Is TV really most sincerely dead?
Knee deep amidst the network upfront announcements of axes swung ("Smash" cancelled!) and shows born ("The Blacklist"!) and reborn ("24"!?) comes a dire New York Times business article ("As TV Ratings and Profits Fall, Networks Face a Cliffhanger" by Brian Stelter). The end of every TV season brings predictions of TV's demise. Is The End really near?
As somebody who writes a newspaper column of TV criticism, I like to think of myself as someone who covers a 20th Century medium in a 19th Century medium. So pardon me for taking the long view.
Rather than suddenly expiring, crushed by the tornado-born house of a digital revolution, television appears to be suffering from a lingering malady. Like Hyman Roth in "Godfather Part II," it's been "dying of the same heart attack for the last twenty years."
Has the TV audience been fragmented? That's been happening since cable television became widely accepted and installed. To put that in some perspective, Bruce Springsteen's song "57 Channels and Nothing On" was released in 1992. Are people skipping ads? TIVO was introduced in 1999.
But things are really, really, really bad now, says people quoted in Stelter's article. We've reached a "tipping point."
I'm a TV critic and not a business writer, so forgive me for confusing, or missing the point. Tipping, or otherwise. I've just heard from Henny Pennys before.
Every time somebody declares television dead and buried and irrelevant, something comes along to change our minds. I'll give up TV as soon as "Seinfeld" goes off the air, or "24," or "Lost," or "The Wired" or "Downton Abbey" or "Homeland."
We all have so much better technology now and have much more important things to do. Like using our 4G phones to tell our wives that we've just arrived at the restaurant. Tweeting. And watching cats on YouTube.
And if TV was to die tomorrow, perish from the earth like milk trucks, rotary phones and Betamax, I wouldn't be surprised by its demise, but rather marvel at its longevity.
For arguments sake, let's date the advent of television as the dominant medium to the early 1950s, the time of the Kefauver Senate Hearings and the soaring popularity of "I Love Lucy." It's about that time that "the boob tube" stole radio's thunder as the most important broadcast advertising medium and as setter of the national agenda, the provider of "water cooler" conversation and arbiter of popular culture.
Radio began to come of age when listeners picked up the 1920 election results over their crystal sets. So if you accept the notion that it was eclipsed in say, 1952, then it had a good 32-year run.
Television, in contrast, has been with us for far more than 60 years. Truman was president when Lucy Ricardo had her baby! Harry S. Truman!
Sure, it's changed, from rabbit ears to cable to streaming. Its audience has fractured and been harvested into micro-niches. But has that been so terrible? Particularly for the viewer? Would you prefer the collective comfort of watching "Who's the Boss" with 25 million of your fellow Americans? Or something good?
During the heyday of the networks, when even the lowest rated show could pull in more than 20 percent of households, TV series had to reach for a broad, general audience. As someone who used to work in the book business, I like to think of it in publishing terms. The old days of broadcasting offered audiences something akin to the paperback bestsellers you might find in a rack at a drug store or airport kiosk. They were dependably popular, and as such, at worst banal and at best, middlebrow -- not unlike the miniseries from broadcast TV's golden age, based on novels by James Michener, Herman Wouk and Judith Krantz.
Now with services like HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, Acorn streaming, etc., viewers are no longer limited to the hugely popular, or even to series from the present day. The bean counters at Netflix may not like the analogy, but I've come to see their service as the TV equivalent of a great used bookstore. Can't wait for "Arrested Development"? Can't stand "House of Cards"? Sample "Monarch of the Glen" from 2000. Or repeats of "The Goldbergs" from 1955.
"The Goldergs" were among the primordial soap operas that made the migration from radio to television during its early ascent. Although television stole the advertising spotlight from the older medium, radio didn't exactly roll over and die.
Sitting in 1952, who would have predicted that the broadcast medium that had been associated with "Fibber McGee and Molly" show from the 30s to the 50s, would become the preferred avenue for rock and roll for the upcoming baby boom generation from the 50s to the 70s? Or the place to hear conservative "talk" from the 1980s onward?
Sitting in 1952 it would have been easy to envision a time when radio would go silent and every movie theater in America would close its doors. That did not come to pass.
And those non-events and non-fatalities should be remembered by everyone beginning to hang crepe for broadcast TV. Pointing out the demise of a medium is easy. Predicting its direction is another matter.