TV In 2013: Why We've Never Had It So Good (Or Bad)

2013's best television is being watched by its smallest audiences, argues Mark Lawson 

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A battle is taking place on the health of television, which, like the final of a Cowell talent show, features fierce advocacy from two bitterly opposed sides.

Every few weeks, it seems, “tributes are being paid” (in that ancient news-reader phrase) to one of the great figures of British programme-making from the past: Richard Briers, star of the self-sufficiency sitcom The Good Life; Eddie Braben, who wrote the Morecambe & Wise shows that attracted audiences of 28 million; Alan Whicker, sardonic global traveller and interrogator of the wealthy.

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And there is often a strong sense in their obituaries – especially in the more patriotic-nostalgic parts of the British press – that the end of television itself is also being lamented: that these figures belonged to a period in which the medium boasted audiences, talent and respect of a kind impossible to replicate today.

However, the counter-argument comes in surveys of the greatest television shows ever made. While the work of Briers, Braben and Whicker and their peers will feature, the top 10–especially in polls concerning drama– is generally dominated by series made since the turn of the millennium: from Britain, Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, Sherlock, The Street and Broadchurch. And, from the US, Mad Men, Homeland, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The West Wing, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, with the latter being given greater historical weight by the media obsequies for the recent death, at only 51, of the Mafia drama’s central actor, James Gandolfini.

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The argument that TV is now at least the equal of cinema– a comparison it has historically lost– was given significant support by the director Steven Soderbergh, who argued at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that we are experiencing a “golden age of TV.” Soderbergh had reason to be grateful to the small-screen because one of the leading cable companies, HBO, has funded his latest big-screen piece, Behind the Candelabra, after major movie studios refused to fund this biopic of a gay star, Liberace. Even so, his intervention was hugely useful to those who argue that the junior visual form has now caught up or possibly even over-taken its previously mocking superior.

So which voice should win the competition? The one arguing that the best of television died with Briers and the rest? Or the claim that artistic inventiveness and technical inventions have come together to permit previously unprecedented possibilities and achievements?

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As is frequently the case with popular readings of history, the evidence invites scepticism about the view that TV has progressively declined from a peak of creativity in the Sixties and Seventies.

A book about the state of British television, published 40 years ago, had the striking title: The Least Worst Television in the World. The author, critic Milton Shulman, captured in that phrase a common attitude at the time: that the medium would always tend to be inferior to cinema and theatre (Shulman’s favoured entertainment) and that work of artistic quality or intellectual content was an exception.

Just over a decade later, the title of another box-watching volume – by the critic Christopher Dunkley – indicated that condescension towards television continued. Television Today: Wall-to-Wall Dallas borrowed a phrase used by a member of the House of Lords to warn of the likely influx of rubbishy American drama that would result from the Thatcherite reforms of broadcasting that were intended to increase commercial competition and raise the number of available channels in the UK from what was then – improbable as this seems to young people – only four.

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And it wasn’t just books that took a low view of mass viewing. Expressions such as “television actor” and “television director” were clearly calculated to keep the talent in their box, implying that they were not good enough to work on the big screen to which they had surely aspired. It was also rare for a political or educational conference to pass without a key-note speaker attacking the small screen for encouraging parents to neglect their children (“the electronic babysitter”) or to encourage them towards violent or prematurely sexual behaviour.

The one note of optimism for the enemies of television, though, was that its negative effects were likely to be short-term. The rise of alternative visual entertainments from the Nineties onwards – video-games, DVD box sets, a resurgent and technologically innovative cinema industry – was predicted to kill television in much the way that the spread of the set in the corner of the living room had done for music hall and variety earlier in the 20th century.

Crucially, pundits pointed out, the direction of technological travel directly threatened TV’s main advantage over movies: the simultaneity of the viewing experience, which could bring tens of millions together as a communal audience and then provide a shared conversational point of reference in the days afterwards. This function of television as a national glue was central to one of the few completely enthusiastic books every written about British TV. In 1962, Dennis Potter, a journalist who would later write some of the most innovative dramas ever scripted (Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective), published The Changing Forest, in which he predicted the democratic and artistic possibilities of an art form that was consumed as a universal experience.

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In the two decades since Potter’s death in 1994, though, audiences had rapidly fragmented and narrowed, through a succession of time-delay and replay devices, with the result that viewers were increasingly likely to be watching shows at a different time from viewers in the rest of the country or even members of their own families. As viewing methods spread from very fat to extremely thin sets at home– and then to other, portable screens on lap-tops and on phones – the traditional illustration for articles about TV, showing a couple and two kids huddled round a glowing rectangle, began to seem as a remote as a Dickensian Christmas.

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For all these reasons, it was a mainstream belief at media conferences around the turn of the 21st century that older producers and consumers of TV had had the best of the art form, although, in truth, many would have been wary of calling broadcasting an art, still retaining a cultural cringe towards the multiplex.

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Today, the assumptions outlined above – that TV was doomed to be poor, that imports from US were bound to be even worse than the stuff made here and that sitting in front of a screen would encourage psychopathy of some kind – would seem extraordinary to very many of those who watch, work in or write about the programmes of the moment.

But, in judging the state of the art –  and adjudicating between those who claim golden ages then and now – the mistake is to regard “television” as a single entity. Once we break the programmes down by territory (UK, US, rest of the world) and by genre (fiction/reality) – while making a further distinction between out-put and the way it goes out — a clearer picture emerges of what viewers are getting.

It is, for example, hard to deny that American television fiction, in the period between the launch of The Sopranos and The West Wing in 1999 and the premieres of Mad Men and Breaking Bad in the 2007-8 seasons, reached a consistency of dramatic writing and acting that has rarely been achieved in theatre or cinema.

This happened because of a simultaneous shift in the artistic status and financial structure of American television. There emerged a succession of show-runners who came from the first generations to grow up with TV as a given rather than a luxury and who saw the medium as an equivalent alternative to cinema rather than, as earlier personnel had, a compensation for not reaching Hollywood. Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing, The Wire’s David Simon, David Chase, creator of  The Sopranos, Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan, the power behind Breaking Bad, genuinely loved television - Chase had served an apprenticeship on The Rockford Files, Gilligan on The X-Files, Weiner on The Sopranos–and saw in the form an opportunity to explore structures and subject-matter that were not available in other narrative media.

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In outlining his concept of five seasons each dealing with a separate power-base in Baltimore, Simon often used the term "TV novel", which had previously been popularised by Dennis Potter and the American small-screen pioneer Steve Bochco (LA Law, NYPD Blue) to describe the length and depth of examination that a long-form serial can bring to a figure or situation. But, while there is some overlap in story-telling between print fiction and television, it is when small-screen drama is compared with the other acted entertainments that TV scores most highly. Even the longest stage play or movie screenplays follow their protagonists for three hours or so, but television has given us from 50-100 hours of the lives of Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano.

These characters were also able to behave (especially when it came to swearing, sex or violence) more realistically than earlier TV characters because, with the exception of NBC’s stewardship of The West Wing, the shows of this golden dramatic age were made by cable subscription channels, which had the vital artistic advantages of being outside federal regulation of content and not being subject to the moralistic veto of advertisers and sponsors: HBO produced The Wire and The Sopranos, while AMC was responsible for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Zingingly written and charismatically acted as The West Wing was, its central character was a decent American president, well within the comfort zone of corporations and audiences, while the main or major characters in those cable shows include murderers, criminals and cancer victims of a sort it is impossible to imagine American networks supporting. It’s characteristic of cable programming that the non-network answer to forensic science shows such as the CSI series– Showtime’s Dexter–should feature a pathologist who is also a serial killer.

Yet, while clearly creatively pioneering, those cable hits – and others, such as Alan Ball’s <Six Feet Under> for HBO and Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa’s Homeland for Showtime – attracted relatively small audiences in both the US and as exports to the UK (where they have mainly been shown on minority channels) and owe their reputation as landmark dramas largely to the plaudits of reviewers and awards committees.

Little of the dramatic daring of those shows has spread to network American fiction, except perhaps for Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives for ABC, a high-camp, blackly comic suburban satire narrated by a dead person, which did go against the grain of mainstream peak-time. Otherwise, the mass audience successes of recent years have almost invariably been wannabe formats– America’s Got Talent, The Bachelorette, Big Brother–or investigative procedurals such as NCIS.

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It can be argued that, in American television, rather as has happened in Hollywood since the growth of independent movies, an ever-greater gulf has developed between smart work made for a small audience and blockbusters aimed at dumb masses. David Lynch’s weird crime-piece Twin Peaks, which has some claim to be one of the most influential TV dramas ever made, was shown in 1990 by ABC. These days, such a project would automatically go to cable, where there is none of the ratings pressure that led to Twin Peaks being abandoned in its second season.

And, when British television is viewed in isolation, the case for an age of greatness is even more questionable. Almost all of the current banker franchise– The BBC’s Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, Sherlock and The Apprentice; ITV’s The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Downton Abbey– are in some ways retreads. Lord Sugar’s recruitment drive re-models an American format, while Sir Bruce Forsyth and Matt Smith (and whoever succeeds him) lead modernisations of programme ideas (Doctor Who, Come Dancing) that were first seen in 1963 and 1949 respectively, while Benedict Cumberbatch has freshened up one of Britain’s most-loved fictional heroes and Simon Cowell has effectively re-imagined another 1949 vintage show (Opportunity Knocks) and one from the Seventies (New Faces) for the era of multi-platform synergy. Julian Fellowes’ Downton is a clever re-mix of a genre popularised 40 years ago by ITV’s Upstairs, Downstairs.

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The fact that most of the key ideas in British TV are almost as old as Sir Brucie – Sherlock Holmes is even older – suggests a creative exhaustion. And, with the exception of niche shows such as Toby Whithouse’s horror-comedy Being Human for BBC3 or Julia Davis’s costume-farce Hunderby for Sky Atlantic, a harsh reading of the schedules is that much of the energy and innovation in recent British TV has been provided by buy-ins from either Scandanavia (The Killing, Borgen) or France: Spiral, The Returned.

At this point of the year, it looks as if The Returned, a spooky psychological thriller in which schoolchildren killed in a coach crash apparently return to life, will be near the top of most critics’ best-of-2013 lists alongside Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, the atmospheric New Zealand police procedural which launched on BBC2 in July. That series is at least a co-production between BBC2 and Antipodean and American companies but is essentially non-British in both setting and a narrative technique that has learned from Twin Peaks and The Killing lessons that are evident in few British series apart from Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch, which took daringly slowly Olivia Colman and David Tennant’s investigation into the murder of a teenage boy.

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So, far from being at it creative peak, television can be seen to have a problem, perhaps even a serious crisis, which comes from the fact that, in most cases, its biggest artistic achievements are being seen by its smallest audiences.

And this is only one of a number of fundamental changes in the way that viewers consume television. For the third time in British history – the previous two occasions being the first burst of mass purchasing of sets in the Sixties and the arrival of satellite multi-channel in the Eighties– equipment and distribution have become more important to the future of the industry as the quality of the stuff being shown.

If it were the case that the most talked-about movie of the year had been released straight to DVD, cinema-owners would be panicking. And yet the TV drama that has received most publicity in 2013 has never been shown on television. House of Cards, the American remake of the BBC’s 1990 political thriller, was posted as a complete block of episodes by the on-line subscriber service, Netflix. The presence at the head of the project of two bona fide Hollywood stars –actor Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher –also endorsed Soderbergh’s view that the small-screen is where the talent wants to be.

Most importantly, though, House of Cards offered a new way of viewing programmes, which removed two of the defining features of the medium to date: network scheduling and communal viewing. The economics of the enterprise remain sketchy– Netflix has been cagey about take-up numbers – but the method has been repeated by Netflix itself, with fresh episodes of the comedy Arrested Development, and by others: the BBC will make the whole of Peter Kay’s new sitcom available on its iPlayer, designed as a catch-up service, ahead of transmission.

All of these methods – including iPlayer and its equivalents when used for time-shift viewing after transmission – work against the quality that has always separated TV from other art forms: that the audience are all in it together. So do the home entertainment festivals of marathon box-set consumption that have become a documented preference for another part of the audience.

Taken together, such trends seem to fulfill the prophecies that have been made at Edinburgh Television Festivals for at least the last quarter of a century: that TV watching would become a self-scheduled and increasingly solitary activity.

Ilustrating the complexity of the picture, there is one contradiction to this. The live climaxes of major sporting or entertainment contests – whether the finals of Strictly or BGT or Murray v Djokovic – still bring together vast collections of people, not far short of the numbers who used to watch Morecambe & Wise on Christmas Day. Even in drama, an occasional finale– such as the solution to Ashes to Ashes or the murderer-unmasking final episode of Broadchurch – has people rushing home or cancelling engagements, wanting to find out at the same time as everyone else. And the phenomenon of live Tweeting or blogging during the transmission of a programme achieves a communality that would have thrilled those such as Dennis Potter who believed that the medium would be a tool for social or political unity.

And yet TV, in 2013, still feels like a business in flux and confusion. The Least Worst Television in the World? No– some of the best work ever done is happening right now. The problem is that most viewers don’t know that they’re on. And, what, anyway, does “on” mean when television can be watched without a television set?
 

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