05/03/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

Just in Case You Missed It: The Media Revolution of 1999


As "Mad Men" revisits the chaos of 1968, we're reminded that some years are more memorable, traumatic and influential than others. If some revolutionary periods seems like earthquakes, others arrive with subtle tectonic shifts and are all the more profound for going by unnoticed.

A case can be made that 1999 changed the entertainment business. For the better, for the worse, and forever.

Others have praised "The Sopranos" with more eloquence and expertise than I can muster. In hindsight that series, that debuted on January 10, 1999, offers a demarcation in pop culture and television history. In many ways television can only be discussed as pre-"Sopranos" and after. Since its debut, every smart writer and producer and ambitious network has tried to create series as intelligent, provocative, novelistic, engaging and worthy of water-cooler conversation.

And "The Sopranos" did not merely inspire a golden era that would bring us "The Shield," "Lost," "The Wire," "Six Feet Under" and "Mad Men." It would mark a precise moment when television stole the movie industry's thunder -- when well-read, well-connected and influential people started to talk about TV shows without embarrassment. Since "The Sopranos," and with surprising rapidity, good television has all but displaced cinema as a topic of cultural chatter. Or, as a funny friend once remarked, "I can find a dozen people to talk long and obsessively about 'Lost,'"Homeland," "Breaking Bad' and 'Game of Thrones.' Even 'The Walking Dead.' I've have never had anyone accost me and say, 'You HAVE to see "Life of Pi!' Never mind 'Iron Man 2.'"

That year would also witness a major disturbance in the force with regard to Hollywood marketing. To be cognizant that year was to be bludgeoned with advertising for the May 19th release of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace." It was the first sequel since 1983's "Jedi." Its box office dominance was a given.

Yet if the Summer of 1999 is remembered, it's not for Lucas' turgid epic or the widely loathed Jar Jar Binks, but for "The Blair Witch Project" (released July 30). A ghost movie made on a low five figure budget, "Blair" was the first real sleeper hit to use the fledgling internet in a stealth promotion campaign that fudged the line between fact and fiction.

Audiences went to see the movie half convinced that the found footage was "real," and left half-nauseous from enduring the shaky camera work. Not unlike the ballyhoo for 1973's "The Exorcist," tales of widespread vomiting became an essential part of the film's word-of-mouth. Moguls as big as George Lucas discovered that you just can't buy publicity like that.

"Blair Witch" has hardly stood the test of time. But it established the Internet as a marketing tool with alchemical properties: the ability to turn a cheap and dirty horror film into one of most profitable films ever. What "Paranormal Activity" would follow?

And the film's crude "home movie" quality resonated with a younger audience whose every soccer game, birthday party and milestone had been captured on video by their baby boomer parents. This affectionate relationship with amateur footage would make this a receptive audience for the reality television revolution that was about to begin.

It's difficult to imagine the desperate straits of ABC circa 1999. (Except to describe them as on a par with NBC, circa 2013.) So why not gamble on a British import called "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

If "Blair Witch" was a throwback to exploitation movies of the 70s and youthful drive in fare of Fifties,
"Millionaire" (debut date: August 16)returned network television to primetime game shows, a staple of the Eisenhower years. It quickly became a number one show. But "Millionaire" was not so much a success for what it was, but as an uncomfortable reminder of what television was missing.

It's easy, and cynical, (and largely accurate), to argue that networks turned to game shows and then reality fare and then singing competitions to replace overpaid casts, unionized crews and writing staffs, with barely paid amateurs.

But "Millionaire," and then "Survivor" and "American Idol" etc., reminded viewers that what had passed for scripted comedies and dramas no longer rang true. Suddenly the antics on "Veronica's Closet" seemed more phony than ever. The flop sweat of a mere civilian facing Regis Philbin's ("Is that your final answer?") scrutiny seemed "real" in comparison.

"The Sopranos" and "Millionaire" put networks in a double bind. HBO was poaching smart and affluent viewers (and cleaning up at the Emmys) while primetime game shows demonstrated a way to build big ratings for relative peanuts. What's a network to do?

Not that Networks weren't also producing good work. 1999 brought us the most frustrating example of TV executives discovering a diamond and then throwing it away.

Much like HBO's mob saga, "Freaks and Geeks" (debuting September 25, 1999) has received much praise elsewhere. The story of its being cancelled after only 12 episodes has become legend. And the widespread and influential diaspora of its remarkable cast continues to fascinate. If "The Sopranos" marked a kind of Big Bang for smart, cinematic television, the "Freaks" formula -- a blend of the hip and the sweet, the vulgar and the awkwardly romantic -- would be replicated in big screen comedies for more than a decade to follow. And not just those written, directed or produced by "Freaks" co-creator and executive producer Judd Apatow.

To recap, 1999 saw the debut of two of the greatest shows ever made, as well as the seeds of the medium's embrace of cheaply made mediocrity. It marked the beginning of whole new expectations of where television could ascend -- or descend. And the "Blair Witch" boomlet showed how the Internet's possibilities for marketing were a limitless as they were terrifying.

And by the way, 1999 was also the year some college kids introduced a service called Napster. But that's another story for another article about another revolution.