May 1, 2013

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TV’s New Golden Age . . . Maybe

There is no argument that television audiences aren’t as unified as they once were. The long battle between network and cable ultimately has been decided in the favor of niche audiences and interests. Granted, recently there has been a move back towards the center, especially as cable television has become more and more mainstream, and popular, cheap reality shows have become standard operating procedure.

At the moment, most cable television gives the illusion of choice while repackaging the same types of shows and personalities, all to enthusiastic audiences with a particular interest.

There are exceptions, of course. Channels like FX and AMC continue to develop shows like “Louie” or “Breaking Bad,” while the premium channels of HBO and Showtime consistently produce high-quality material. These channels, however, may soon be overtaken by a new challenger. While still in its infancy, streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime are testing the waters with original shows. The accessibility and relative low price point of these services may be poised to make a serious dent in cable subscriptions and change the way television is watched. But the quality will have to improve first.

Netflix began its content production with “Lilyhammer,“ a Mafia comedy/drama starring Steven Van Zant in 2012. Even thought it was generally well received, the show quickly slipped under the water. Netflix’s more recent ventures, “House of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove,” show both the possibilities and pitfalls of the streaming model.

“ House of Cards” is a tentative success, owing most of its acclaim to the presence of stars like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. The material is certainly decent. Based on a British series of the same name, with undertones of “Richard III” and “Macbeth,” “House of Cards” tells the story of a spurned Southern congressman seeking revenge and power. It’s a cynical “West Wing” for a country trapped in gridlock. When it works, the show is very, very good. But there are still occasional missteps, from ambiguous plot points to distracting character interactions. Without the powerful performances by Spacey and Wright, the show would fizzle rather than shine. But it’s an important step in a new content delivery system. The ability to watch an entire season at leisure, without commercials or weekly waits, is a strong advantage for the streaming site, but it also might be a drawback. Part of what makes a show popular is word-of-mouth buzz. It’s something that grows from week to week—anticipation is part of what makes momentum. Releasing entire seasons at once negates the crowd appeal, making the experience more individual.

If “House of Cards” is an example of the potential of streaming episodic content, “Hemlock Grove” shows how it might fail. It isn’t that the premise is flawed. On the contrary, there are a lot of good things about the show; its supernatural premise isn’t necessarily original but it isn’t worn out either. Producer Eli Roth, who directed the first episode, does a good job creating an entertaining mythos for the show to explore. However, it also suffers from stilted dialogue and dull characters. It is seems to have been created due to the popularity of franchises like “Twilight” and “True Blood,” combined into a mixture of bored melodrama, without the charm that made HBO’s vamp soap opera moderately endearing. Of course, this is preliminary and the show has more than enough room to grow in its second season—assuming it gets enough viewers.

Interestingly, the streaming model allows for a more democratic process in deciding which shows to keep and which ones to cut. Netflix can track views in real time, without the ambiguity and occasional bias of Nielson ratings. Amazon Prime takes this one step further, releasing ten pilots and allowing users to vote on which ones are made into a full series. This puts the content directly into the hands of consumers, which is good. It also creates a place for popular cult shows that don’t have a wide enough appeal at the time to make a comeback, shows like “Arrested Development,” which is set to debut a new season in May. However, this process might also stifle creativity and experimentation, forcing showrunners and producers into catering to set content generation generated by clicks. The model also may not have a large enough budget for certain fantasy/sci-fi shows like “Game of Thrones,” even though those genres would likely be immensely popular across this medium. Time will tell.

Regardless, the advent of streaming television is worth attention. Now is the time to watch, when the model is being tested and the ideas are the freshest. We may be due for a new golden age of television.  


May 1, 2013

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