Years ago, before the cable boom, before the rise of social media, before broadband and Apple TV and Netflix and iEverything were at our fingertips, “the future of TV” was the subject of endless Clinton-era gold-rush-fever speculation. We were told exactly what it would look like: One day soon, we’d be able to watch Friends or ER whenever we felt like it, simply by saying to our TV—or better still, our home computer, which would control everything—“Show me the latest episode.” Maximum consumer flexibility, maximum choice, maximum convenience. Tech nirvana.
That particular version of the future has been so fully realized that now we just call it “TV.” It’s all real. Well, all but the voice control. (“The machine will understand what you’re thinking!” is the one thing futurologists always seem to get wrong.) Twenty years ago, if something amazing aired and we hadn’t programmed the VCR and remembered to rewind the blank tape, too bad. But today, there is virtually no way to miss anything, ever, and most of the time, we’re no more than a few feet from a device on which we can see it. While I’m on the treadmill at the gym, I can use Hulu Plus or iTunes to order episodes of 30 Rock and watch Alec Baldwin make fun of me for watching TV on my phone, on my phone (meta!), or raise my head an inch or two and watch the shrieky anchorbots of E! on the monitor built into the treadmill, or lift my eyes a few degrees more and watch Wolf Blitzer on the communal big-screen TV that I have to share with other people—gross! Primitive!—like I would in a prison.
Now that the future is here, how does it feel? You know how it feels. It feels … meh. New delivery systems are swell, but TV all the time, on demand, everywhere, is only a positive value when something good is on. That, happily, seems to be more and more often. The next wave of TV innovation looks like it will be about what we watch, not just how.
A few years ago, thanks largely to cable, we were in what was widely considered a new golden age of drama. Today’s menu isn’t as easily categorized by genre, but only because it’s so intriguingly varied, motley, and freewheeling. In 2012, television is a buffet table of options—timid and formally challenging, progressive and retro, formulaic and experimental. And sometimes all of them at once. The result can seem slightly chaotic, but it’s appropriate for an audience that has fractured into a multitude of special interests, cults, and demographic shards. What do we want from television when the word we no longer has any real meaning? “We” want everything—and thanks to their terror about ratings free fall and throw-everything-at-the-Internet-and-see-what-sticks instincts, the makers of TV are, fitfully and often accidentally, giving it to us.
Until recently, common wisdom had it that an ever more à la carte TV experience would render everything more bite-size. Expecting a generation raised on games, instant gratification, and ADHD medication to endure a full-length show was like asking kids to sit down and crack Moby-Dick. Instead, they’d surely want a diet of webisodes, nibbles, microdoses of disposable entertainment. “What’s a Minisode?” chirps the Crackle TV YouTube channel. “It’s your favorite shows, scaled down for proper Internet consumption!” (Which is more or less satanic, even if all Crackle does is shrink old episodes of Married … With Children from 22 minutes to five.)
But the next generation hasn’t been particularly cooperative about living up to that stereotype. Many viewers don’t want their food pre-chewed: They’d rather spend a Sunday marathoning episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or discussing Game of Thrones, a show so densely designed that its website includes a relief map. Our desires can be contradictory: People want long, complicated, multiyear stories with narrative byways that require the guidance of a virtual community to navigate—but they also want NCIS, an electronic hum, background noise. And some shows give us both the new-model pleasures of anything-goes television and the tried-and-true virtues of decades past: American Horror Story, for instance, is a closed-ended mini-series anthology initially disguised as an open-ended horror soap, and the fact that the show didn’t “out” its own format until it ended season one by killing practically every major character was, despite its flaws, kind of thrilling. At the same time, in embracing a form that dates all the way back to Rich Man, Poor Man, the show is cleverly making something old into something new.
Of course, TV will always be there to provide a dependably warm bath for those who prefer to use it as a kind of muscle relaxant. There are entire cable channels so cheerfully shallow they practically demand you multitask while watching them; Bravo’s programming would probably evaporate from embarrassment if you ever gave it your undivided attention. On the other hand, TV for true believers is thriving. The deep engagement of a devoted but relatively tiny audience—the basic-cable dynamic—is now a compromise that even networks are beginning to accept, if not embrace. If any newcomers were to sample Fringe or Community, they’d likely find both series flat-out incomprehensible. Those shows and their acolytes now speak an almost private language to each other, and that’s okay. TV that rewards its most faithful and attentive viewers usually has a lot more dynamism and integrity than the kind of blandly accessible-to-all programming that imploringly throws itself at the Nielsen equivalent of the undecided voter.