Last week, AV Club television editor Todd VanDerWerff argued that the current Golden Age of Television–a name he points out has been given to various epochs of television time and time again to try to assuage insecurity about the medium’s subordinate status–is passing if not completely past, and that it’s exciting to think ahead to what is to come. But it’s a piece that raised something I’ve thought about quite a bit frequently. We often talk about the Golden Age as if it’s primarily defined by the rise of the anti-hero as a dominant character type at the heart of a set of shows that were critically acclaimed such that they helped create a consensus that television could be as rich a visual medium of the movies. I wonder, though, if that’s a reductive way to think about what’s happened in the last 15 years, and if, instead, we should consider the Golden Age primarily a business revolution–and one that’s far from over.
Since HBO’s initial critical successes with The Sopranos and The Wire, the question of which network would become the “next HBO” has traditionally understood to be a creative one. What people wanted to know, when they asked that question, was which was the next network to develop a streak of narratively fresh, must-watch shows. Mad Men and Breaking Bad seemed to give AMC that title for a while, as did Homeland for Showtime. Most recently, Netflix’s successes with House of Cards, which was an imitation of the earlier anti-hero shows, and a literal remake of a British serial that predates that trend, and Orange Is The New Black, which broke genuinely new narrative and character ground, make it a likely contender. But it’s instructive to look closely at Netflix and HBO together for another way of defining the question.
What really makes HBO HBO in the first place isn’t actually The Sopranos or The Wire, or now Game of Thrones. It’s the mix of content that makes the network distinct enough to be a desirable service separate from the cable bundle. In 1975 that was the “Thrilla in Manila”–boxing is now one of rival Showtime’s programming tentpoles. In 1983, it was Fraggle Rock–and children’s programming is now one of the things Netflix and Amazon are investing in as a way to make their services attractive to parents who aren’t satisfied with the offerings on network or cable channels, or who want to avoid ads in programming their children might see altogether. In 1988, the Writer’s Guild of America strike meant that HBO was attractive because it was airing original programming at all.
But what really make HBO the thing we understand it to be today was the decision to expand its scripted original programming slate in addition to its movie library. To a certain extent, what HBO did was similar to the approaches of publications that combine aggregation with original reporting and commentary: it curated movies for you, and offered a stable set of value additions. You could subscribe to HBO as a way to cut through the clutter of both cable and the larger cultural landscape, and you could do so knowing that the selections carried a certain patina of taste and quality, given HBO’s roots.
So if what makes HBO HBO is the combination of a regular rotation of high-quality original programming with a relatively deep movie library, then we’re very early at the stage of developing HBO competitors at all. Netflix is 16 years old, and its streaming service came on line in 1999. The company’s first original series, the gangster dramedy Lilyhammer, went into production in 2011, but given the uneven reviews it received, Netflix prefers to emphasize 2013 as the year that it really went into the original series business, introducing House of Cards, a fourth season of Arrested Development, horror series Hemlock Grove and Orange Is The New Black over a six-month period. Amazon introduced its streaming series as Amazon Unbox in 2006, and put its first original series, two comedies aimed at adults, and a number of children’s shows, into production earlier this year. FX, which launched in 1994 as a basic cable channel, making it, by these standards, an old-media company, has made a number of recent moves that would turn it into something that looks like it’s designed to compete with HBO as a franchise, splitting into three channels, one devoted to comedy, one to drama, and one to movies, and planning an ambitious app launch that would like viewers access parts of the FX content library much in the same way they use HBO Go.
All of these entrants have different challenges and advantages. FX doesn’t necessarily own most of its original series outright, which means it’s not going to profit from continued viewership of them at the same margin that HBO does, nor does it have HBO’s additional subscription revenue. But it also doesn’t have to get viewers to make an extra decision to subscribe to it if they’re already signed up for cable anyway. Netflix has an advantage that neither HBO nor FX share of not having to program specific viewing hours, but that also means that the service is going to have to see how fast it actually has to produce new content to keep the viewers that are binging on their original shows satisfied, a demand that could lead to a higher misfire rate. Netflix also had to keep growing its subscriber base to make sure it has enough revenue to keep paying for the syndicated movie and television content that attracted those subscribers in the first place. Amazon has an enormous number of other lines of business to subsidize its streaming video service as it acquires new content from elsewhere and puts new originals into production, but it also has to build its content library and convince viewers to think of Amazon as a place to go for television viewing at all. But even given these and innumerable other challenges, we’re just at the very beginning of a multi-faceted arms race over acquired content and original content production that could produce any number of great television shows.
There’s no question that anti-heroes have been critically important foot soldiers in the development of a mixed model that makes it possible for networks and video services to invest in daring original programming. But I wonder if overemphasizing their role in what’s made television great over this time period hasn’t burdened us with a lot of derivative TV-making and sucked the conversation away from the fact that television’s getting weirder, and smarter, and more expansive all the time. Anti-heroes have been a symptom of the present Golden Age of Television, one that illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of a system that could afford to give a lot of creative freedom to singular voices, but that chose to distribute that latitude and funding significantly to middle-aged white men who were interested in a similar set of intellectual questions. But Tony Soprano, or Jimmy McNulty, or Walter White were never the sum total of what was going on even in the shows they inhabited, much less the larger television environment from which they sprung like gender-swapped Athenas. The Golden Age of Television might earn its moniker for real if we give it more time to do so, and if we define the current epoch in terms of its business model, rather than by a single sort of character that business model created.