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From Wasteland to Wonderland: TV’s Altered Landscape
By Jeff Greenfield
“The boob tube.”
“The idiot box.”
“The plug-in drug.”
“A vast wasteland.”
When I began writing about the television industry in the mid-1970s, these were some of the
kinder terms of endearment. To imagine back then a television universe where creativity is
unbound; where Hollywood’s most revered writers, directors, producers and actors clamor for
the chance to “do TV”; where talk of a new “Golden Age” abounds, would have required a
serious exercise in delusion, or the ingestion of controlled substances.
But it has happened. Why? For me, the answer lies in one essential fact: When technology
replaced scarcity with abundance, every core assumption about TV began to crumble. Everything
about the medium — how we receive it, how we consume it, how we pay for it, how we interact
with it — has been altered, and TV is infinitely better for it.
In the mid-1970s, all TV was divided into three parts, at least as far as almost every American
viewer was concerned. Every evening, the three broadcast networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, drew
more than 9 out of 10 viewers. The only revenue came from advertisers, which led countless
chroniclers of the industry to the same surprising conclusion about the nature of the business.
“Remember,” the NBC executive Don Carswell told me, “we’re not selling the program. We’re
selling the audience for the program.” The bigger the audience — and the more desirable in
terms of buying power — the more the networks could charge.
What this meant was that every hour, every half-hour, every moment of prime time had to be
devoted to gathering the biggest possible audience. And that meant trying to shape the program
to attract as many as possible and, perhaps more important, to avoid offending as many as
One prominent programmer of the day, Paul Klein of NBC, had a theory about this. He called it
the “Least Objectionable Program” concept. Viewers, he said, didn’t watch a program, they
watched TV. They clicked on the set and browsed until they found something reasonably
This theory drove many in the creative community to distraction. For every All in the Family or
M*A*S*H* or Mary Tyler Moore, the overwhelming consensus, as expressed by Stan Kallis of
Columbia TV, was that “We’re basically bound, our hands are tied, by the fact that we’re a
medicine show. We’re here to deliver the audience to the next commercial.”
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Further, any unsettling or disturbing fare would taint the mood of the audience — the audience
the networks were promising to deliver to advertisers. Set a comedy in a prison? O.K., but as the
noted programming wizard Fred Silverman warned, “Stay away from the hard stuff. Don’t scare
Forty years ago, I wrote in these pages that “The enormous pressures which force commercial
television into its relatively narrow boundaries are not likely to widen in the foreseeable future.”
I could not have been more wrong; in fact, the boundaries began to widen that very year.
The key to the old TV world was scarcity. Only so many channels could beam through the air
without running into each other. Only three networks had a nationwide distribution system of
microwave relays and AT&T “long lines.” Anyone trying to start another network found the
logistics and the cost prohibitive.
But in 1975, RCA introduced the first of two “Satcom” communications satellites, and the threenetwork monopoly was dead. Now competitors could deliver their fare to stations and cable
systems coast to coast. That year, a fledgling pay service, Home Box Office, put its signal up on
the satellite. An all-news network? An all-sports network? Networks aimed at women, children,
shoppers, movie buffs? Sure, via wire or satellite. Unlike over-the-air TV, there was room for
And for these new providers, a whole new economic model arose. Cable operators paid monthly
fees to these networks based on the cable company’s overall number of subscribers, not just the
ones who watched that particular network. Cable operators pay CNN a fee of about 60 cents a
month for each of the hundred million homes they reach, even if only one household in a
hundred actually watches CNN. Even in the face of flagging ratings, the network earned more
than $440 million in profits last year, and the laggard MSNBC earned about half that much. (Fox
earned a billion dollars in profits). ESPN banks about $7 billion a year in fees before the first ad
A more revolutionary impact of abundance came with the arrival of pay cable and in recent years
streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Since there are no advertisers, the popularity
of specific programs is in a sense irrelevant — as long as subscribers send their $15 a month to
HBO or Showtime, or their $8 a month to Netflix. Do you need to create a reasonably placid
environment in which the audience will be receptive to a commercial? The only ads that would
make any sense appearing during Ray Donovan would be pitches for antidepressants or
membership in the Hemlock Society. But in this universe, contrary to the TV world of the 1970s,
the audience is not the product — it’s the customer.
There is no better example of what has changed than the experience of David Chase. The veteran
writer had gotten a deal from Fox to write a pilot script about a family headed by a gangster. As
he recounted in a public discussion with me after the series ended, the Fox executives had just
one small problem with the script: Did Tony Soprano really have to be seeing a psychiatrist?
Didn’t this make him seem vulnerable, a bit weak?
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A generation ago, that would have been the end of the story. In today’s universe, there was a
place for Tony Soprano, his panic attacks, his mother from hell, his language and sexual
promiscuity, his casual resort to violence — to be shown with no threat of a network researcher
telling Mr. Chase that Tony was turning off working mothers in the suburbs. HBO’s
programmers could let the Chase vision of the story emerge full blown.
In the last decade or so, this has become the working premise across much of the medium,
particularly since basic cable networks like AMC and FX followed the lead of their pay-cable
brethren. A chemistry teacher turned meth supplier; Soviet spies as the protagonists of a weekly
drama? A drug-addicted nurse? A firefighter fighting his own demons? Yes, because the
unofficial rules are different.
“One thing I truly believe,” says Dick Wolf, the creator of Law and Order, “is that broadcasting
is different from cable. And one of the things you can get away with on smaller cable networks is
antiheroes. Sorry, they don’t work on broadcast. You can’t have a Walter White. You’re dealing
with a different mind-set.”
There’s another old belief about TV that has to be seriously rethought: the idea that it isolates us
from each other. In 1971, the historian Daniel Boorstein wrote in Life magazine that the age of
television created “a new sense of isolation and confinement.” The viewer could see, he wrote,
“but nobody (except the family in the living room) could know for sure how he reacted to what
Today, a viewer can use a second screen — a phone, a tablet, a computer — to connect with
friends, strangers and even creators of the shows to dissect a plotline, deride a piece of dialogue
and question a twist in the story line, even as the show is being broadcast.
When a compelling program like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos approaches the end
of its run, the digital cloud is filled with arguments about what should happen; a line of dialogue,
a hair style or a piece of clothing will be analyzed intensely about its possible hints. You can call
all this a 21st-century way to waste time, but even if it is, these interactions with television are
anything but “isolating.”
Is there still a mountain of junk on TV? More than ever. The same cable abundance that brings
us Mad Men and Justified brings us the Real Liposuctioned Housewives of Springfield. Still,
anyone looking to create a new set of insults to aim at TV is going to find it hard going. That vast
wasteland has turned into a dazzling landscape.
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1985: Television Transformed 1.0
By Robert Thompson
The telephone gave us a long-distance voice. Radio took away the wires; television added
pictures. But the real revolution occurred well before all of that: In one fell swoop, the telegraph
allowed messages to travel not at the pace of a man on a pony or a speeding locomotive but at
the velocity of an electron. In like fashion, the colossal library of Netflix may be impressive, but
the videocassette recorder was a revolution. The rest, which a reeling industry is still trying to
sort out, is digital gravy.
It is orthodoxy to say that television is in the midst of radical change. We can watch a
bewildering amount of material at will, and portable devices let us do so outside of the home.
What’s more, a significant increase of highbrow programming now defies the old idea of
television as the “idiot box.” Yet for all the advances that online distribution and digital
technologies have brought, the real revolution came about 30 years ago. By 1985, viewers could
see a show after it had aired, and their choices had increased greatly. They could watch a handheld TV at the beach, and some shows had already started to exhibit serious artistic ambitions.
The heart of today’s transformation of television is storage. Viewers have access to vast
quantities of programming, according to their tastes and schedules, stored on DVRs, DVDs, ondemand cable and satellite channels, and online services. Not so very long ago, if you wanted to
see “Citizen Kane,” you had to hope for a retrospective screening at an art house, or wait until it
played on television. In 1977, the tens of millions of people who saw “Roots” had no choice but
to stay home for eight consecutive nights and watch the broadcast on ABC.
The introduction of the home videocassette recorder was the medium’s most important sea
change. Now people at home could record and collect movies and television shows and watch
them when they pleased. By 1985, more than 20 percent of American homes had a VCR, twice
the number from the previous year. In 1985, the first Blockbuster Video opened. Blockbuster
was a rental franchise, which, like the neighborhood stores before it, made it possible to watch
thousands of movies and TV shows without having to record them off the air in the first place.
Setting the timer on a VCR was a little harder than it is on a DVR, and driving to Blockbuster to
rent and return tapes was a lot harder than clicking on a title on Hulu, but 30 years ago the big
step had been made. If they took the trouble, viewers had control over what they saw and when.
Storage capability catalyzed demand for inventory. Although in the mid-1980s, the extensive
repertory that online services have today did not exist, radically increased choice was already a
property of the evolving medium. Cable television was adding lots of channels and content
alternatives. ESPN made its debut in 1979, CNN in 1980, MTV in 1981. Fewer than 20 percent
of American homes had cable in 1980. That more than doubled by 1985.
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Even portability, one of the glories of today’s new media, was making inroads 30 years ago.
Although Sony’s miniature Watchman never took off in this country — it could not connect to
cable and it could not play tapes — it provided a dress rehearsal of sorts for what it would be like
to carry a TV around in a purse.
Much has been said about how digital technologies have ushered in a new “golden age” of
television, especially now that Netflix and Amazon Prime are offering classy original shows like
“House of Cards” and “Transparent,” and now that auteurs like Woody Allen are signing up to
do online series. Once again, however, this process started in the 1980s. By fall 1985, broadcast
schedules, spurred by cable competition, included a growing number of prestige programs that
broke from standard TV fare featuring flying nuns and talking horses.
The network lineups that season included business-as-usual silliness like “The A-Team” and
“Knight Rider.” But they also included series like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and
“Moonlighting” — shows that began to present literate, serialized stories in complex cinematic
styles. Within a few years, pedigreed film directors like Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Penny
Marshall, David Lynch, Tim Burton and Oliver Stone were all doing work for television.
The TV revolution took a lot more effort to enjoy three decades ago. You needed to check
listings, set timers and rewind tapes. And some things — HDTV, social media interaction, cats
playing pianos — would not arrive for another decade or two. Many of the required elements of
change, however, were already in place.
As we look upon images of Pluto or Mars sent from 21st-century spacecraft, we might wonder
how we ever got to the moon and back with nothing but the stodgy technology of 1969. We
might also recognize that the real transformation of television had already begun in those quaint,
analog days before the Internet.
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