When all else fails, try being good. This may seem like an awfully cynical way to start an analysis of how great TV gets made. But TV is the most finely tuned of commercial instruments (up there with boy bands and political attack ads as a regurgitated product of the conscious and subconscious public will), and it does nothing merely for its health or to get to heaven. This is not to say that the creative process in TV is entirely without merit: Like almost any commercial product, it lives somewhere on the axis between commerce and art. And right now it’s more about art than commerce.
This week, as the broadcast networks and advertisers gather in New York for the increasingly superannuated upfront extravaganza, it’s clear that the business is rebounding nicely from 2009 (Nikki Finke is even reporting predictions of a record year for ad sales). But structural changes are continuing to press down network ratings: This decline is so relentless that what was once the most mass entertainment around can now boast only one or two shows that can, in any real way, still be considered mass. The most prominent of them, American Idol, is down about 20 percent in viewership from its 2006 peak. Ironically, what’s been bad for ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and the CW is largely good for viewers, as programmers no longer need to reach 15 million people in order to be successful and instead can focus on what will please a more niche audience of 5 million to 7 million, usually about what’s needed these days to get your network show renewed. To be sure, the changes in the business have given rise to some capitulation: e.g., NBC’s late-night debacle and a procession of super-nonchallenging studio game shows like The Marriage Ref. But lowered expectations financially allow higher expectations creatively, as the middlingly rated, very funny 30 Rock shows.
Meanwhile, the growing ratings and long-standing economics of the cable networks (cable operators pay hundreds of millions for carriage, which to date is not the case for broadcast networks, a nonsensical vestige of the medium’s evolution) are letting more and more of them underwrite substantial programming. Who would’ve guessed a decade ago that some of the best scripted programming on the air would be on FX or AMC (home of Mad Men)?
The awesomeness does not end there. The independent-film boom of the nineties, which once showed up the lameness of its TV competition, has faded to the point where it is now almost impossible to finance a medium-budget film. As anyone who has seen the barrage of trailers for this summer’s $100 million–plus 3-D megaspectaculars can attest, film has moved to the safe quarter of doing the only thing TV can’t: blowing shit up and blowing it up real good.
This has pressed the most interesting writers, directors, and actors toward TV, where the effects and emotions remain human scale while the much-mocked “development hell” of yore has stopped shaving off the edges of truly distinctive work. David Simon would not have been able to create anything like The Wire for film anytime after 1975, let alone the dimly lit miniaturist brilliance of Treme, which even the Nashville-era Robert Altman might’ve found too diffuse. Ryan Murphy sharpened his claws on the underrated Popular in 1999 before going full-on bizarro with Nip/Tuck and then using his unstoppable mojo to seduce Fox into greenlighting Glee, the gayest show ever to appear on network TV. Even TV-film switch-hitters like J. J. Abrams, who early in his movie career co-wrote the dumbed-down, bigged-up Bruckheimer blockbuster Armageddon, found his voice in TV, where he learned that complex, dense-pack narrative attracted rather than repelled audiences. His success with Alias and Lost paved the way for a triumphant return to film, with his humanized reimagining of the Star Trek franchise, Cloverfield, a determinedly lo-fi mind-fuck, and next year’s Lil Wayne–meets–Jay-Z–style collaboration with Spielberg, Super 8.
Even as movies clear out space for TV on the high end of the economic scale, on the low end, the Internet and its endless cacophony of social media have put the sedate, bounded pleasures of the sitcom and police procedural in high relief. In a sea of LOLzing, twattering hyenas, even a laugh track starts seeming like a palliative, and the much-hyped coming of UGC (“user-generated content”) as a no-cost competitor to guild-waged professionals has so far failed to materialize.
Helped by the declining cost of production, TV right now is mass enough to be commercially viable and narrow enough to allow show creators to give free rein to their once-repressed geekery. On basic cable, in most cases, you need only a million 18-to-49-year-old viewers to call your series a hit, and in a country with 300 million citizens, anything that’s pretty good will likely get you there. And if your show is considered “high end,” you can get by with an audience of even fewer, since in an ever-more-fractured marketplace, advertisers will pay to reach the kind of people who watch Colbert or Stewart. Or even the cult success Morning Joe, hosted by the once braying and intolerable, now witty and charming Joe Scarborough.
There are more subtle shifts that benefit viewers. As more and more networks get into the business of buying original TV ideas, the power has shifted (marginally but crucially) to the creatives. As recently as two or three years ago, Conan would’ve been washed up post his NBC squeeze play. Now he can decamp to TBS, whose ratings are increasingly in the league of the broadcast networks, and go on 60 Minutes to tell off his old bosses.
Much-mocked reality TV, meanwhile, has created a lower-cost basis that allows for almost endless experimentation. Less-adventurous networks use this freedom to lard their schedules with marginal-cost Hamburger Helper (families with ten children, random cops chasing generic villains down seemingly the same featureless road), but the sheer amount of tonnage required has made room for surprisingly fascinating shows on such arcane subjects as Alaskan crab fishermen, pawnshop owners, pastry chefs, hoarders, and economically fragile middle-aged women who live in gated communities. Increasingly sophisticated audiences for “alternative TV,” as it’s known in the trade, have created a virtuous cycle that prods independent producers (like myself) to take more and more interesting chances on edgy or obscure material. Jersey Shore, which provoked completely misguided howls when it debuted late last year, should have been lauded as shining a light on a constituency largely ignored in popular culture: lower-middle-class Caucasians. Anyone who thought the tone mocking and classist (or merely mocking and classist) simply hasn’t gotten out enough to see how the world looks outside Manhattan and Beverly Hills.
The explosion of niche content yields gems in unexpected places: Joel McHale and Chelsea Handler, for pop-culture super-junkies on E!; The Boondocks, for audiences really pissed about white people, on Cartoon Network; the always charming SpongeBob SquarePants and the really surprisingly funny Penguins of Madagascar, for 8-year-old hipster ironists on Nickelodeon; and South Park (natch). On the high end, HBO and Showtime, now joined by the Chris Albrecht–run Starz, are not constrained by the need for ratings, allowing for such ultrachallenging risks as the seemingly audience-immune The Big C (Laura Linney with cancer, slowly dying this summer on Showtime) or Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s The Pacific, on HBO, whose episodes five through seven are the most wrenching, remarkable, relentless, exhausting hours ever produced about war (had they asked for $200 million to make a movie, it would’ve had to involve Na’vi and happy dragons).
Ultimately, TV benefits because, more than any other major creative American medium, it has always lived outside the old high-low taste continuum. Critics never drove TV the way they once drove movies, books, and music, so the medium has forged a push-me-pull-you connection with audiences (now abetted by Facebook, et al.) that is rare outside of, say, country music. Youthquake-show creator Josh Schwartz (Gossip Girl, The O.C., Chuck) can be found bantering with his 20,000-odd Twitter friends night and day.
Which brings us back to my initial point: TV is good because we want it to be. If we wanted more shows like Fantasy Island, the networks would’ve made them. As with capitalism itself, TV is beyond good and evil: It merely harnesses selfish impulses to often glorious ends. Don’t hate the player; love the game.