Uh-oh.House of Cards. Masters of Sex. Girls. Game of Thrones. Parks and Recreation. True Detective. Bob’s Burgers. The Good Wife. Veep. Mad Men. The Killing. Broad City. Sherlock. Silicon Valley. Orange is the New Black. Fargo. The Americans. Archer. Portlandia. Sons of Anarchy. The League. The Walking Dead. Louie. Nathan for You. Homeland. The Colbert Report.
Verily, we live in a Golden Age of TV -- terrestrial, cable, streaming, telepathic, whatever. And whatever previous TV age you might consider to rank as runner-up, by comparison, is not silver. It is maybe a base metal. Your Show of Shows in the 50s. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in the 60s. All in the Family in the 70s. M*A*S*H in the 80s. E.R. in the 90s. Relative to the astonishing cornucopia of video greatness we now enjoy, they together hailed from the Zinc Age of TV.
How wonderful is that? Unless you are devoted to the major networks, or stuff yourself on so-called reality TV, if you are seeking cultural treasure you’d be hard-pressed to fail. It’s like fishing in a stocked pond. Everybody leaves with a full creel.
So much genius, so little time. No gainfully employed American has the time, no matter how many devices he might own, to consume it all. And the foregoing list is just the stuff being produced right now. We have equal access to Arrested Development. The Sopranos, The Wire, Friday Night Lights. Breaking Bad. Twin Peaks. 30 Rock. Dexter. Lost. Seinfeld. The Simpsons.
Not to mention I Love freakin’ Lucy.
Oh, and every movie ever made. Oh, and the bottomless candy dish that is YouTube. That question about wonderfulness was not rhetorical. We are living amid an unprecedented genius glut, and this is a double-edged sword if ever there was one. For, absent scarcity, content is not king. Attention is king.
It is not hard to imagine the future of high-production-value scripted programming. All we need to do is look at the present of independent film…i.e., the ultimate fragmentation nightmare. The digital revolution dramatically lowered cost of production, resulting in an explosion of new titles, on the order of 50,000 per year. And once again, they are cumulative. So if you spend three years developing, financing and producing a film, you will release it into a very, very stocked pond. Sure, all the fishermen go home happy with a creelful, but 99% of the fish are unseen by human eyes.
It is an obviously unsustainable ecosystem, and an unsustainable business model. Thousands of masterpieces languish unnoticed, thousands of filmmakers can never return Aunt Myrtle’s gracious investment, and like some sort of Moliere farce, greatness and audience never quite meet.
This is not an apocalyptic Chaos Scenario future I’m describing. This is a Chaos Scenario right now.
There are some businesses that can prosper in these condition. Netflix, by bundling the long tail of content, is essentially the stocked pond. It makes its money from the fisherman. But for any ad-supported channel, fragmentation is the enemy of revenue. Gluts -- even gluts of genius -- drive down audience and drive down rates. There are no magic beans, there is no alchemy that can change the laws of economics. Accordingly, this magnificent Golden Age of programming is being financed by speculators and the last inhabitants of a dying star…namely, the cable and broadcast infrastructure, which survives increasingly on monthly cable bills the public is decreasingly willing to pay. It’s a supernova, exploding blindingly in its last moments.
Enjoy it while it lasts. And take comfort in this: just as there is no alchemy that can turn zinc into gold, the real gold stays gold forever.