The New Golden Age of Television

“IMR09B_1” by on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0

Jason Park

In the history of film and television, the former was always considered to be the better entertainment medium, until very recently.

Many of the greatest directors, screenwriters, and actors exclusively worked in the film industry.  There was more time to tell a complete story, less time for those contracted to do the project, and much more money involved. Many TV shows used to be procedurals, and a full story had to be told within the 30 minutes or one hour allotted for each episode. This gave little time for character and plot development and skillful acting, writing, and directing.

Now, TV shows can be just as good, if not better than movies. Breaking Bad may be split up into one-hour episodes, but it was written like an extremely long drama movie, or a serial drama TV series, which allowed for significant character and plot development. Miniseries (shows with only one season) and limited series (shows with a different story and characters every season) are aplenty now and attract movie stars for their short, one-season time commitments.  Distributors are offering more money than ever before for the best talent.

All of these reasons have resulted in prominent film stars showing up on television. True Detective alone has managed to attract Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell, and Vince Vaughn. Kirsten Dunst, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and Patrick Wilson have all starred in Fargo. Hannibal had Mads Mikkelsen and Laurence Fishburne. Boardwalk Empire had Steve Buscemi and Martin Scorsese. Empire has Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. House of Cards has Robin Wright, Kevin Spacey, and David Fincher. Clive Owen is in The Knick. Maggie Gyllenhaal was in The Honourable Woman. William H. Macy is in Shameless. Vera Farmiga is in Bates Motel. Sissy Spacek is in Bloodline. Everybody wants a piece.

The shows The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, the original Arrested Development, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad are all regarded by critics as some of the greatest television series of all time, and they all ran within the 21st century so far. There are many currently running shows that may reach that level of critical success in the future, such as The Americans, Better Call Saul, Fargo, Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, and Transparent.

Just recently, the number of original scripted television series has seen a considerable increase. Research conducted by FX Networks shows that 406 scripted series aired in 2015, an 8.7 percent increase from 376 series in 2014. Only 181 scripted series aired in 2002, and 217 aired in 2010. These numbers are not primarily because of new streaming services like Netflix, although they are a factor. Scripted shows on broadcast networks, basic cable, premium cable, and streaming services are all on the rise.

One example of this rise is the increase in the live-action superhero genre. A few years ago, this genre had very few shows running at one particular time,  but now there is arguably too many. Fox has Gotham. NBC had Constantine. CBS has Supergirl. ABC has Agents of Shield and had Agent Carter. The CW has Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow. And finally, Netflix has Daredevil and Jessica Jones and four more live-action superhero shows planned for the near future: Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and The Punisher.

HitFix television critic Alan Sepinwall commented on the dramatic rise of scripted television in a response to a comment on one of his articles. “When I started this job at a newspaper, TV critics were expected to be able to write about all of television: not just sitcoms and dramas, but news, late night, even kids programming to a degree, and then reality TV when that boom happened. Now I’m pretty much only covering dramas and comedies (and the occasional movie or miniseries), and barely even watching anything else.”

One side effect of the influx of new television series is the dispersal of the number of live viewers. The last time a series surpassed 30 million viewers is the finale to Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005. This was a frequent occurrence before that episode but now, few shows ever even touch ten million viewers.

One reason for this significant decrease in the number of live viewers is streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video. All of these streaming services are much more inexpensive than cable television. These services also caused a new phenomenon called binge-watching, in which viewers watch many episodes at one time because of how easy it is to access shows legally now. This allowed viewers to watch many more TV shows than they would have without a streaming service to keep up with the countless number of new shows.

It’s difficult to tell what the future holds for the television industry. Television could continue to become even better than film, or it could return to the way it was years ago as bad shows start replacing good ones. Either way, these last several years have proven to be an excellent time for TV watchers.