The challenge of modern dramatic television


Yesterday I was reading the AV Club’s interview with the wonderful Ira Glass of This American Life and I found this exchange about modern television particularly compelling:

AVC: It seems like some listeners are saying “I don’t watch television.”

IG: I have been shocked at the number of people who don’t watch television.

AVC: I hate when people say that in a superior way.

IG: I do too! Not just ’cause I’m on TV. I’ve actually done events at radio stations where I feel like I’ve had to give a little talk in behalf of television as a medium. I wanna say to them, “I’m somebody who didn’t own a television for 15 years. I didn’t watch TV from the time I was 18 ’til my mid-30s. And then I got a TV to watch The Sopranos.” I realized, “Oh, TV is really interesting.” TV has never been better. Someday, we’re gonna look back on this period as this golden age of experimentation, where the networks started dying, and the cable channels started proliferating, and there are so many channels that to get our attention, programmers had to try everything, including quality.

I think he’s bang on. One of the reasons why my blogging has been a bit slack these past few months – among others – is that I’ve been playing catch-up with a couple of the definitive television shows of this decade. After spending a couple of months going through the first 3.5 seasons of Battlestar Galactica, I then proceeded to plow through the entirety of The Wire.  Both shows are every bit as brilliant as you’ve heard, but they got me thinking about the complications and challenges of modern television and how they tie into other media.

I recently completed an article for Canadian Notes and Queries literary journal that I’ll be reproducing here on the blog once it’s published. It concerns the future of Canadian music, and where the business and the art form might be headed in the next quarter-century. And my central point – spoiler alert! – is that the common ground once shared between music connoisseurs and commoners is quickly fading as the two groups exist in their own separate worlds. And that has profound implications for the business of music going forward.

So it is with television – dramatic television, in particular. The reason why I had not watched The Wire or Battlestar to date was simply that I was slow to catch onto them and the idea of starting part-way through would have just been ridiculous. These are shows for devotees, almost entirely void of casual interest. I think that Glass is right to point to The Sopranos as a turning point in the rise of intense-devotion television, but it seems like we’ve gone further into serialization than I think anyone saw coming. And while I agree that the rise of modern cable is part of the equation, the most important variables are all technological: digital video recorders, DVD and the Internet, all of which made it easier for people who want to invest the time and effort to do so.

The problem, though, is that this model makes ratings a bit hard to come by. It’s so foreign to the traditional model of television broadcasting that networks are still struggling with how to make it work. Just like with music, the challenge of making money off of television is real, and the prospect of them as loss leaders supported by other programs tends to work hit-and-miss. Cable, as always, is a bit more flexible in this regard, but not as much as you’d suspect (the fact that The Wire had to actually fight for a fifth season, for example, is troubling).

The other side of this whole reality is that as we give hardcore fans every tool they need to follow these great television series, less devoted viewers have little incentive or reason to explore more complex programming. With casuals and connoisseurs living in separate worlds, the crossover between them is going to become less and less. Can a show be a financial success on the backs of only the devoted? Will future serials be given the budgets they need to truly tell their stories, or will they be forced to operate with less because they lack the kind of drop-in viewership that amplifies advertising dollars and ratings?

Perhaps Lost provides an answer to that question, although a pretty subversive one. Sure, Lost’s ratings aren’t what they once were, but that’s to be expected for a serialized show with a science fiction edge to it. What’s impressed me is how the show has maintained its status as a ratings success as it’s gotten really friggin’ weird. By the standards of broadcast television, Lost is an anomoly: a balls-out science fiction show on a major network, completely willing to fuck with reality in all sorts of strange, wonderful ways. And the way they pulled it off was by burying its weirdness inside a character drama and a mystery program. By the time the weirdness jumped out, too many viewers were along for the ride to jump off.

Lost is an artistic Trojan Horse. But if it takes a massive misdirection to make boundary-pushing television a success, what does that say for the future of the art form?


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