Every century, changes in technology allow a new art form to take hold. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was the spread of the printing press that enabled the novel to reach the heights that it did. In the twentieth century, it was the feature film. Both exist today, and have their own advantages that will give them staying power well into the future. The novel remains the consummate look into the mind, and the written form is the best way to express ideas. Film has the potential to bring together many of the elements of storytelling from novels as well as drama, art, photography and music.
Television is hardly new: it has been around since the 1950’s. But for most of its history it has not been viewed with the same esteem as its cinematic counterpart. A large reason for this was technology: in terms of aesthetics, most television screens were of lower resolution, stuck in a box frame, and often small. The delivery of network television also meant that shows had to be easy to follow even if viewers missed an episode, and because there were only a few major networks they were designed to appeal to a mass audience.
This began to change in the 1970’s when HBO first launched. From the outset, it catered to niche interests: its first major sports broadcast was an NHL game between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks. As the number of cable networks expanded so that there were sports-specific channels to carry such a minor sport, HBO developed its niche by developing shows that were oriented to a more mature and educated audience and by the 1990’s was a pioneer in representing gays and lesbians with films like And the Band Played On and If These Walls Could Talk.
In the late 1990’s, another technology came along: DVD. This made it possible to develop shows that had more complex narration, and for non-subscribers to watch the shows as well. The Sopranos was the first example of this to take off. The first show I watched was Six Feet Under. I remember that it felt like a show had been created just for me. While it had the production values of any other TV show, it had a personal touch with complex, interesting characters.
By the 2000’s, things changed again as everyone got large, widescreen TV’s. A show like Rome exemplified everything that was now possible. Unlike mainstream TV or movies, there were no limits to the amount of sex and violence they could put into it—like Game of Thrones, if it were to receive an MPAA rating it would easily get an NC-17. The story was complex and the show was impossible to follow if you didn’t start at the beginning.
This format took off, and led to what we now call the Golden Age of Television as many networks sought to emulate HBO and develop quality shows, especially AMC with Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Now, there is another technology to contend with: internet TV, or the Netflix model. Netflix has said that their goal is “to become HBO before HBO becomes us.” It’s specifically suited to viewers who want to start a series from the beginning and follow it all the way through. Like HBO, the shows are artistically challenging, bringing in many respected actors and filmmakers, have seasons of 13 episodes or less rather than 22 of a main network show and are groundbreaking in representation, specifically with a show like Orange is the New Black which has lesbian, bisexual, transgender, black and Latin American characters among the regulars.
HBO’s slogan for years has been, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Today, TV’s themselves are vastly different from what they were and quality niche programming is on the verge of abandoning traditional networks altogether. While shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are able to capture the public imagination, it’s generally on a smaller scale than a traditional TV show. Watching a show is now a personalized experience, almost like… reading a novel. We’re back where we began.