As we ring in the new year, nearly everybody in the industry considers the most significant television story of 2018 to have been the abrupt decline and fall of CBS overlord Les Moonves, whose extensive list of sexual delinquencies included putting an employee on the CBS payroll with the sole assignment of hoovering him through the meditations on the next iteration of the CSI franchise. (How do you list that on a resume, anyway?)
But in five years or so, all those same people (the industry folks, not Moonves and his muse) may remember 2018 not as the year of the first Jenna Jameson miniseries based on a corporate report, but the moment the TV worm turned digital.
Pick the news of your choice: It was the first year there were more scripted series online than on broadcast TV (160 to 146). The first year streaming networks dominated the prime-time Emmys (Netflix and Amazon a total of 12 awards; HBO, Showtime and the five broadcast nets, eight.) The year the number of cable cord-cutters hit 33 million, a jump of about a third in just about a year.
What it all adds up to is that the days of television as we've known it, both broadcast and cable, are numbered—and probably just barely into the double digits. The industry recognizes it and took steps both big and small in 2018 to cut itself in on the streaming jackpot.
At one end of the scale, televison behemoth Disney announced the creation of two streaming services—ESPN+ and Disney+—and the planned purchase of a third, Hulu. At the lower (but possibly more significant) end, the National Geographic Channel included an Amazon Fire Stick, one of the most popular cord-cutting tools, in the little seasonal swag bags it sends out to curry favor with TV writers.
(The swag bags never influence us, though I must tell you that National Geographic's Airfryer Oven is one of the most emotionally rich dramas on television today.)
You may be tempted to point out that doomsayers have been predicting the end of broadcast for years now, and yet The Big Bang Theory is still pulling in 18 million viewers a week in its 12th season.
It's true that nothing on Netflix or Hulu has that kind of viewership. Even so, TV ad sales dropped this year and are expected to decline in three of the next four years. (The presidential election and Olympics are forecast to produce a bare half-a-percent increase in 2020.) The problem is that the young viewers that demo-conscious advertisers covet are precisely the ones brandishing shears at their cable cords.
So we have a horse race. Which will die first? The cable business model of forcing customers to buy huge, expensive packages of programming, most of which they don't want? Or broadcast television itself, as shrinking revenue makes the idea of shutting down individual channels and selling their portion of the broadcast spectrum back to the government?
So-called 5G, or fifth-generation telecommunication standard, promises everything from dazzling ultra-high-def TV sets to driverless cars. But the spectrum for it has to come from somewhere, and will command a pretty price. Rabbit ears are likely to join the endangered-species list soon.
Whatever the future may bring, there was still plenty of good television—the broadcast kind, the cable kind and the streaming kind—to be had in 2018, even though it had the weakest fall season in years:
- (tie) Killing Eve (BBC America), The Looming Tower (Hulu), The Chi (Showtime) and Claws (TNT). A bonkers feminist spy drama, a terrifying tale of the run-up to 9/11, an affirmation of humanity in a drug-war zone and a borderline-insane comic look at life on the fringes of the Everglades: These four shows have nothing in common but TV's ability to make us experience the dread, the hope, and the humor of alternate realities.
- The Conners (ABC). I was skeptical, for both aesthetic and political reasons, that ABC could successfully reboot the blue-collar sitcom Roseanne after ousting the show's star and creator Roseanne Barr for racist tweeting. I was wrong. There's less Trump name-dropping in the new version, but it remains a biting commentary on life and culture in flyover America.
- Tiny Shoulders (Hulu). A funny, poignant and brave defense of the Barbie doll from feminist persecution, this documentary is great viewing even if you're more of a G.I. Joe person.
- The Big Bang Theory (CBS). As popular as ever in its 12th and final season (and seemingly available on a 24/7 basis in syndication), this sitcom long ago surpassed its original premise: Look at that, a hopeless Cal Tech nerd with a gorgeous Cheesecake Factory blonde! As its characters acquire spouses, children, and mortgages, it's a guide to the cheer and chaos of growing up.
- Homeland (Showtime). Repainting its White House-takeover villains from right-wing corporate mad dogs to chilly Russian intelligence operatives in back-to-back seasons may not have made for much dramatic consistency. But give Homeland credit for political diversity and the most remarkable dramatic turn by an actress in TV history, Claire Danes, seven years and counting as a tormented and unstable CIA officer.
- Waco (Paramount Network). If the passing of 25 years has dampened your outrage about the massacre at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas, this utterly gripping miniseries will reignite it. Though it's no whitewash of crackpot messiah David Koresh, Wacooffers a chilling portrayal of a Justice Department that shot first and moved in the fire engines later.
- Mr. Mercedes (AT&T's Audience Channel). This updated version of the cynical tough-guy detectives of 1940s film-noir is the best TV show nobody is watching—because they can't. It's available only on AT&T's cable and satellite systems, at least until Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is president and property officially becomes theft.
- Better Call Saul (AMC). The rare case of a TV spinoff that's better than the original. Bob Odenkirk's street-hustler-turned-lawyer Jimmy McGill is a far more accessible character than the ruthless cancer-patient-turned-drug-dealer Walter White, the protagonist of the Breaking Bad mothership.
- The Deuce (HBO). Back in the late 1950s, the hard-boiled ABC New York cop show Naked City signed off every episode with the line, "There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." David Simon's absorbing chronicle of the rise of the city's skin trade makes that tag line literal.
- The Americans (FX). All good things must come to an end, even the Cold War, and FX's gritty tale of KGB moles in the Washington 'burbs was no exception, saying "dasvidanya"after six riveting seasons. It was probably inevitable that "Philip and Elizabeth Jennings" (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) would leave behind the good life and even their children in the United States to return to a rapidly evolving motherland that they scarcely know any more. But to murder another KGB officer first? Let's just say that any sequel to The Americans is likely to be short and unsweet.