasn’t even really competing with HBO. It was competing with the entire rest of one’s life, with 24 hours of things to do that aren’t watching Netflix. CEO Reed Hastings said in 2017, “We actually compete with sleep.” Then he added, perhaps not entirely kidding, “And we’re winning!”


  1. Graham says:

    I still use Friends in both those ways. Even if most characters were exaggerated types and rather stupid [it's a sitcom, natch], they were Gen X archetypes and I drew comfort.

    I will read that link from Candide III, but I doubt it will change my mind. The fact that so many post-millennials think of Friends as racist, uninclusive, anti-Diversity, sexist, heterosexist and homophobic [despite early efforts to normalize], only reinforces my good feelings toward it.

    On the wider issue of TV- there is a new Star Wars series called The Mandalorian out. About a bounty hunter- maybe Boba Fett. Looks a bit like a SW western. Now, I am sure they will find some way to screw it up, like having him kicked out of the Mandalorians for falling in love with a Calamari squid-female who couldn’t pass the Mandalorian military skills exam, and joining the rebellion to fight for Diversity and Inclusion. Like the character would do that. But at face value, it looks like the first SW content in years I would watch.

    Of course, it’s available through Disney’s new streaming system.

    So now we have so many independent, commercially and to some degree software-distinct services on multiple platforms, with all the content increasingly proprietary to one of them. TV is now more work than it has ever been.

    Lately I keep reruns of Friends, the Big Bang Theory, and sundry other 80s-90s sitcoms on in the background while I read articles on my phone or play solo checkers or chess. Strangely soothing.

    There’s also the content. In the past few years, I’ve notices the perv level has gone way up, with such artifacts as American Horror Story and American Gods, among others. Low-grade English style cynicism of the mildly sensualist kind, in this case Good Omens, is also prevalent. That last so far I have found surprisingly boring.

  2. Graham says:

    Well, I wasn’t familiar with rat-faced man but that was a brilliant piece of life analysis.

  3. Slovenian Guest says:

    But they have yet to figure out profitability. No worries though. I predict a bright future, brighter than the Hindenburg!

  4. CVLR says:

    Candide, that’s an old classic.

    Rat-Faced Man most excellently conveys the point that children ape the roles that they see on the LCD, and if what they’re seeing is carefully engineered, artificially produced mass media, then what they’ll grow up to emulate is the “soul” of that media, including the perverse incentives baked into its economic model. I would, however, note that it isn’t merely economic incentives that seem likely to make an appearance, but also strategic ones, courtesy of such fine institutions as CIA and others.

    Incidentally, in light of recent revelations, have you come around to my thoughts vis-à-vis Euromaidan?

  5. Bruce says:

    Jerry Pournelle compared Sixty Minutes to the Sunday Lesson somewhere. Something everyone could talk about.

  6. Isegoria says:

    Speaking of Jerry Pournelle, The Best of Jerry Pournelle has come out.

  7. Graham says:

    I managed to read all of rat faced man’s posts.

    Very engaging stuff when in a dark mood. And I had no idea juggalos loomed so large in the dystopian future of America. Great.

    He’s made good points on generational and career stuff and you can certainly see the broader implications for political economy all over it. Although he is rightly down on traditional boomer family life as a real possibility, he’s obviously darkly wistful about it.

    It was in some ways as if Heartiste, and whoever put in my head the idea of dividing society into the “Craves Experience” Richard Florida People and the “Traditional Life Stations” Alan Jackson People, had merged, made money in finance, and decided to go into attack mode.

  8. Graham says:

    Not without a reminiscence of Spandrell, as well.

  9. Sam J. says:

    “Speaking of Jerry Pournelle, The Best of Jerry Pournelle has come out.”

    Thanks for this. I loved Jerry Pournelle. I bet I’ve read damn near close to all he has written. Most of it anyways.

    See the link and it’s fiction. As much as I like his fiction, alone he is not as good as when he collaborates or is an editor, in my humble opinion. Not sure why. Maybe it’s like certain people that get together in a band and it makes magic for that combination.

    The “There Will be War” series has got to be some my favorite books ever. I think I still have them. I certainly do in digital form.

  10. Graham says:

    TWBW is available in digital form?

  11. Isegoria says:

    Yes, There Will Be War is available in digital form! In fact, all the excerpts I’ve shared have been from the Kindle edition. (Anything I want to excerpt now I get on Kindle. Otherwise I get the audiobook.)

  12. CVLR says:

    There’s no question of Pournelle’s absolute greatness, but in relative terms he loses out to Vinge, or so I humbly opine.

  13. Kirk says:

    Different sub-genre, in my belief. Not to mention, different era–Pournelle epitomizes the space opera of the late 1960s and 1970s, along with Niven. Vinge is from a shallower layer, the 1980s, and while his work is perhaps more fully realized and immersive, I don’t think that he and Pournelle are really writing in the same sort of genre, at all–Pournelle is more pure entertainment, while Vinge is more “hard SF” in a lot of ways, although I’d have trouble laying out why it “tastes” that way to me.

    For whatever reason, Vinge’s work just seems like it has more “depth” to it, than Pournelle’s or Niven’s oeuvre. Although, that may be a poor way to phrase it…

    I like both of them, but… They’re not the same flavor of SF, at all. At least, to my tastes.

  14. Graham says:

    I think I noted on this site at one point that I only read The Peace War (IIRC). But even from that I see the distinction.

    Pournelle was certainly engaged with science and technology and an enthusiastic advocate, but his fiction was more space opera/military SF. And excellent examples. Vinge seemed more hard sf and a bit of philosophical sf, beyond the more political side Pournelle engaged.

    Vinge is perhaps in the same lineage that produced Iain Banks, for example. I’m not sure Pournelle and Niven have a tradition- it seems to have gone more fantasy.

  15. Bruce says:

    John Sandford and Ctein’s Saturn Run is the only thing in Niven and Pournelle’s tradition I’ve read, and it is Good — it had a Niven plug that said so. Niven is from the Hydra Club tradition merging detective stories and SF, logic puzzles. Pournelle was a really smart conservative, Russell Kirk’s student, strong military background from Korean war artillery experience, political manager for an LA mayor, strong aerospace background and space travel proponent.

    That was the old SF tradition — detective story writers who were also SF writers who were also writing technothrillers who also had a fantasy streak from the folk music crowd of the 1950s and 1960s — Poul Anderson, Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Zelazny. All gone from today’s D party flack Hugo crowd. Any art dies every generation unless someone passes it on.

  16. Graham says:

    That looks interesting- made a note to try it.

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