Wednesday, October 2, 2013

It's not a New Golden Age of Television

Nearly six years ago, I began this blog musing about what would happen to TV within the next decade.

In November 2007, I wrote a six part series here that began with:
The Television Writers Guild strike is viewed by many as just another labor dispute. It’s not. It is the first nationally significant economic acknowledgment of the transition in home entertainment that has been under way for a decade. For this industry, 2008 is 1948 all over again.

At the beginning of 1948, the primary choices for purchased or broadcast home entertainment were (a) books and magazines, (b) 78 rpm phonograph records, or (c) radio (other than self-generated entertainment such as playing a piano or singing). About 3 million tv sets had been purchased by pioneer viewers who had relatively little to watch. By the end of 1953, that number had grown ten-fold to over 30 million with 50% of Americans having a television set in their home. By the end of 1958, the number of television sets sold had doubled again, to over 60 million, many of course replacing black and white sets with color (80,000 sold by RCA in 1958).

Television programming was just a continuation of the same categories prevalent in radio in 1940. In a manner similar to books and movies, radio and tv offered fiction and non-fiction programming. In addition to fiction and non-fiction, both offered a category comparable to vaudeville, "entertainment consisting of a number of individual performances, acts, or mixed numbers, as by comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats, and magicians." That category could be termed "televaudeville". In the 1950's, the basics of "televaudeville" were established by the likes of Sid Caesar and Ed Sullivan, plus game shows such as "You Bet Your Life" and "Amateur Hour" and the popular daytime reality show "Queen for a Day."

By the mid-1950's, television brought about the transformation of radio, reducing it down to its current formats - recorded music, talk shows, and news. Many executives, writers, and performers failed to make the transition successfully. This history is relevant to the changing economics of television.
In September 2008 I noted:
It's official now, because the Nielsen's confirm it. Broadcast TV and cable channels are competing equally for the same prime-time audience. And the Monday night competition clearly presents the picture.
I had started this blog thinking that scripted programming was going to become an endangered species. By May 2010 I had to acknowledge that despite the significant changes in the "TV" industry:
Since the Screen Writer's Guild strike in late 2007, contrary to many expectations including mine, scripted TV on cable channels and broadcast networks has made a significant comeback.
Now, a "new Golden Age of Television" is being discussed all over the web as if the idea is accepted as truth.

Labels assigned to time periods by people who are alive to remember them must be met with skepticism. This is true of home entertainment. One of those labels is the "Golden Age of Television."

According to Wikipedia, "The Golden Age of Television in the United States began sometime in the late 1940s and extended to the late 1950s or early 1960s." You can read the complete Wikipedia description, but one element is regularly "forgotten" by those remembering that time:
"TV sets were expensive and so the audience was generally affluent. Television programmers knew this and they knew that serious dramas on Broadway were attracting this audience segment. So, the producers began staging Broadway plays in the television studios. Later, Broadway authors, like Paddy Chayefsky, Reggie Rose and J. P. Miller wrote plays specifically for television. Their plays – Marty, Twelve Angry Men, and Days of Wine and Roses, respectively – all went on to be successful movies."

In other words, "The Golden Age" was an aristocratic critic's delight. My memories of television prior to 1962 were not filled with thoughts of great plays. Rather it was trying to get the antenna rotor to work right so I could see something from one of three networks through the "snow" on my TV.

As far as I am concerned television was an embryo until it became a newborn in 1948. It went through an infancy, became a toddler, and at some point around 1966 it was old enough to register for The Draft - it came of age. As it approached middle age Fox and cable broadened it the way middle age does. It went through a late midlife crisis ending with the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike.

Now we're hearing about a new Golden Age of Television. Except, what we're hearing about is a different generation's form of diversion. Television was something people watched on a schedule at home - it was home entertainment - and for many, maybe most, it was enjoyed in the embrace of the family.

The so-called "new" Golden Age is, in fact, a product of the internet/smart phone age. An embryo until the 1990's, this new entertainment form has reached drinking age. It's exciting and different from home entertainment. We can experience this new type of entertainment while walking in public places, at least until we fall off the subway platform because we've isolated ourselves from our surroundings that much.

This is not home or family entertainment, it's personal entertainment, it's on demand, so  much so it's made the commonality of the morning-after "water cooler" gathering passe.

It's television only in the sense that television is the movies. It does share art creation technology with the ABC, NBC, and CBS broadcast networks. After all, in the original Golden Age of Television much of the art creation technology was shared with the movie industry as does today's personal entertainment share creation technology with movies and television.

Possibly it is fair to call it television. But we've stopped calling those things we carry around with us "telephones". They are smart or cell phones with differences like IOS or Android or Windows and differing camera resolutions and apps.

Broadcast TV is still around. So are "land lines." In fact, they have something in common - they are attached to a location and were designed to be used with a television set and a telephone.

Smart phones and tablets and the related YouTube and Netflix apps are not attached to a location but to a person, a subscriber.

It's not a new Golden Age of Television. It has been the Era of Television. and it seems to me its headed for retirement. Now its the Era of Mobile Diversion with completely different perameters and effects. Find or create your own word - something like "modiversion." After all, "television" is a created word for a technology:  "Other proposals for the name of this then-hypothetical technology were telephote (1880) and televista (1904)."

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