Transmission Impossible

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

Television is not the medium it was even a mere year ago, and we are not the audience we were, either. We are all evolving, television and us together.

But good Lord, into what?

We don't watch television; instead, we access program material through content providers. Viewers accustomed to the cellphone and iPod and DVR and OnDemand don't watch TV the way earlier generations did. We don't even receive it the way our foreviewers did, via the old cathode-ray tube-in-a-box. TV now seeps into our lives through hand-held gadgets and laptops, on "webisodes" and YouTube snippets and fragmented downloads.

Viewers have more control than ever over when they'll see what they want to see; they can program their own personal networks. And in more homes than ever, too, that antique cumbersome box in the corner has been replaced by a big-screen flat-panel TV receiver that hangs on a wall or sits on a kind of stage.

But no matter what path TV takes to our eyeballs, one requirement remains: There must be programs, even if some are only 2 1/2 minutes long.

Even there lies changes, though. The old, tidy arrangement of a TV season lasting from fall through spring -- with reruns filling up the viewer-scarce summer -- is long gone. Even as new shows are making their debuts, such basic-cable series as "The Closer" (appropriately enough) will be serving up their season finales. Old rules are broken so often that they are no longer rules at all; so-called seasons blur together into one big stream of semiconsciousness.

If we pretend for a moment that there is still such a thing as a "new fall season," though, it starts tomorrow night, according to the Nielsen ratings computers. And it lifts off by observing at least one tradition: It starts after the Emmy Awards telecast (tonight on ABC). As one sign of changing times, the Emmys will be hosted by a coven of reality-TV show hosts, reflecting the 21st-century infestation of unscripted television throughout the schedules of broadcast and cable channels alike.

The Emmys will be emblematic in another way. For years, HBO has carted home Emmys by the bushel for its big-budget programs. HBO is a pay-cable network; turning heads and even dropping jaws this year is the strong showing in Emmy nominations by "Mad Men," a basic-cable series from the cheap and once essentially obscure AMC network.

It's another sign that cable is reaching, or has reached, parity with what might be called -- in that immortal phrase from "Guys and Dolls" -- the "oldest established permanent floating crap game" in the country: broadcast network television. It might still be the oldest established one, but it's definitely no longer the only floating crap game in town. As audiences and revenues at the broadcast networks have declined, so have they risen at basic cable.

It's not your dad's fall TV season, nor even your stepdad's or your older sister's. And who knows? It might be the last one -- the last time the networks can agree on what the fall season is and when it starts, and put up even a semblance of a unified front. If we think of TV as a place and not a thing, then it fits snugly into that old crack about New York: It'll be a nice town if they ever finish it.

It's still a work in progress -- and a work in egress, too.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company