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.