Inevitably, when asked to contemplate the future of television, one can’t help but briefly retreat into the past. What did television mean to us when we were kids, teens and young adults? What did it mean to our parents, our children and others in our lives? Anyone old enough to remember the pre-cable world no doubt feels a rush of nostalgia thinking about all of the simple good things television used to be.
Television isn’t going anywhere --- not in this lifetime, anyway – as it is more fully ingrained into our lives than ever before. And the overall quality of dramatic programming is arguably the best it has ever been. As content restrictions continue to ease and distribution options continue to multiply this once relatively sterile medium will continue to provide ever-more adult oriented entertainment along the lines of “The Good Wife,” “Breaking Bad,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Homeland” and “The Walking Dead.” But with so many viewing choices available at any moment – with everyone watching whatever they want whenever they want without interest in what anyone else is watching at that time – one shouldn’t expect the kind of mass emotional connection in the future that people currently have for the programs and events (and advertisements) they viewed in the past.
This dilution of collective lasting impact as television moves into the future will occur in large part because the separation of past and present will dissolve altogether. In effect, the medium will come to resemble a mass digital library or assemblage of libraries in which anything that has ever been will be available at anytime, anyplace, to anybody. But the shelves will have to be continuously stocked with new material if anyone is to make any money off any of it in the long- term. And the ever-increasing fees for the necessary library cards in whatever form they take might one day have people longing for the glory days of free TV, when hundreds of hours of entertainment were available every week to every American at no effort and no charge. (Of course, it’s worth noting that TV was never truly free. From the start it has been funded by advertisers who passed along to consumers all of the costs inherent in the production of television commercials and the overall promotion of their products.)
The very idea of free TV – when broadcast ruled -- already feels as distant as a thick daily newspaper. Of particular impact were the three decades when broadcast television achieved instant power and influence that seemed destined to last forever. It began in the Fifties when basic black and white television sets took the place of radios in living rooms across the land and became the electronic fireplaces around which families gathered together every night to watch entertainment programming appropriate for (if not interesting to) all ages; continued through the Sixties as color television sets began replacing their black and white predecessors and the three networks solidified their hold on the nation’s psyche, often with cheerfully mindless comedies and adventure shows; and soared through the Seventies, when those color televisions became ubiquitous, programming grew up and began to reflect the social concerns of the day and nobody paid much attention late in the decade to occasional reports of television being delivered in certain areas of the country by wires, knocking antennas off rooftops and extracting money from checking accounts to pay for something that had once been “free.”
That was many decades ago; so many, in fact, that by the time that amount of time passes again Millennials will be as old as some Baby Boomers are today. Millennials, the first generation with instant and unbridled access to information and entertainment, and yet one with no discernible interest in anything that happened before they came along, don’t understand the concept of television consistently bringing families and friends together for a shared physical experience – that is, the pleasures to be had in gathering together in person to enjoy a favorite program. (Just think about kids in the Sixties scampering to the home of a neighbor lucky enough to have a color TV to watch “Batman” or “Lost in Space”; or folks getting together on Saturday nights in the Seventies to watch CBS’ legendary comedy lineup; or the TV parties of the Eighties, when friends would assemble with pizza and beer to watch “Dallas” or “Dynasty.”) Rather, they know television as something to watch in their own physical space, often removed from the company of others or situated in such as way as to ignore those in their immediate environment, focused instead on their own screen or screens.
While watching television Millennials may be alone in the traditional sense, but they are often connected to one or more devices, communicating their reactions to what they are watching to friends via text or to the world at large via an ever-growing number of Web sites, portals and platforms. This will be the norm as they continue to age and begin raising children of their own. Broadcast and basic cable networks are doing everything they can think of to encourage this behavior. Some of them want viewers to become as involved as possible with their programs; others want people to think that they are intrinsically connected, even if they aren’t.
The younger the viewers the more readily they buy into this new approach to consuming television. That’s because Millennials are coming of age in a world when everyone is a critic, technology accelerates its own built-in obsolescence and, most significantly, people are expected to interact with what they are watching, sometimes going so far as to influence the outcome of a reality competition program or a scripted series. This unbridled interaction with and influence over television will gain ever-increasing momentum in the years to come, at least until it becomes annoying or “so early millennium.”
Media hipsters refer to this phenomenon of boundless involvement as the thrill of “leaning forward,” a concept utterly foreign to viewers of a certain age who associate watching television with the joy of “sitting back.” As technology continues to advance, perhaps faster and to a greater degree than anyone needs it to, viewers will likely be able to “sit back” and “lean forward” at the same time. Three-dimensional television is the beginning of this. Surround sound and, eventually, surround video projection will make it possible to fully immerse oneself in home entertainment to a degree that would not have been fathomable even ten years ago.
These particular advances, if they catch on, will necessitate producers taking an entirely new approach to program creation. The production challenges boggle the mind, but it’s the creative challenges that will change everything. Who would want to experience “Modern Family” or “New Girl” in 3-D or an even more immersive capacity? Kids might, especially those who have been weaned on physically, psychologically and emotionally absorbing video games and massively multiplayer platforms. Sport events and certain reality programs might benefit, as well as late-night sex shows on Showtime and Cinemax, but it would seem that scripted comedy and drama programs as we know them today would be lessened by these technological advances, in that they might prove too much for current format restrictions to bear. Some futurists believe that sitcoms and dramas as we know them will cease to exist in the decades to come, though nobody can say with any conviction what will replace them. Today it seems inconceivable that the short- form projects so popular on YouTube, Hulu and elsewhere will ever pose a significant threat to, let alone replace, longtime program models, but with attention spans shriveling like baloney in the sun the possibility cannot be dismissed.
Unless money becomes an object, which seems unlikely in the fifth year of a widespread recession that hasn’t stopped people from continuously buying new cell phones and laptops or from enjoying pricey cable and satellite programming packages, home entertainment will continue to expand well beyond the measurable need for it. In other words, there is already too much television for most people to consume, with much of it pushed off to some undefined future time when one might choose to binge his or her way through all those series he or she missed while busily watching other shows or dealing with the demands of their lives.
The first decade of this new millennium brought with it an exponential increase in the production of scripted and reality series on basic and pay cable television, with those two media enjoying sudden prestige as the providers of most of the best and most consistently rewarded programming during the last ten years. Concurrently, the broadcast networks have managed to hold their own and redefine expectations even as the mammoth audience they once served has continuously splintered away. But the second decade has brought sudden and dramatic new challenges to and increased competition for broadcast, basic cable and pay cable supremacy alike.
When it comes to programming, suddenly everyone wants to get in on the act. Amazon has asked its customers and others to evaluate pilot presentations and help identify several that will become the first few series from Amazon Studios. (Amazon is attracting top talent, too. “X-Files” creator Chris Carter just came on board with a pilot project.) BitTorrent recently invited people to participate in the development of its first television program, beginning with an original bundle that is a pilot presentation for a new series and expanding via feedback from there. BitTorrent refers to this as “television by the people, for the people.” It would seem that program creators and developers, like painters, authors, composers, poets, digital game designers and other creative types, ought to be able to create and develop their product all on their own. Then again, consider the following: Logo recently ran the first season of a scripted series titled “DTLA” that was funded in part on Kickstarter by people interested in enjoying a gay-themed drama series not likely to be made by any network. Writer and producer Rob Thomas recently raised almost $6 million through a Kickstarter campaign to make a feature film continuation of his cult hit broadcast series “Veronica Mars.” So if ordinary citizens are beginning to supply the funding for the Hollywood entertainment of their choice, is it that much of a stretch to imagine them taking some degree of creative control over the projects they are keeping alive?
In a move that sounds almost traditional by comparison, Netflix has entered the original programming arena in a huge way, with prestige drama “House of Cards,” a fourth season of the broadcast cult favorite “Arrested Development” and one of the most talked about original series of 2013, “Orange is the New Black.” Full seasons of these shows (and others) have been dropped into the service in such a way as to generate huge media buzz, though Netflix does not make available ratings of any kind that might indicate exactly how successful they have been. Regardless, the publicity has been enormous. Overnight, Netflix is the new HBO, and it costs much less per month. Like so many basic and pay cable series before them, the Netflix shows are raising the bar in terms of audience expectation and changing the perception of what television can be in terms of overall quality, product delivery and viewing options.
The DVD market, on demand viewing options, Netflix and other alternative digital program providers have created a monster of sorts: An audience that demands instant access to just about anything it wants. There will be no returning that horse to the barn in the years to come; bingeing is bigger than ever, and a generation is coming of age with the expectation of viewing series in this manner. But listen closely and you might already hear random rumbles of discord among viewers who watch in bulk, especially those people who this summer hungrily devoured “Orange is the New Black.” Some of them are admitting to post-binge letdowns, wishing they had slowed down and savored each episode over several weeks or months rather than racing through them, and they are unhappy that they will have to wait a year or longer to continue enjoying the show.
Can it be that half the fun of television has been the wait from week to week for fresh episodes of favorite shows? Do people really want to treat full seasons of programs like 15- or 22-hour movies rather than experiences of extended engagement? It isn’t too far off the mark to imagine that in the years to come program providers like Netflix will seek to further sustain customer attachment by delivering seasons of their signature series in smaller groupings with a few months off in between the arrival of each.
At some point in the future this will be considered retro activity, but it circles back to the primary question that media in all forms must face: How much is too much? Television has taught us many things across the eight decades in which it has existed, but the insights it offers into our own behaviors and expectations have only just begun. Meanwhile, the changes that will continuously redefine it over the next ten years will likely eclipse everything that has happened since our grandparents first turned on “The Philco Television Playhouse.”