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I don't own a television, and yet I watch quite a lot of it. The television I don't own is an appliance.  I watch the programming called TV on a laptop computer, usually in bed.

The programming, judged on the basis of my 20th-century expectations, is out of this world. Long-format dramas with top notch acting and compelling special effects are proliferating to the point where I couldn't possibly watch all of the shows that I hear people raving about.  I did a search for the best TV shows of 2016, and here is the first list I found. You may not agree with these picks, but that's not really important. The shows listed below are highly acclaimed. Notice which networks produced them.

(The ones in bold are ones the I have seen.)

25. Insecure
Network: HBO

24. Jane the Virgin
Network: The CW

23. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore
Network: Comedy Central

22. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Network: The CW

21. Documentary Now!
Network: IFC

20. American Crime
Network: ABC

19. Rectify
Network: SundanceTV

18. Steven Universe
Network: Cartoon Network

17. Transparent
Network: Amazon

16. Last Man on Earth
Network: Fox

15. Silicon Valley
Network: HBO

14. Black Mirror
Network: Netflix

13. Game of Thrones
Network: HBO

12. Fleabag
Network: Amazon

11. Westworld
Network: HBO

10. Halt and Catch Fire
Network: AMC

9. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Network: HBO

8. Better Call Saul
Network: AMC

7. Veep
Network: HBO

6. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
Network: FX

5. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
Network: TBS

4. BoJack Horseman
Network: Netflix

3. Atlanta
Network: FX

2. Stranger Things
Network: Netflix

1. The Americans
Network: FX

HBO: 6
FX: 3
Netflix: 3
AMC: 2
The CW: 2
Amazon: 2
FOX: 1
Sundance TV: 1
IFC: 1
Comedy Central: 1
Cartoon Network: 1
TBS: 1
ABC: 1
NBC: 0
CBS: 0


I've been fascinated by Amazon's The Man in the High Castle. As various reviewers have pointed out, the pacing and plot are inconsistent, the acting uneven, and the special effects are just barely good enough to maintain the suspension of disbelief, but in other ways the texture of the show is compelling. Because of long production lead times for shows like this, a Donald Trump presidency was never the subtext for this show, but it has become the subtext retroactively. The vision of a functioning fascist America is three-quarters of its draw.

Today, I saw a trailer for a new Hulu show based on Margaret Attwood's dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale. I was excited and I posted the trailer to Facebook along with a comment about how traditional TV is in sad shape compared to what the new venues like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have to offer.

Someone asked me to define "traditional TV." From his perspective, "traditional TV" is experiencing a golden age. I explained that when I say "traditional TV," I'm mostly thinking about ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the 3 broadcast networks I grew up with. Notice that the three of them combined produced as many of the acclaimed shows in the list above as the Independent Film Channel. They may still be making money, but in terms of influencing the culture, their best days are clearly behind them.

Why are the big boys of yesterday the pathetic also-rans of today? I think it's their intended revenue model. The big three make programming that advertisers will pay to embed their ads in.  HBO, Netflix and Amazon make programming that viewers will pay to watch.

Many advertisers won't pay for the kinds of shows that make lists like this because the people in television advertising live in a fantasy land where every suburban home is clean, well-appointed, scrupulously maintained, and drenched in natural light and every city-dwelling 20 something lives in a million dollar loft apartment. Nobody in TV commercials has anything more pressing to worry about than looking good, eating processed foods and ensuring that they can watch "the game" on the biggest TV screen possible.

Advertisers want programming that doesn't expose the la la land quality of their manufactured worlds. Basically, on "traditional TV," the programming carpet needs to match the advertising drapes, which is to say that everything must be uniformly fake. Even when it attempts to address (i.e. exploit) the social worries of the day, it must first translate them into the fake TV idiom and THEN see what sense can be made of them in that context. TV shows about white people living comfortably in the Great Nazi Reich while blacks toil on plantations and Jews and cripples are put down to protect the purity of the populace are incompatible with the prerogatives of the people who inhabit the multi-cultural consumer paradise depicted in TV advertising.

I agree that we're in a golden age of TV right now, and SOME of the good content is coming out of places like FX and AMC, which are based on the advertising model, but they are exploiting a niche that was created by HBO and Showtime, and they are failing, in my opinion, to keep pace with Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.

The shows that these new outlets (they don't seem like "networks") are producing are often fantastical and don't aspire to a Cinéma vérité depiction of the real world. The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history tale and so is clearly not of this world. Most of the central characters are still improbably good looking, and convenient coincidences abound. But it still achieves a level of reality (or maybe "honesty" would be a better word) that is out of step with the fake reality that advertisers need to project. A Best Buy or TGIFriday's commercial dropped into the middle of an episode would stand out as toxically contrived in a way that it wouldn't if it appeared in an episode of Law and Order or The Walking Dead.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jan. 12th, 2017 05:25 am (UTC)
Trad. TV
Notes off the top of my head:
Only two of the "Production companies/Networks" for these top shows aren't available on Cable/Dish, so the advertising model is working for those viewers/producers. You seem to be making a distinction w/ Broadcast TV that you don't mention.

This is a good viewpoint you might shop to Huffpost or Salon (though it would be better for those venues if you removed the 1st person). And it's noteworthy those outlets also operate on an advertising revenue model. Could swap the direct reference to commercial advertisers (Best Buy...) with a general reference to their type, for publication.

Still, I don't remember reading this angle previously. Needs a summation sentence at the end, as well.

Edited at 2017-01-12 05:25 am (UTC)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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