Thirty years ago there were a handful of outstanding sitcoms and series, but would they be considered so now? They got the ratings and challenged the norms of their time but today much more is expected, particularly because there are so many more platforms and channels. And in each era, shows are created that break with convention and draw television viewers en masse.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, all the significant top-rated shows were created for the huge networks and, for their time, broke barriers in scriptwriting and ratings. They were award-winning. They achieved that ‘talkability’ that all producers desire. They also attracted attention across the globe and were sold to networks around the world.
In the 1970s, who can forget that gruff, ignorant and bigoted but somehow loveable New Yorker, Archie Bunker, and his downtrodden but loyal wife, Edith, in the most un-PC sitcom of all times, All in the Family. This show ranked number one in the annual Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976, becoming the first television series to top the ratings for five consecutive years.
It ran concurrently to early 1980s with the utterly outrageously dark war comedy, M*A*S*H. This series was set during the Korean War and was screened directly after the Bunkers. Both shows recorded the highest ratings of their time during their season finales, with M*A*S*H attaining a record-breaking 125 million viewers.
Once the Bunkers said goodbye to television viewers and M*A*S*H ran out of steam after 11 years on air, the networks anxiously awaited the next best sitcom. It only arrived in 1989 in the form of Seinfeld, which was picked up by NBC. While it is still rated as one of the greatest television shows of all time, and broke several television conventions of mainstream TV, Seinfeld was described as a “show about nothing”. It was called a “postmodern sitcom” because, unlike sitcoms of the time, there were no moments of pathos and the audience was never made to feel sorry for any of the characters. The characters didn’t grow or learn from their mistakes, had no roots, vague identities and conscious indifference to morals. When Seinfeld ended, its last episode was the highest watched show ever recorded (after M*A*S*H, that is).
The shows that captivated audiences throughI to the mid-2000s all broke conventions, doing something different. There was the documentary style police drama Hill Street Blues from NBC (which received 98 Emmy nominations through its seven-year run); the ever-popular NBC political drama The West Wing and the longest-running ABC drama, the highly controversial NYPD Blue.
All these shows are still listed in The Writers Guild’s top 20 best-written shows of all time. They are all also listed in the top 20 greatest shows of all time, and they live along some other network greats such as Cheers, TAXI, Frasier, Friends, The Simpsons, The Wire and, quite recently, 30 Rock.
They were defined by the major United States television networks, (NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX) as ‘The Golden Age of Television’.
But with each era, shows get better and more sophisticated, and they push new boundaries. All along, the world relied on these networks for these groundbreaking shows.
But then, with the rise of cable television, residing on pay-TV platforms in the post-millenium era, it is clear the finest work being done in television (particularly in drama) is being done for cable. Cable TV producers have far more freedom in the bounds they can push. HBO, Showtime and AMC have created shows like The Newsroom, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, Veep, Nurse Jackie, Dexter and Mad Men. These shows are replacing the great networks in sweeping the Emmy Awards. They have changed any status quo in TV.
Now the networks are trying to keep up with the premium cables that are willing to take chances in what they put out on their screens.
The very first breakthrough show from HBO before the millenium was The Sopranos, which was a classic that brought a seismic change to television drama. Since then there has been a willingness to plough through the door of creativity opened by The Sopranos, bringing a daring and imaginative edge to television. Until recently, characters didn’t change and no matter what they experienced, after each episode the characters would be as they were at the beginning of the episode. New Jersey mafia boss Tony Soprano may be one of the most remarkable television characters, but he could not change.
So, while scriptwriting pushes the boundaries and awards are swept up at the Emmys, there is still an element of predictability that viewers experience as characters remain the same and shows start deteriorating by their fifth or sixth season.
This predictability went out the window in 2008 when cable operator AMC launched the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad. Creator Vince Gilligan started the show with no constraints. He pointed out that “television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades”. He wanted to do a show in which the fundamental drive was toward change. So while Tony Soprano spent seven years running errands round New Jersey, audiences around the world watched with amazement as Walter White, the lead in Breaking Bad, morphed from Mr Chips into Scarface. We watched how the protagonist evolved, into the antagonist, and we were left never knowing what would happen from one episode to the next and from one season to the next. The show’s real genius was its utter unpredictability, with twists and turns and nuances none of us could have foreseen.
Breaking Bad, which ended in September 2013, is widely considered one of the greatest television series of all time. It won the 2013 Primetime Emmy Award for best television drama series. The Guinness World Records called it the highest-rated series of all time, rating its final fifth season 99 out of 100. Also, by the end of the show, it was among the most-watched cable shows ever, with audience numbers doubling in its final season. It broke through barriers and set a new bar in drama content creation; one can only wonder, what’s next?
While the cable TV operators are producing cutting edge and risqué content, a new trend, business model and content distribution mechanism is emerging in the online media space. The online streaming service, Netflix, is beginning to create original content and outbid the cable greats to stream their own content.
A case in point is that the producers of American political series House of Cards approached HBO, Showtime and AMC; but, in a bid to launch its own original programming, Netflix outbid all three cable operators. Netflix changed the business model of content distribution by launching the entire first season internationally on 1 February 2013. In territories that can’t access Netflix, the series launched on subscription TV platforms (in its entirety through the pay platforms’ video on demand, or VOD, features).
House of Cards won the first ever Primetime Emmy nomination in 2013 for original online-only web television and won the award for outstanding directing for a drama series; outstanding casting and outstanding cinematography for a single camera series.
Clearly, web television has even fewer, if any, barriers. The sky is the limit online and producers can go crazy with creativity and innovation, pushing any existing bounds.
So, while networks have become predictable and even cable TV has certain boundaries, web TV is taking us into the newest era in television.
This post was first published in the March 2014 issue of The Media magazine.