We are living in what is widely acknowledged as the Golden Age of television. What began as a trickle of captivating, intelligent, and creatively challenging series such as NYPD Blue and Oz became a flood with The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. Now we're drowning in an ocean of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards. Every month it seems a new jolt of inspiration appears from HBO, FX, AMC, Netflix, Amazon, and ever more unexpected corners of the media universe.
How did we get here from the bad old days of the idiot box? Television became truly great when it ceased being television, thus escaping the rules, regulations, conventions, and tastes that for decades kept the boob tube boring, stupid, and safe.
To understand why television was so bad for so long, you have to go back to May 1961. That was when the newly installed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Newton Minow, gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters that ruined everything. The address lasted almost 40 minutes and was more than 5,000 words long, but in the days and decades that followed it was remembered almost exclusively for just two words: "vast wasteland."
That was Minow's sour description of the burgeoning world of television. The speech was delivered from his perch as the nation's top broadcast regulator, yet it was framed in more personal terms. "I am the chairman of the FCC," Minow said. "But I am also a television viewer," one who has seen "a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile." He had no complaint with those shows, the ones he liked to watch. His objection was to the rest of the TV lineup. It was pulpy, profane, populist, and crude, and he wanted it to change.
Minow wasn't acting as broadcast bureaucrat so much as he was playing amateur TV critic. His complaint was the same complaint made by so many grumbling channel surfers: There's nothing on.
But the difference between his critique and most armchair TV criticism was that Minow's was backed by the explicit threat of enforcement. To the broadcasting professionals assembled, he said, "I understand that many people feel that in the past licenses were often renewed pro forma, I say to you now: Renewal will not be pro forma in the future. There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license." Television was a public good, and broadcasters owed the public for the airwaves they controlled. "I intend to see that your debt is paid with service."
The warning was as subtle as a gun to the head, although Minow probably would have objected to that metaphor. The speech, which had a huge and immediate impact on broadcasters and the public, ranks as one of the highest profile exercises of censorious paternalism in modern history-and also, in its central argument, one of the most blatantly wrong.
What Minow didn't know was that in the decades to come, television would make its biggest cultural impact not in spite of the vulgar genre tropes he despised but because of them, and not thanks to government prodding but by the ability to flee to nontraditional venues where bureaucrats had less power.
By 1960, some 46 million American homes—almost 90 percent of the country—had at least one television. TV had made its mark on politics, launching Minow's mentor Adlai Stevenson to national fame and helping put Minow's boss, President John F. Kennedy, in the White House. In terms of influence, no other form of mass communications came close. In a separate 1961 speech, Minow said that the public "spends more time now with television than it does on anything else except working and sleeping."
Yes, there were pockets of quality. "When television is good," Minow acknowledged in his Vast Wasteland speech, "nothing is better." But "when television is bad," he continued, "nothing is worse."
The FCC chair was explicit about what he disliked, casting the programming of the day as little more than "a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons."
This wasn't Washington's first salvo against televised vulgarity. The Democratic Party was in the midst of a multi-year effort to politicize the perceived decadence of TV programming. The 1960 Democratic platform decried a "national mood that accepts payola and quiz scandals" and "the exploitation of sadistic violence as popular entertainment."
The Vast Wasteland speech was an instant sensation. The Associated Press in 1961 named Minow its newsmaker of the year. And as University of Wisconsin-Madison communications professor James Baughman noted in a 2003 paper, the FCC received more than 4,000 letters, largely in support of his remarks. Among them: a journalist freshly back from a tour in the Navy decrying TV's "change for the worst," a California college student blasting Westerns and declaring himself "sick of the cow country," and a Virginia housewife complaining that daytime shows are all "made for halfwits." With a few exceptions, most of the nation's newspaper editorialists and TV critics sided with Minow as well. It was a busybody coalition of cultural elitists and puritan paternalists, led by a best-and-brightest bureaucrat.
Minow maintained that he did not intend to serve as a censor, promising that "there will be no suppression of programming which does not meet with bureaucratic tastes." But broadcasters understood things very differently.
As Mike Dann, a CBS programming executive at the time, told NPR's On the Media in 2011, the networks perceived Minow's speech as "the Gettysburg Address for broadcasters." It gave them their marching orders, their reason for being.
In the speech's wake broadcasters changed their approach to crafting new shows. Eastern Michigan University communications professor Mary Ann Watson, in her 1994 book The Expanding Vista, highlighted a speech that television program packager Mark Goodson gave to the 1962 convention of American Women in Radio and Television. New-show pitches began arriving with a requisite "Minow Paragraph"-a section included solely for justifying the show's appeal to the FCC. The implication of the insertions, Goodson explained, was this: "You may not like this show. The public may not like it-but he will."
And what Minow inevitably liked was "generally antiseptic, somewhat didactic, slightly dull, offensive to no one, and above all else 'justifiable,'" Goodson said. "The words 'entertainment' or 'pleasure' are seldom if ever mentioned. Like Latin and spinach, these shows are supposed to be good for you."
Producers at NBC were told by the network's Standards and Practices division to avoid running afoul of "various sensitivities of Washington," according to Watson. Stories were revised and reedited to avoid violence and sexual content. On ABC, The Untouchables, which producers understood as "a marked series," was toned down in hopes of sidestepping further criticism. Even relatively tame comedies such as Gilligan's Island made note of his influence: The show featured a boat, the S.S. Minnow, named for the man executive producer Sherwood Schwartz believed had "ruined television," according to a 1993 book by series star Russell Johnson.
Minow never followed through on his threat to revoke broadcast licenses. Yet the influence he exerted over TV programming was considerable. His personal tastes—or at least what television producers imagined them to be—overrode broadcasters' loyalty to their own audiences. And in the years that followed, television was duller, stodgier, more sanitized, and by all accounts less entertaining.
It was only by embracing the elements that Minow most despised that TV finally broke free.
Cable television channels began to proliferate throughout the 1980s and '90s, soon expanding into millions of homes. Unlike the big three networks that dominated Minow's era, these broadcasters did not rely on the FCC for licenses and were not bound by the agency's restrictions regarding indecency. They were free to air whatever they wanted. Most of the start-ups stuck with bland second-run programming: syndicated series, assorted reruns, and older movies. And while they generally applied looser content controls than broadcast networks, there were still limits imposed by advertisers, who did not want to be associated with ultra-violence or smut.
HBO didn't have that problem. Because it relied on subscription fees for revenue, it needed to woo customers, not advertisers. The network's business model was to air Hollywood movies, uncut and commercial-free. It advertised itself as a place for serious film fans who wanted no crass commercial distractions and no censorious meddling. The network's promotional material proudly singled out the graphic sex, violence, and language it was willing to air. Even the company's tagline—which in 1996 became, "It's not TV, it's HBO"—highlighted the gap between the pay network and everything else on the air.
That business model and self-conception eventually allowed the network to serve as an incubator for experiments that the broadcast networks would never have considered.
Throughout the 1990s, HBO experimented with a series of comedies, including Dream On, The Larry Sanders Show, and Sex and the City, which consistently featured nudity, profanity, and subject matter that would have never survived on network television. But it was with drama that the network would have its biggest impact.
One of the earliest such gambles was Oz, an hour-long prison drama created by Tom Fontana in 1997. As the TV critic Alan Sepinwall recounts in his 2012 book The Revolution Was Televised, Fontana was a successful TV scribe who for years had attempted to sell a show about the horrors of life in America's prisons. Oz was conceived as a sort of postscript to the traditional cop drama, a series that each week would look at what happened after police locked criminals away.
The problem was that no network would touch it, even when Fontana pitched watered-down variants that would have focused on juvenile detention centers or white-collar criminals. The characters were too unlikeable, the images too graphic, the stories too downbeat.
When Fontana took the idea to HBO's head of original programming, Chris Albrecht, the reaction was almost exactly the opposite. As the writer told Sepinwall, "Chris said to me, 'I don't care if the characters are likable as long as they're interesting." Albrecht even gave Fontana permission to kill off the leading man in the pilot episode.
The show was consistently, spectacularly brutal, featuring all manner of graphic murders and sexual violence. No network would have even considered airing the sort of explicit material that made it onto every single episode. Yet almost without exception, HBO was supportive, even encouraging.
That support extended to Fontana's experiments with story structure, casting, and thematic content. Oz featured a revolving ensemble cast made up largely of black actors, and episodes were frequently structured like short stories in a shared world, following a single character rather than giving equal time to every cast member. The narratives were vehicles for social criticism, dealing with race, crime, sexuality, addiction, and more. HBO went along with this too, because the channel envisioned itself as something bigger, richer, and worlds apart from traditional television. Albrecht "didn't care about a big hit," Fontana told Sepinwall. "He wanted just to make noise. I remember an op-ed piece in a newspaper about Oz, and he was thrilled about that, because we weren't on the TV page. That's what he considered a success."
Oz wasn't a huge ratings draw. But HBO didn't need ratings as much as attention and respect, which was just what the show provided. Over the next few years, it would become the model for HBO's original dramatic programming.
The most important of the shows made on that model was The Sopranos, which set new standards for TV drama by following New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano as he attempted to hold his business and suburban family together. Ostensibly a mob drama, the show was better understood as a dark look at American family life, one that just happened to be filtered through the perspective of a murderous crime boss.
Arguably the series' most important contribution was its willingness to portray its protagonist not only as flawed, but as a fundamentally bad person. Traditionally, television heroes are supposed to embody the audience's aspirations, reflecting their best selves back to them. Tony Soprano was just the opposite. He was a selfish, unrepentant murderer, and the show offered no absolution either to him or to its viewers.
HBO followed The Sopranos with equally challenging shows. Deadwood was a revisionist western about the rise of capitalism and criminal justice in America's outlaw West, featuring television's most elaborately profane dialogue. The Wire was a grim and detailed look at cops and dealers fighting the failing drug war in broken-down Baltimore. Even more than The Sopranos, these shows made use of the creative license that only HBO afforded at the time, with complex, novelistic storytelling and poetic language that would have never made it to air elsewhere. HBO's implicit pitch to viewers was: Come for the nudity and the violence, stay for literary investigations into bureaucratic corruption, social justice, and human evil.
This trio of shows—a bloody gangster drama, a coarse western, and a bleak series about inept cops and criminals who get away with murder—played like a Newton Minow fever dream. They were grim, downbeat genre shows, with a graphic sensibility inconceivable in 1961 America. They were also, by widespread agreement among creators and critics alike, the three best dramas ever to air on television.
That was no an accident. Like Oz creator Tom Fontana, the creators of all three shows had previously worked on network television and ultimately found the industry unable and unwilling to support their biggest, boldest ideas. They needed a safe space and a sense of freedom, far outside Minow's dull, creatively stifling worldview. They needed to move beyond television in order to save it.
You can't blame the broadcast networks for not trying. The problem was that the FCC made risk-taking too difficult. In 1993, several years before HBO would make its mark on original drama, ABC began running NYPD Blue, an hour-long police procedural co-created and largely written by eventual Deadwood creator David Milch and TV drama guru Steven Bochco, who a decade earlier had helped create the popular, critically acclaimed, and edgy-for-its-day cop show Hill Street Blues.
NYPD Blue was in many ways a follow-up to that earlier show, and it pushed the boundaries of television content and storytelling still further. Characters were less likeable, story arcs were more complex, and the show's use of creative profanity and partial nudity broke new ground for broadcast TV—enough that the FCC would ultimately fine the network $1.4 million for violating federal indecency standards. (In 2011, after a long court battle, the fine was reversed by the Supreme Court.)
Controversy over NYPD Blue's explicit content had initially helped sell the show, and like Hill Street Blues it proved to be a hit with critics and mass audiences. But the ongoing attention from the FCC made networks wary about experimenting with similarly edgy fare. In 2004, after a wardrobe malfunction revealed Janet Jackson's nipple during a Super Bowl halftime show, the FCC made it even more difficult for networks to push the boundaries of taste. As Sepinwall writes, after the Super Bowl incident, "the FCC started cracking down so hard on indecency that network TV content actually became tamer in many ways than it had been in the glory days" of NYPD Blue a decade earlier. The networks had been scared away. Milch took Deadwood to HBO.
Today, HBO's discovery has spawned an array of competitors reliant on similar strategies, starting with ad-supported cable channels like FX, which had a hit with the gritty cop show The Shield, about a murderous, corrupt police officer; and AMC, which brought on former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner to run Mad Men, a critically acclaimed show about the boozy, troubled lives of 1960s ad execs. In the pay-cable tier, Starz and Showtime followed with variant strategies and shows designed to appeal to different demographics than those targeted by HBO. Eventually, networks as varied as TNT, WE, SyFy, Lifetime, and even Chicago's WGN joined in with high-quality original shows of their own.
Not all of the new shows are great, of course. But a surprising number are quite good, and a few, like AMC's Breaking Bad, have even rivaled HBO's original holy trinity. In less than a decade, the cable landscape, once a desert of has-been content, transformed into an oasis of challenging and artistically ambitious original programming.
HBO succeeded because of its separation from traditional TV. But both it and the outlets that followed its lead were still television channels. And like all television channels, they still aired hour-long programs, once a week, in static timeslots. The next big break would be to escape from those confines too.
In 2013, the online video-streaming service Netflix, which had begun as a DVD-by-mail company, aired the first season of House of Cards, a lavishly produced political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and overseen by Oscar-nominated movie director David Fincher. It wasn't the service's first original show, but it was a huge, unprecedented risk: The company reportedly spent $100 million up front on a complete two-season order, a move unheard of at the time.
Like HBO, Netflix had started as a subscription-based home for old movies. The difference was that all the movies were available on demand. Netflix took the same viewer-choice approach to its original series, posting the entire first season online at once. The single-season dump embraced the multi-episode binge-watching that DVDs and video recorders had introduced to TV fandom. Combined with the service's platform-agnostic delivery, which allowed viewers to watch on iPhones and laptops in addition to living room sets, the move was an open declaration that the company would not even attempt to control when or where viewers watched.
Suddenly, television wasn't just on television anymore. And just as HBO spawned copycats, so did Netflix. Amazon, which a few years earlier had launched a competing online video-streaming service, produced its own original political series, Alpha House, about congressman who live in the same D.C. home. The Internet retail giant handed even more control over to viewers when it began posting its pilots for new series online and asking viewers to vote on which should be made into complete series.
Game console manufacturers Sony and Microsoft announced that they too would begin producing original programming tailored to their audience. And just as HBO took material that wouldn't work on broadcast TV, Sony said in June that it would begin production on Powers, a comic-book adaptation that had previously been passed over by FX.
Even smaller online media startups were getting into the game: In August, BuzzFeed, a viral news and entertainment website, announced a $50 million investment, part of which would go toward the creation of a new online video studio that would make original series and movies.
Netflix continued to expand, announcing a plan to produce five full seasons of programming set in the Marvel Comics universe, and launching Orange Is the New Black, a show set in a women's prison. Like Oz, this was a series—featuring graphic language and sexual scenarios, as well as a cast heavy on women and minorities—that would and did have difficulty finding a home anywhere else. HBO and Showtime had both passed on the program.
Meanwhile, the original pay-cable pioneer was busy playing catch-up, launching HBOGO in 2008, its own Netflix-like online video application but limited to its existing cable subscribers. In August of this year, Netflix announced that it had surpassed HBO in subscriber revenue.
Like HBO, Netflix and its growing army of imitators and followers exist outside the FCC's purview. But just as importantly, they all understand themselves to be something other than traditional television—something different and better, something more than the safe, stale medium that Minow preferred.
The word television only occasionally means actual television anymore. Instead, it describes an expansive universe of content in which an increasing number of cable channels are competing not only with broadcast networks and each other but also with Internet video companies, video game companies, and online retailers to produce programming for a growing array of niche interests.
Decades after Minow's speech, the nation's former tastemaker recalled his disappointment that the phrase that had stuck was "vast wasteland." He had hoped instead that the standout would be his notion that television should be in the "public interest." Today, free from his constricting influence, we can see what television in the public interest—which is to say, television the public is actually interested in paying for—looks like: It's bloody, vulgar, naked, complicated, and filled with cops, killers, and gangsters. It's everything Minow hated about TV, and it's amazing.
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