First of all, understand that I love television. From the time I was a kid growing up in Kansas City and Iowa watching "The Dick Van Dyke Show," I knew I wanted to be in this business. I had a best friend who wanted to be a farmer. Another who wanted to be an aerospace propulsionist. I wanted to be a television writer and live in New Rochelle with Mary Tyler Moore.
Having spent the past 15 years doing pretty much what I've always wanted to do, I may have an unnaturally optimistic view of the world, but at the risk of sounding like an idealistic idiot, I think there's reason to be optimistic about the future of television.
Everyone always talks about the decade of the 1950s as being television's most exciting, largely because it was all so new. Forty years later, the medium is undergoing enough changes that it's starting to feel new again.
Contrary to the theory that television is an eroding medium, I think it's an exploding medium. While it's true that the audience shares for the major networks are substantially down from a decade ago, overall viewership is not. Technology has simply spread viewers over a wider variety of channels than ever before. As a result, television is going through an accelerated evolution that is spurring both creativity and panic. (A case could be made that creativity itself spurs panic, but that's another article.)
This expansion of the television landscape has led to a greater competition for viewers than ever before. And while it might be nice from a "business" standpoint to not have competition, it's horrible from a creative standpoint. Competition breeds creativity. It forces people to push themselves to be original. Lack of competition breeds complacency. And whatever television is or isn't, it is not complacent. Not anymore. It can't afford to be. The result is that we may be finding ourselves in a decade that has the potential to be as creatively exciting as any in our history.
The old formula of appealing to the widest possible audience for every single show has been growing increasingly obsolete for some time now. Because of the ever-broadening choice of channels, the audience is becoming increasingly fragmented. As a result, in today's market, specific demographics are beginning to replace audience shares as the primary programming objective. A show that can attract a desired demographic, even though its total program share is low, can still exist.
This should be good news to writers. We all would rather write to a specific audience than to try to be all things to all people. A series creator's point of view is what distinguishes one series from another. Execution of ideas, far more than the ideas themselves, are what make series unique.
The best shows throughout the history of television have always had as their backbone a strong and specific creative vision. "I Love Lucy" had Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had Carl Reiner. "The Twilight Zone" had Rod Serling. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" had Jim Brooks and Allan Burns. "All in the Family" had Norman Lear. "Hill Street Blues" had Steven Bochco. Every one of these shows was unique for its time.
The difference between then and now is that those shows tended to be the exception. Not that there haven't always been good shows, and frequently more than a handful, but you could make a case that television's trend to program series for a narrower, more specific audience has led to an increase in the overall quality of programming. Subject matter, even on average shows, is frequently riskier and more thought-provoking. Choice of programming overall is more diverse.
It wasn't that many years ago when one-hour programming was pretty much divided among Westerns, private eyes, doctors and lawyers. Today's competitive environment has broken that mold. How do you categorize shows like "Northern Exposure," "thirty-something," "Quantum Leap" and "Life Goes On"? They are testimony to the networks' attempts to break with old formulas and reach for a more specific audience.
Looking at this past season's Emmy nominees for comedy series, the diversification of programming is equally apparent. "Murphy Brown," "Home Improvement," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Seinfeld" and "Cheers" have little in common with one another, other than the fact that each was created by people with strong and specific visions. And there were probably five more half-hours that were equally unique ("Roseanne," "Married . . . With Children," "The Simpsons," "The Wonder Years"--fill in your own favorite.) There's no reason to believe that increased competition won't continue to lead to more original, better-produced programming.
The opportunities for thought-provoking, challenging, original series go beyond the major networks. Cable has already made significant inroads into weekly programming.