Is social media killing television?
There are dire headlines, such as this one just last month in The Washington Post: “Dive in NFL ratings may spell doom for TV age.”
But not to worry. According to NPR’s “Fresh Air” TV critic and media historian David Bianculli, we are living in television’s Platinum Age, so stash the defibrillators and pop the champagne.
Bianculli’s new study explains how the “cool medium” morphed from a piece of hearthside furniture into a ubiquitous handheld device. The decisive DNA in this evolution is programming, and Bianculli’s main thrust is to map television’s rise from fixed network scheduling to on-demand selection — a survival of the fittest that, with today’s gazillion channels, offers something for everyone.
“The Platinum Age of Television” is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age (which he covered in his 1992 book, “Teleliteracy”) to today’s era of quality TV. “Rather than reflexively arguing that the good old days were the best,” he writes, “I’m an old dog pointing out that the new tricks are even better.”
He defines the Platinum Age as the period from 1999 — the year “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos” debuted — to 2016 and beyond. But he reaches back to TV’s early days to trace the development of 18 TV genres with five notable shows in each category. For instance, animation evolved from “Rocky and His Friends” to “South Park”; variety shows moved from “The Ed Sullivan Show” to “Saturday Night Live”; and family sitcoms grew from “I Love Lucy” to “Modern Family.”
Bianculli has researched with gusto, watching thousands of hours of TV, digging through manuscript archives and talking with legendary TV figures. A high point of this history is the author’s interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer and many others.
His conversation with Matt Weiner is particularly fascinating because Weiner admits that “I wasn’t allowed to watch TV as a kid.” The writer of such landmark programs as “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” Weiner was only given dispensation to watch with his family on Saturday nights, where he saw CBS’s legendary lineup “All in the Family,” “M.A.S.H.,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” When he was 11, he watched ABC’s miniseries “Roots,” which he credits with inspiring his career as a television writer. He discovered “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” while he was in film school at the University of Southern California, but he also embraced the era’s new sitcoms. “ Roseanne was just a gift to me,” he says. “There was the marital relationship, the relationship with kids, the hostility, the poverty. . . . You literally couldn’t believe it was on TV.” Bianculli writes that Weiner discovered how to let characters’ stories “unfold naturally and unpredictably.” And he learned to make each episode different, which means, Weiner says, that “there’s no formula.”
Bianculli launches his chapter on miniseries with “Roots” (1977), and then explores how the “long-form TV drama” has gotten a recent rebirth with such popular shows as “Downton Abbey” (2010-2015). As was also true with “Poirot,” the miniseries format changed television by adopting “more of the standard British model, which is to produce a small number of hours, call it a season, and, after a suitable waiting period, perhaps make some more. It’s a more civilized way of making television.”
In 2013, Netflix injected another revolution in viewing habits by creating its streaming hit series “House of Cards.” Kevin Spacey, who stars as Frank Underwood, tells Bianculli that everyone thought Netflix was making a huge mistake: “When we made the deal, there were a lot of people running around saying it was crazy making a series with a streaming service.” But as Bianculli writes, the series “changed all the rules and influenced countless quality shows that came in its wake.” Spacey’s portrait as TV’s President Francis Underwood even hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Bianculli has written a highly readable history, but he could have delved more deeply into how technology has transformed television from a solitary pastime into an interactive and communal experience. He has also not addressed the sea-change in television news from landmark programs like CBS’s Walter Cronkite to Platinum Age shows like MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Redefining “news” as “entertainment” is a major shift in media history, and it has had serious consequences: A recent Gallup Poll reports that “trust in mass media in the United States is lower than it has ever been” since Gallup began asking that question in 1972.
The media landscape continues to reinvent itself, and Bianculli remains optimistic that the future “will continue to encourage quality TV to thrive.” What’s next? Stay tuned.
Amy Henderson is historian emerita of the National Portrait Gallery. She writes frequently on media and culture and is the author of “On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting.”
By David Bianculli
Doubleday. 576 pp. $32.50