30 September 2013

T.V.'s "Golden Age"

Ever since "The Sopranos" premiered, everyone has been screaming at the top of their lungs that it's the "Golden Age" of television.  What that has to do with "The Sopranos" is beyond me, but I understand the excitement - I just feel like it's misplaced in time.

By Dictionary Definition, a "Golden Age" is "an idyllic, often imaginary past time of peace, prosperity, and happiness."  Noting the key words "past" and "imaginary", this does not bode all that well for a present period of exciting new works.  I suppose in the broader sense, a "Golden Age" is simply a great time to be a part of something - either as a casual observer, or an active participant.  Up until recently, I would have argued that there have been several "Golden Ages" to TV, and I suppose I could continue to do so (noting that even now, there is the exact same "garbage to gold ratio" of on-air programs as there's ever been, there are simply more shows at the moment).

But I've come to understand that when people talk of TV's "Golden Age" being now, they are *really* referring to a "Golden Age" of cinematic, serial storytelling (Hey, that's the mission statement for Next Episode!)  Truly, it's hard to call what we're consuming on a weekly or daily basis even "television" anymore, as most of us get it through a computer box connected to other computers.  The only difference between downloading the last episode of "Breaking Bad" (one of the great serial cinematic programs in history, television or otherwise) on Netflix or iTunes, and downloading the thirtieth terrible rant from a crazy person with a camera phone on YouTube has to do with two things - Money, and Validation.

The "Money" part, while important (there's a reason no one is creating anything near "Breaking Bad" quality on YouTube) is still not the primary issue (as anyone who watches - and for some reason likes - "Girls" will tell you).  The bigger issue is Validation.

Channels of distribution, in whatever form they take (theatrical movies, book publishing, newspapers and magazines, broadcast television, cable, websites, and now direct internet pipelines) are all about Validation.  The reason that these businesses as Brand Names will continue into the future (despite the cries of how the internet has "democratized" creative works) is that they are necessary.  They don't always get it right, and they certainly don't speak to everyone (as I hinted earlier, I think HBO is incredibly overrated as a "channel", but that's me).  But given the outrageous amount of information thrown at us minute by minute, it has become absolutely essential that we have those filters, companies that at least to some extent say "hey, we think we might know who you are, and we believe this is worth your time."

In the past, we had fewer choices (some would argue that's better, and while it certainly gives the population a more common context for discourse, the jury is for the moment still out).  Now we have more choices, which can drive us crazy.  But it can also give savvy entrepreneurs the opportunity to champion great work, not just that which will bring in the biggest number of viewers.

Yes, "Big Brother" is still on the air, and still drawing (relatively speaking) "big" numbers.  In "reality" (okay, pun intended) those numbers are a joke compared to what the big three networks (and then FOX) used to draw.  It's no accident that "Big Brother" is on CBS, part of the old paradigm, and one of the dinosaurs which will have to adapt and evolve to be a "survivor" (sorry, I couldn't resist), or will become petroleum, in a world quickly realizing it has to find other ways to power its engines.

In that regard - and though it may take some distance in time for us to really codify the definition - it truly is a "Golden Age" for serial storytelling, and the more companies on the landscape, the more variety, diversity, and quality for all involved.  At least - as someone who's going to be creating content for those companies - that's my hope against hope.

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