I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a college class about TV and how it has changed over the past 20 years. The basic point I expressed is that “The Sopranos” transformed everything in 1999, when it brought viewers to pay cable en masse and proved that audiences for scripted TV were hungering for something more morally challenging than “Matlock.”
And then, in 2013, after the quality explosion had led to basic- and pay-cable triumphs including “Breaking Bad” and “Six Feet Under,” streaming TV came on the scene and reshaped everything all over again — and this time faster than cable did. With “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix started the original-series fire on streamers that continues to burn unabated, as some 500 new scripted shows premiere every year across all platforms. The streaming revolution also ushered in rampant binge-watching, which finds us each in our own silo, watching shows at our own pace, whenever we choose.
I talked about all that to students who were likely pre-verbal when Tony first collapsed while watching a family of ducks fly from his yard. I’ve been wondering what the viewing future will be like for them, as we now take in TV shows separately — new shows, old shows, any shows we want. When I was young, sharing series with friends was a given, and a kind of glue. The shows gave us the same points of reference, put us on the same page, even if we came from different backgrounds. Now, the potential for cultural common ground has lessened considerably, and not just in terms of TV shows. Music and movies have fractured into a thousand niches of individual enjoyment, too.
Few of us are still bound to — and united by — the broadcast model. And, quickly, viewers are also abandoning cable, in favor of piecing together a streaming package for themselves. All the non-live scripted material is out there for us to demand — on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, the forthcoming Disney, Warner, and Apple services, and elsewhere. Our TVs are becoming our personal portals, where we design our own primetime schedules. Once upon a time, in a different technological era, the corporations were in control of our viewing habits, and they forced us together; now the consumers are in control.
What I learned from the students is that shows don’t take them all by storm, the way they did in the years before “The Sopranos” — a show that none of them had seen. About half of them watch “Game of Thrones,” but otherwise the strongest glue, they say, are the endless repeats of “The Office” and “Friends.” They share the jokes and characters and quirks from those two defunct shows — “Friends” ran from 1994-2004, “The Office” from 2005-13 — despite the huge number of current shows devoted to getting their attention.
This is not news, but it does make me wonder about the role scripted TV shows will play as time goes on and splintering continues. You won’t hear me waxing nostalgic for the days when a handful of ad-driven networks forced mediocre material on us because they thought that was what we wanted. It’s a great thing to watch creative freedom take over, as many of those making TV no longer need to worry about pleasing advertisers or attracting massive audiences. But still, the disconnection among viewers saddens me.
Watching TV together still has some cachet on Twitter, where the wit flies as a show airs. You can’t even time-shift to avoid commercials if you’re watching with social media; you have to share the entire experience with others at the exact same time, or else you’ll be spoilered out of enjoyment. But that’s only a portion of a show’s viewers, and they aren’t really together, are they? The song lyric that comes to mind when I look into the streaming, binge-watching, content-overflowing future? “Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.