Post image for TV Worth Watching: Television Rising, an introduction

TV Worth Watching: Television Rising, an introduction

by Stephen Simons on February 1, 2014

in Featured, TV Worth Watching

It Was the Worst of TV, It Was the Best of TV
by Stephen Simons

We have all seen the headlines. “This just in (again): Television is DEAD,” soon to be replaced forever by a nine-year-old’s four-minute video of cats chasing lasers  (or possibly cats shooting lasers).

And the recalcitrant old guard media giants scramble to make us keep watching “appointment television” with over-hyped “reality” juggernauts like American IdolThe X Factor and  The Voice

I admit, if that really was all television had to offer, I would add my voice to the dirge. The supposed magic of that stuff will dissipate like smoke without the advertising-forced hype of the moment. I mean, Christina Arugula (or whatever) is an attractive lady, but I can’t see a musical game show surviving in re-runs (Millenials, click for a history lesson), let alone in next year’s Netflix queues. By the time it gets to the “recorded programs” list on the X-box, most of us have lost interest.

Which brings me to my point: TV isn’t dead; it is being reborn.

And the new phoenix that is just now beginning its rise from the fires of technological change will be better than anything we have known.

In the last five years, while the pundits have been writing its eulogy over and over again, this amazing medium has changed more than ever in my lifetime.  When I was a child — like four decades of children before me — I had three options for watching television (unless I wanted to watch re-runs on channel 50). If a show became the topic of discussion at school, like The Dukes of Hazard, The A-Team, Knight Rider, and Miami Vice usually did, and I wanted to be a part of that energetic buzz, I had to be in front of my TV at a certain time each week (or at least remember to set the timer on our VCR). And for most of my life, these basic rules of viewing remained sacrosanct.

In my teen years, we got cable (a little late, I know) and there were . . . still only three options. Let’s face it, in the early years of cable, unless you wanted to talk about sports or weather or actual music videos on MTV, you had to watch the Big Three. Only ABC, CBS, and NBC  produced original, creative material. Fox jumped in later and grabbed attention with shows like Married, With Children, 21 Jump Street, and the longest running fiction series on network television, The Simpsons. More options, yes, but hardly a paradigm shift.

The new millennium saw an influx of original programs on basic cable channels (Burn Notice, Battlestar Galactica, and Mad Men just to name a few) and some excellent offerings from “Prime” channels (The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood, again, just naming a few) but still television felt very similar to what I experienced as a kid.

“Did you see *popular trending show* last night? Oh man, you shouldn’t have missed it!”

And while DVR made it possible to record, without much effort, and thus to be less enslaved to scheduled programming, the fervor still followed whatever hotness was current, heavily marketed, and episodically tantalizing. Consider the  X-Files, The Sopranos and the current hotness du jour, Game of Thrones. And if you forgot to DVR it, too bad, sucker, you’re waiting for the DVD.

But the internet has been changing everything and, in most cases, faster than anyone can keep up.

For me it started nine years ago. My wife and I lived in Maryland. She was just back from Iraq. While she was gone, I had seen a few episodes of a difficult-to-get-into “space opera” on the SyFy channel called Farscape. It was cancelled by the time she got back and then we didn’t have cable, or a TV for that matter, and we had no money so we didn’t go out much. I did have a computer with an internet connection and so I discovered something called BitTorrent.

I (incredibly easily) found Farscape on torrent sites and downloaded all four seasons. It seemed an almost magical experience to watch as little or as much as we wanted of a television show. Whenever. We. Wanted. If the show bogged down in one of its dry spells, we’d maybe only watch a couple episodes a week. During the phenomenal season finales, we watched four episodes a night.

Thus the phoenix began to rise, for us. When we got into 24 (also a little late, I know), I didn’t even try to catch it on TV. We would just wait until about halfway through the season and download the torrents. I decided that this was the future and, until the media moguls figured it out, my entertainment would be mined from the back alley trash bins of the internet. (Understand that I didn’t once think that this could be considered illegal or even unethical. It was broadcast TV that I could have watched for free anyway. I thought of it more like a very advanced version of TIVO.)

Needless to say, when I discovered in 2007, I wandered around the site feeling like Charlie in the chocolate factory. And the schnozberries really did taste like schnozberries! And over the next few years my torrent browsing decreased as my “legit” viewing increased — especially after a warning from my internet provider that my actions had been logged and I was breaking the law. (Really? How is downloading a TV show any different from setting my. . . never mind, that is a whole different discussion.) Point is, I’m not the only one who saw this phoenix rising by the power of the interwebs.

The audience was changing — has changed –and finally the infrastructure has started coming to us. Now we have Amazon Prime, Netflix, and others. Netflix and Hulu are even airing their own original programming.

The rebirth of television is here, but it’s not about the increased options; it never was. Increasing options got us the old cliche, “A thousand channels and nothing’s on.” We wore out our remotes and sprained our thumbs, wishing vainly for something our children will likely take for granted:

The joy of watching something because it’s good, not just because it’s on.

What’s that? You think TV hits have always been chosen by quality?

Try watching the first episode of the original Knight Rider. Seriously, I’ll wait. Just click over to Netflix right now and try. It will only take you five minutes. . .

. . . cool opening song, right? Yeah, but how far did you make it after that cool opening? That show was a hit!

Without the nostalgia factor, or the David Hasselhoff factor, would anyone overlook all the choices on Netflix and willingly get hooked on Knight Rider? I don’t think so. If viewers had known how Lost was going to end, would they have suffered through seasons four and five? Would X-Files have lasted four years longer than it should have? (Well, maybe.)

The point is this: We have tasted real power. It is addictive. And it has begun nothing less than a revolution in the short-form, episodic, home-delivered storytelling that we prediluvians used to call “television.” Now, finally, shows can start trending in popularity (and reward their creators) because they rise above the fog of mediocrity, not just because they’re pushed.

But it all depends on us. This time, we run the talent show. For real.

Out of endless choices and ever-changing technologies, we have the opportunity to find and raise up those rarest of gems — shows that are actually worthy of our time.

This blog series aims do just that.

Let’s help shows like Arrested Development, Firefly, SherlockPushing Daisies, Fringe, Avatar: The Last Airbender (TV show, not the movie), Foyle’s War, and, yes, Farscape take their proper places. And as the new big three (Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon) continue to redefine the medium, let’s find the new shows that belong in this company.

As the old order shatters and entertainment grows more and more fragmented, people will still long for something like the shared experiences that “old” television rammed down our throats. Maybe, if we spread the word, we can keep people from jumping off the cliff of bad entertainment like a bunch of mythical lemmings. Let’s gather them with us around stories that actually are good.

Save people from music competition shows!

Save them from the 28th (!) season of Survivor!

Give them something to talk about that actually stimulates them towards a thoughtful, honest, noble, or passionate view of life.

Let this reincarnation of television truly be the birth of TV Worth Watching.


Header image based on a photo by Matthew Venn (cc) 

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