I’m not one to watch much television, not since I was a kid when I watched cartoons every morning and afternoon after school. But as an adult I just either didn’t have the time or didn’t want to give my time to something like that. I’d watch films, listen to music and read books. But TV? No. Not my thing. But in the last few years I’ve found myself watching more and more programmes, not just watching them but being engrossed in them. I never used to. Why is this? It must be a golden age of television, especially due to this Netflix era.
In 2013 Breaking Bad aired its final season. One of my workmates had told me to watch it and as usual I said I probably would but knew I wouldn’t. I just didn’t want to. I had no interest in it. I didn’t know what Breaking Bad was but I knew the name and I’d seen pictures of the characters in those hazmat suits. But to me, television programmes were inferior to films. The writing and directing were poor and were just something to watch to pass the time. ‘No, you’ll love it. It’s really dark. Just give it a try.’ So I did, reluctantly, I’ll admit. And I loved it. I watched every episode until I caught up to the final season which was currently being aired. I didn’t know TV could be so good, so cinematic. Where had this come from?
I remember when Netflix was just this website where you could rent DVDs like Blockbuster, but you did it all online and got the DVD in the post. It was a fun novelty that wore off when DVDs began to decline. In 2011, Netflix split the subscription in two: DVD rental and online streaming. In 2013, Netflix aired its first original series, House of Cards. In its initial conception, it was aimed at various networks as AMC and HBO, but Netflix outbid them, looking for it own original content. With big names for the online streaming service’s first original series, as Kevin Spacey, it was bound to do well. Produced and initially directed by David Fincher, he’d said he was interested in television because of its long-form nature. Adding that working in film does not allow for complex characterisations the way that television allows
“I felt for the past ten years that the best writing that was happening for actors was happening in television. And so I had been looking to do something that was longer form.”
House of Cards has been Netflix’s most popular series with the first three seasons put together with 6.4% of subscribers watching it in March 2015. However, with other original series being aired constantly, it’s easy to see them having a very consistent good quality. Daredevil (Netflix’s deal with Marvel) had 10.7% of viewers by its 11th day on Netflix. (By comparison, the third season of House of Cards had 6.5% of viewers over its first month). Even Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt beat House of Cards with 7.3% in its first month. But it shows the consistent choice and quality producing and writing has created a new space for creators to make new drama, comedy, and action programmes that are likened to the quality of cinema.
But hasn’t there already been a Golden Age of Television? It was considered to have been from the 1950s until 1960 with programmes such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. But the difference is a Golden Age and a Genesis of TV, as in those times TV was just getting started. And each decade after spawned new, quality viewing for different audiences.
I was born in 1985 and I remember, other than the cartoons, such programmes as Mork and Mindy, MASH, Happy Days and Roseanne. Then I grew up in the 90s and watched The Simpsons, The X Files, Married with Children, Friends and Saved by the Bell. Surely, wouldn’t this be the Golden Age? The 90s was the MTV generation – full of teenage angst, punk rock and grunge – when young people were more in control of TV then ever before. I think this created a vastness in television viewing that caused a ripple effect in subsequent audiences and creators. This kind of control led to an alternative in quality. No longer formal tripe, it was fun, informal and pushing the boundaries. What creativity was meant for.
The reason the most recent generation is the Golden Age for Television (probably from 2011 – 2013) is that the focus for television programming is good quality filming and writing that tells good, cinematic stories over and over again.
“TV has really taken control of the conversation that used to be the reserve of movies. It’s sort of a second golden age of television, which is great for the viewers. … If you like your stories to go narrow and deep, TV is exciting.”
Where these programmes at 12 – 24 episodes per season can tell a story slowly and calmly with ease, a film only has two hours to resolve conflict. It seems that the ability and controlled creativity to do these types of programmes is overlapping with filmmaking. Where in filmmaking it consists of development, pre-production, production, post-production and distribution, Netflix seems to have eased the necessity of this, mainly in distribution, since it’s only going to one place and each episode is uploaded all at once.
With Apple TV, Xbox, Smart TVs, and Amazon Prime competing, the mere fact that there is competition shows the huge increase in demand for this sort of programming. Even Amazon Prime have begun the hunt for original series, such as Mr Robot. And with shows on Netflix such as Better Call Saul, True Detective, Fargo, and Narcos there is more and more choice, and are even winning awards the way films normally would. I was mesmerised by the acting and story in both True Detective and Fargo, Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman in the latter were incredible to say the least. But with excess comes waste as some viewers says they are now overwhelmed by the choice in programmes to watch. And because they are of such high quality, it becomes a burden to not watch them. There will be so much being produced that a number will be left unwatched. Great TV requires great content, and scripted television series are expensive to produce. This is a problem for Netflix’s competitors, as Netflix have already dominated the market and made sure they acquire licenses from traditional studios, to make money.
Where programmes were mainly comedy-based, we saw the likes of sitcoms surge in popularity through the 80s and 90s. The early 2000s saw an increase in drama/action with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias. I think from this we can see the newer programmes being aired from 2013 onwards have been drama-based, revealing great acting, writing and directing. Being an online service, the ease of distribution allows more to be produced, such as comedies like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, animated shows like BoJack Horseman, and even films like Beasts of No Nation.
I think this is the age for great quality content and it’s also a good time for creatives. It’s another doorway for writers and directors to get their own work recognised. Netflix, right now, is dominating the online streaming market for quality programming. It’s giving other studios and networks the idea that consumers want these types of shows, and that investment works. It’s saying ‘We’ll take the risk on this show, hey look how successful it is,’ and others follow. Stranger Things, Netflix’s newest and recently popular show, was apparently rejected from 15 networks before being taken on by Netflix. It’s saying these are the stories people can tell, lets invest in them and show the world an amazing show, which is sure to last as there are plenty of stories to be told.