Episode 361: The Golden Age of Television is Over

The Overthinkers tackle the demise of the Golden Age of Televsion, including shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” and “Bloodline.”

otip-logo-podcastoneBen Adams, Ryan Sheely, and Matt Wrather overthink the demise of the Golden Age of television, discussing shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Bloodline.


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16 Comments on “Episode 361: The Golden Age of Television is Over”

  1. Mike #

    I might download for the GoT bit, but can a listener tell me what their stance on file sharing (piracy) is? Not interested in regressive proselytizing >_>


    • Jez #

      Ha ha, it doesn’t come up. The “Golden Age of Piracy” has nothing to do with “file sharing”.


      • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

        Call me regressive, but my anti-kidnapping-people-and-holding-them-for-ransom stance has been well documented.


  2. Three Act Destructure #

    Decided to try to hunt down a list of American films released per decade and found that someone in a forum had already done the research:

    http://www.criterionforum.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=6273 (third post down)

    Of course once you actually look at the data things get more complicated because things always get more complicated. For examples, there’s a clear drop off in the 60s because Hollywood was in a major slump during that period.

    As for diversity of subjects, that’s more difficult to quantify. I guess you could split the data up by genre? That feels inadequate but I don’t have any better suggestions.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      I think the research question is “how many feature length movies were theatrically released each year between the advent of cinema and today.” Using IMDb as a datasource has some problems because anyone can submit to it, and it includes a lot of “self-published” movies (student, festival, etc.) that never had a commercial theatrical release.


  3. Nick #

    I couldn’t find the survey link. I looked, but I couldn’t find it.


  4. Nick #

    Sorry – I still don’t see it – can you post the link to it?


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      It’s in a banner at the top of the page. If you are running an ad blocker, you might not be seeing it.


  5. Nick #

    Thanks – it shows up as a banner ad, which, as you point out, is why I couldn’t see it!
    You might want to put a direct link in there too…


  6. Lavanya #

    I listened to the panel’s discussion after reading the rise of marginal-demographics in Japanese pop culture, and it got me overthinking:


    Now, what’s happening in the US isn’t exactly the same as in Japan. Demographically the US still has a vibrant youth market as well as a rising population particularly thanks to immigration. Japan is the opposite. But it got me thinking this as I was listening to the panel: Mad Men fans are basically otaku.

    Numerically we’re quite small. The total viewership of Golden Age TV shows like it, Breaking Bad, or The Wire is piddling next to the likes of NCSI:LA. Yet numbers aren’t the whole story, because those shows capture a certain tastemaker demographic. I don’t meant that in an elitist slam or anything. It’s just when I visit Slate or The Atlantic on a Monday morning, there’s usually some big headline with commentary on a big show. Hell, even Forbes has GoT and TWD reviews as some of their most popular articles. They draw in eyeballs which, I assume, those news websites hope will then read other articles of theirs, or at least see their adds.

    Superheroes shows are sort of the same thing, if existing on a lower pop cultural rung. Agents of SHIELD fell by the wayside in both mainstream and fannish circles, but Flash and Arrow are still big among cape geeks. Like with Mad Men, I’ll occasionally watch episodes live while having my laptop opened to a show-dedicated liveblog or 4chan thread. So not only do I see the ads that run with the shows, but there’s back-and-forth conversations about everything involving the show. If an actor involved on the show is starring in, or has starred in, another production, it might turn up on the liveblog, even just as a “Hey, what episode did you pull that reaction image from?” to a “It’s from [x], not Arrow.” And then I know that actor stared in [x] and, even if *I* might not go watch that thing 99% of the time, I’m at least aware of it, and so is everyone else in the episode thread.

    Which is pretty otaku, when I think about it. Be it Mad Men or Arrow, they’re niche shows that appeal to a select audience, trading audience breadth for narrow but deep involvement. In Japan, that’s mainly a dollars-to-consumer product deal. In the US, that is also the case, but what comes with it is a fandom that can be exploited to bring in eyeballs and dollars elsewhere.

    There’s another key difference. In Japan, that rise in marginal-demographic audiences is mainly due to an aging population and long-term economic decline. There’s little profit in what’s left of the mainstream. In the US, the same sort of thing is happening because of technology enabling fragmentation, but there’s still a mainstream (the NCIS:LAs of the world) in addition to these niche watercooler shows.


    • Three Act Destructure #

      It’s been a long-standing practice at least in television to define the quality of numbers by demographics. The original Star Trek, for example, was always a ratings dud but pulled in a better-educated and more upper-middle-class audience that NBC was interested in attracting so it stuck around.

      Recently I was listening to an interview with Paul Dini about how he’d worked on a kid’s show that was doing well but was meant for boys and was attracting too many girls. That led to its cancellation.

      There’s definitely an active attempt among studios to not just make money but to make a certain amount of money from certain people.


  7. Grim_ungainly #

    loved the shout out to Golden Age Lake. Nothing like an absurd Central Asian water management scheme.


  8. cat #

    I love you guys but I haven’t listened to TFT regularly for a while and I forgot how much Wrather and Sheely stutter and stall when they get together. It was very difficult to focus on what you were actually saying this episode.


  9. Bryan Pick #

    You guys kept talking about how the economics might have contributed to the Golden Age, but didn’t mention some leading theories about which economic forces created the current environment. Here’s one big narrative…

    Once, all of TV in America was on a small number of broadcast channels, and TV was funded entirely by advertising, which meant the name of the game was ratings: more eyeballs on the ads. That meant appealing to a broad audience, or less charitably, the lowest common denominator.

    HBO was obviously responding to different economics than broadcast: they had to give people a reason to buy a specific subscription on top of their existing cable bill. They tried events (comedy specials and boxing championships), locking down the exclusive rights to show movies on TV in the first window, and edgy television series where they’d have an advantage over FCC-regulated broadcast pablum. They were willing to invest in shows without even respectable ratings (The Wire couldn’t have gotten five seasons anywhere else) as long as they built the “prestige” brand and got people to buy that subscription and keep it going.

    Why did basic cable networks like AMC get into the prestige game? Because they were competing to rely less on advertising and more on carriage fees from pay-TV companies, and those pay-TV companies don’t want to pay the higher fees. There’s a reason that AMC was running ads on Mad Men urging viewers to contact their satellite provider and tell them not to drop AMC: they knew the audience of a niche, high-quality show would be particularly upset to lose that show, and some of them would even switch providers to get that show back. So every network needs to have at least one highly engaging series airing whenever a carriage dispute might take place.

    Netflix more or less was running on the same subscription model as HBO, but they’re relying more and more on original content because they now have competitors (like Amazon) bidding up the price of exclusive rights to studio movies and old seasons of TV shows, which used to be Netflix’s bread and butter. Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu need those originals to give their customers a reason to keep paying that subscription fee.

    So what can those economics tell us about whether the Golden Age is still upon us?
    * Subscription Internet TV services are buying or producing some of the edgiest content, but they’re also buying up TV shows that they think have a built-in audience that might be willing to pay a subscription fee, either by rebooting an old series or rescuing one that can’t produce sufficient ratings for the more advertising-dependent TV networks. (Current prestige examples: Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, Transparent, and apparently many people are impressed by House of Cards)

    * Basic cable networks are still trying to find content that will give them leverage in carriage negotiations. Viacom has had its channels pulled by some pay-TV providers, but most channels are packaged with other channels to become collectively indispensable, and a few networks that have fewer friends are investing more in prestige dramas. Most pay-TV companies can’t afford long fights with media companies that carry must-see content like live sports—if sports fans don’t get live content they will call their congressman, who will act on it immediately—as well as they can afford passing on the carriage fee to the customer, because even if the customer inevitably blames the pay-TV provider instead of ESPN, the other pay-TV providers are paying ESPN’s fee too. (Current prestige examples: Rectify, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Louie, Manhattan, arguably Orphan Black)

    * HBO and the other premium cable channels, who are also bidding against the Netflixes for movie window rights, are starting to create services less tied to the increasingly expensive cable bundle, and they’re still trying to find prestige shows that will keep viewers paying the subscription fee. Game of Thrones bought HBO some breathing room, but not forever. (Current prestige examples: True Detective, Girls, The Affair, The Knick… I could argue Strike Back is a “prestige” action series)

    * On broadcast, all the attempts to copy Lost’s splash failed miserably, and it no longer seemed that the audience was there to make the attempt worthwhile. Reality/competition shows are now permanent prime-time fixtures, and they’re cheaper to make than sci-fi ensemble series. But lead-ins have lost their power to keep people on the same channel, so new shows have to develop their own audience; NBC had some very lean years in which new shows that couldn’t distinguish themselves withered on the vine, the network had hardly any brand except that it kept unusually quirky shows on the air long after other networks would have dropped them, and eventually they greenlit the daringly grotesque Hannibal. Empire may be soapy, but it shows Fox is trying at least a couple new things after having fallen off the top of the ratings heap.

    * Pay-TV bundles, despite delivering some of the best prices per hour of consumed content in the entertainment business, are expensive enough as a whole that they’re starting to have trouble bringing in subscribers. So they’re experimenting with “slim” bundles with fewer channels to appeal to the marginal subscriber, hopefully without driving their big-bundle subscribers to downgrade. It’s a tricky balance, and if the bundle really falls apart fewer channels will make the cut.

    There are excellent shows being delivered by all of those models for slightly different reasons. To the extent that HBO and AMC got fattened up by some big hits (Game of Thrones, Walking Dead), they probably lost some of that hunger for the most daring risks, but they’re still competing with a glut of quality shows, airing year-round, so that even professional TV critics have trouble keeping up with all of them.
    This might be remembered as an interregnum that couldn’t quite make another The Wire, or the beginning of a fragmentation that will kill the business models that once produced truly great content, but the Golden Age of now-concluded series that premiered from, say, 1997 to 2008 could never produce the variety of prestige series we have now.


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