For as long as I can remember, and I’m sure long before that, television has been widely considered the poor man’s medium. Until quite recently, when it came to academia (or really any one who liked to turn up their nose) television was, to put it bluntly, for stupid people. Not even the actors who appeared on it were watching— after all, no one wants to watch their own show, and what’s the point if the rest is dreck? Television was what you watched when there was nothing better to do, and the people who watched it with any regularity or excessive frequency were not especially well-regarded. Even as someone who has always enjoyed television, when the subject would come up I would respond that, “I don’t watch much TV.” What constitutes ‘much’ is open for debate so it wasn’t exactly a lie, but it wasn’t exactly the truth either.
But now, with shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad in vogue and LOST filling up Netflix queues, we’re in what some might call a Golden Age. There is finally good TV. Of course, television has always been good. True, not all of the programming has always been good, but the problem was never the medium. That distinction is a very important one because, more than almost any other medium, examples of bad television are often used to exemplify why television is bad. I have never heard anyone use a piece of poorly written literature to condemn the entire medium, yet I’ve heard this argument applied all too many times to television. In addition to terrible content, television melts your brain, makes you violent, and shortens your attention span— at least that’s what we’ve been told for so long. With ‘intellectual’ shows in vogue, it is permissible to watch television, but good shows— smart shows— are considered the exception to the rule. Even now television is treated as the ugly stepchild of entertainment and storytelling. I can’t say exactly why this attitude television developed, but I think I know two contributing factors.
- Television is one of the most accessible mediums in the modern age— you don’t have to go anywhere, it doesn’t require any especially complicated technology, you don’t even have to pay individually for episodes, shows, or regular broadcast networks. With the dawn of internet television, you no longer even need TV to watch television! Because of how accessible TV is, we’re exposed to it more, which means we’re more exposed to its range in quality. The good-to-bad ratio in television is probably very similar to, if not the same as, any other medium but we are exposed to television much more often and so may feel like the scale is tipping. The level of accessibility also makes television easy to take for granted, if we can turn it on in our living room or pull it up on the internet whenever we would like it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing special about television.
- TV shows, of any kind or quality, are hard to do. More than that, finding an audience is hard to do. With the way the system is structured now, to make money (a necessity for staying on the air) a show has to appeal to as many people as possible. You might be saying, “That’s true of anything!” But I would venture that you don’t have a concept of quite how it works in television. Here’s an example to give you some perspective: The fourth Twilight novel Breaking Dawn was a record breaker with 1.3 million sales on its first day. On June 28th The Big Bang Theory, which runs on CBS (one of the Big Three— NBC, ABC, CBS), had 7.7 million viewers. 7.7 million is an excellent share, but is by no means exceptional. When you take into account that a major network show like Big Bang Theory is expected to bring in numbers like that not once but once a week, you get an idea of how much it takes in terms of audience to keep a show on the air. With a book or a movie, once you’ve paid for it they’ve got your money. They want you to tell your friends to see it or to line up for the sequel, but it only has to be seen once by enough people for it to be a success. You could walk out of the theater or stop reading a book in the middle and it would make no difference to your financial contribution. On the other hand, a television show that only makes it for one season— typically 22 episodes for a broadcast network season, 12 for a cable network— is basically considered a failure. A few bad episodes, or even one, could mean a crippling drop in viewership. This structure tends to rewards uncomplicated, easily replicated, non-order-specific shows— qualities that bring in viewers but not high praise.
Critically speaking television has been stepping out of the shadows for some time now, but if it is ever really going to get its day in the sun the public will have to realize that television is complicated, and its capacity to be trashy is no greater than its capacity to be brilliant.
Sometimes its capacity to be trashy is exactly what makes it brilliant— but we’ll get to that another day.