DAFOTV, Part VI: Enter the Internet
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted in my “Decline and Fall of Television” series. In the fourth installment, I had proposed to look individually at the various “junk genres”, as I called them, but ended up posting specifically only on reality television. Upon rereading the posts and thinking about where I want to go with the series, I think I no longer want to examine the junk genres individually. What I wrote regarding bandwidth, junk genres, and reality TV applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other genres. It’s too depressing and boring to have to think about such things as infomercials, anyway, let alone to write about them. I do have three final reflections with which to complete the DAFOTV series, though. In this one I want to look at the technological changes that laid the groundwork for these changes.
In the third installment of this series, I discussed the radical difference in the programming schedule of a typical broadcast day in the 70’s of my youth as opposed to now. In that vein, I want to look more broadly at the differences in the content thus delivered, and in how we watched it. Some content hasn’t changed that much, of course–sports are sports, news is news, and so on. Now there are networks completely dedicated to sports, news, and so on, but the delivery isn’t that much different: baseball in the summer, football in the fall and winter, and so on. The changes I’m interested in are in television drama and comedy series and general entertainment.
The main genres of TV series in the 70’s and on into the early 90’s were as follows:
- Comedies (usually situation comedies) which were almost always a half hour long
- Dramas (police, doctor, etc.), usually an hour long
- Variety shows (Carol Burnett, Donnie and Marie, and so on), usually an hour long.
These genres were broadcast during the so-called “prime time”, that is, from 8 to 11 PM on weekday nights. Similar programming aired in the same time slots on Saturday and Sunday, but these areas were considered less important, with most flagship shows airing during the week. There were also made-for-TV movies that aired at various times, but by and large they were not part of the main content.
Typically, the broadcast year began in early September, after Labor Day. Old series would begin a new season; cancelled series would be dropped from the line-up; and new series would premiere to much fanfare. In general, a season would be considered as 22 episodes (seasons in the 60’s were a bit longer, but 22 came to be typical). Periodically, regularly scheduled episodes would be pre-empted by nature, science, or history specials, such as National Geographic, or by children’s one-shot shows (e.g. Dr. Seuss shows or the various animations of Rudyard Kipling’s works that were done in the early 70’s by Chuck Jones). During the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, there would be further pre-emptions for holiday shows (most notably the many Rankin-Bass cartoons and stop-action animations, and various celebrity specials). Occasionally, depending on the speed of production, an episode might be re-run to fill in the gap.
All of this allowed a 22 episode season to last from September to about March or April. This corresponds closely to the school year, not coincidentally. During the summer, people are on vacation and kids are out of school, and everyone is outside more often. Thus, while people have more free time, they are less likely to spend it watching TV. The summer, therefore, was the province of re-runs, sporting events, and occasional specials. This saved money by recycling old content during a period of lower ratings, and helped build anticipation for new episodes of old series and new series altogether when fall rolled around again.
The advent of cable and channels such as HBO and Showtime, as well as various specialty channels began to make the first cracks in this system, but there were no major changes until the 90’s as new technologies became an increasing presence in everyday life.
The first change was in format. Home video tapes (the VHS format eventually winning out over Betamax) had been around since the 80’s, but began to yield to the digital disc format of the DVD. Laser disks had been tried over a decade before, but they were large (nearly a foot long) and unwieldy, and never caught on. Music, however, had already migrated to the CD (compact disc) format after the technology was developed to encode music digitally on discs which, at about 7 inches in diameter, were not much bigger than old 45 records. By 1995, it became possible to encode movies digitally on discs of the same format on digital video disks–DVD’s. DVD’s had an obvious advantage over tapes–smaller, lighter, more portable, not prone to tangling (remember when that happened to the tape of your favorite movie?), capable of being played on a wider variety of devices, such as computers, both desktop and laptop, and cheaper. The one advantage of tape–recordability–was demolished with the advent of recordable DVD’s and DVD-ripping technology around the turn of the millennium. VHS was toast.
At the same time, devices such as TiVo and DVR allowed recording and watching of real-time broadcasts. Finally, in the early 2000’s, high-speed Internet finally reached a tipping point at which it replaced dial-up access for most of the country. This finally allowed transmission of music and video across the Internet at a speed high enough that one could actually listen or watch in real time. Thus was born streaming and the new companies such as Netflix and Hulu which arose to take advantage of it, offering viewers the ability to watch videos with no storage devices such as tapes, DVD’s, or Blu-ray’s at all. All of these things had profound effects on how we consumed TV content. The next installment will look at these effects and how they have changed how TV shows are made and what we expect of them.