One of the surprising side effects of the upheavals in the TV industry’s business model is that, for now, we’re actually living in a golden age of scripted television. Television networks have found that one of the few predictable ways to build an audience is to create content that’s really, really good. Alan Sepinwall covers TV for Hitfix.com and is the author of the new book The Revolution Was Televised. He tells Bob about the unlikely path that led us to this TV renaissance.
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One of the surprising side effects of the upheavals in the television industry’s business model is that for now we’re actually living in a golden age of scripted television. TV networks have found that one of the few predictable ways to build an audience is to create content that’s really, really good.
Alan Sepinwall covers TV for Hitfix.com.* In his new book, The Revolution Was Televised, he explains the unlikely path that led to this TV renaissance. Alan, welcome to OTM.
ALAN SEPINWALL: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: I want you to know that I am such a conscientious journalist that in preparation for this conversation I have binged on TV. I can tell you right now I buy into your premise that we are in some sort of golden age, ‘cause that is a lot of smart comedy I’ve been seeing. How did this happen?
ALAN SEPINWALL: So, once upon a time the goal in television was, we have to come up with a show that is going to appeal to as many people as possible, and that was the mode in which most television was made. And even slightly more challenging shows like Hill Street Blues or Cheers or whatever, they had to compromise on some level to make sure that the audience could follow it. And starting in the mid to late nineties, that began to change, and so suddenly you didn’t have to do a show that reached the most viewers. You just had to do a show that excited the viewers as much as possible.
BOB GARFIELD: The ending of the Gilligan’s Island-ization of TV.
ALAN SEPINWALL: That still exists, to an extent. TV has kind of gone in two directions at once. On the one end, you have The Sopranos you have Louis, you have The Wire. On the other hand, you have the Kardashians, you have Honey Boo Boo - you have reality TV. So there’s definitely still going for the lowest common denominator, it’s just possible to do something completely the opposite of that and still be a success.
But there's not as much in the middle anymore as there used to be. I mean, there’s a lot of the shows that CBS does, things like NCIS, CSI, that are much more middlebrow, but there's not nearly as much of that. You’re mostly dealing with the two extremes.
BOB GARFIELD: I have said that Breaking Bad on AMC has been one of the greatest cultural experiences of my life, but it is the beneficiary of an environment that you believe began where?
ALAN SEPINWALL: It began with two shows. There was Oz on HBO and then that was followed by The Sopranos. Oz was this show about a violent experimental prison unit, created by Tom Fontana, who had done St. Elsewhere and Homicide. And he was basically given carte blanche. HBO had never done a drama before. They didn't have to answer to advertisers. They didn't have to answer to censors. So they told Fontana, do whatever you want, and he made this crazy, violent, imaginative, thoughtful show about life inside a prison. And, while it was never a huge success, it was a creative success, and it was enough that it gave HBO confidence to then do The Sopranos which was also a show that threw out a lot of the old rules. And The Sopranos was an enormous hit, and suddenly everyone else in television started saying, well, why can’t we do something like that?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, all of this is taking place, paradoxically, at a time where the economic model of television is in mid- collapse. Is this a star burning bright before it dies altogether, or is it something else?
ALAN SEPINWALL: You're right that the economic model has been falling apart, but that's been oddly good for the business right now, at least creatively, because no one knows what's working and so suddenly there's a much greater freedom to innovate because we've got to try something. And the Sopranos model that everyone has been following has been working for 13 years now. You have people trying lots of different things to make the numbers work in this weird rapidly shifting environment.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there was a period in the seventies where Hollywood was on the ropes and, for whatever reason, it started letting filmmakers be more like auteurs, and suddenly Hollywood was succeeding with these more idiosyncratic films, but eventually the business caught up to the artistry and Hollywood went right back into the kind of formulaic patterns that we’re all familiar with. Do you think it’s only a matter of time before commercial interests douse the flame that you've identified?
ALAN SEPINWALL: That could happen. To some extent, it's already happening a little bit. The biggest hit on HBO right now isn’t Game of Thrones, it isn’t Boardwalk Empire, it isn’t Girls, it’s True Blood which no one is ever gonna confuse with great art. It’s just people like watching vampires and like watching naked people.
AMC, they made their mark with Mad Men and Breaking Bad but their big hit is The Walking Dead, which can be a very good show but is a fairly straightforward zombie show. And so, you could start to see that blockbuster mentality like Jaws and like what Star Wars did. It's just it's very hard to do and really hard to get a big hit.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so what’s gonna happen?
ALAN SEPINWALL: I’m by nature an optimist. I've looked at the way that the business has changed. And, once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for there to be a show like Louis, a show like Justified, a show like Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire. And so, now there's lots and lots of them. There's more of these shows than ever before, and you have other channels jumping into the fray. And one of the interesting things is Netflix, which could be part of the problem, also could be part of the solution, because now they're starting to make their own shows. There was a period around the time The Sopranos was ending where it seemed like the era was coming to a close because The Sopranos was over, The Wire was about to end, The Shield was about to end. Okay, this was great.
And then AMC started making shows, and they did Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and the era just started anew. And all it really takes is a new network or a new operation looking to make a name for themselves and being willing to throw out the rulebook and try something.
BOB GARFIELD: For years, my adult children have been saying, Daddy, television is better than movies, And I’m like, pshaw. Come to discover [LAUGHS] that these shows now have invaded my psyche. And I want to be involved with them, and I want to feel like I have an ongoing relationship with them. They are better than 99 point something percent of the films that I see. Are they right?
ALAN SEPINWALL: Graham Yost who is the producer on FX’s Justified used to be a real hotshot screenwriter; He wrote Speed in the nineties. And he tells a story in the book about how he quit a sitcom job to go do Speed and he went back to revisit the sitcom offices a year or two later and everyone was so jealous and so excited: “What’s it, what’s it like in the movies, Graham? Tell us. Are the streets paved with gold?” And then years later he’s working he's working on Justified and he ran into a friend of his who’s still working in the movies, and now the movie friend [LAUGHS] is jealous of him –
- because he thinks that you can do more interesting stuff on television.
BOB GARFIELD: Alan, thank you very much.
ALAN SEPINWALL: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Alan Sepinwall blogs on Hitfix.com.* His book is called The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.
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* In our broadcast of the interview with Alan Sepinwall, Bob referred to his website as “Hit Flix.” The correct title is hitfix.com.