Television is in the middle of a cataclysmic upheaval, in which there's no more season or midseason, no more requirement that a series run for 22 episodes at a time, no more stigma surrounding film actors going to television, no more assumption that television is watched on a television, no more assumption that people watch things when they're on, an explosive presence for social media that unites fans, and a growing sense on the part of a lot of people that television is pulling just as much of the cultural storytelling weight as film.
On the other hand, television is much as it's always been, continuing to churn out 22-minute sitcoms and 43-minute dramas for broadcast television, made largely by teams of white guys in button-downs and greenlit by white executives in suits, mostly about white guys, which will be seen in the end by more people than will ever see the experimental cable material that's driving that cataclysmic upheaval and the conversation about it. They will watch much of their content on a television, when broadcast, with commercials, without second screens.
One of the themes of press tour this year has been the whipsawing of trend analysis between the ways in which everything is different and the ways in which everything is the same. Obviously, there's always some of that sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same — that's why there's an entire cliché about it — but you'll rarely see it as sharply defined as right now.
When Kevin Reilly, the Chairman of Entertainment at Fox, addressed critics yesterday, he opened with a discussion of "measurement." This refers to an ongoing problem where it's gotten increasingly difficult to give an accurate idea of how many people are actually watching something. When you combine the imperfections of Nielsen sampling in the first place with the fact that people keep up with shows over a period of not just days but weeks after initial broadcast, the fact that they watch on all kinds of devices, and other weirdnesses, the old ratings headlines about what shows did what kind of business last night require more and more asterisks every day.
And as if that's not enough, now they have to deal with Netflix, which doesn't really release any meaningful data at all and yet manages to have its shows described as "hits." Hits! Not just good shows, but good hit shows! They are living the network executive's dream: they get to call their shows both good and popular, and they never have to prove anything about who's actually watching them, while guys like Reilly sit there every week while people analyze a tenth of a point this way or that way. "We have always been in the business of speaking loudly to a big audience," he said. "There's a lot of services that are now speaking loudly to a small audience. And there are services like Netflix that are speaking loudly to an unreported mystery audience."
Here's the thing: critics and reporters love all the things about television that are different. They make better stories, they're more fun to write about, they're more interesting, they're more intellectually chewy, and they contribute more to conversations that are rewarding. Furthermore, innovation really is potentially supportive of quality, not just on cable but on broadcast TV. And no matter how it seems as we all descend into madness out here, most TV critics love good television to an almost unseemly degree and leap upon what seems to support it. Even the bitter, grumpy ones.
But change in TV is slower than you might think from reading about it. We saw two presentations for daytime talk shows on Wednesday, and they ... look a lot like daytime talk shows. Bethenny Frankel, a former Real Housewife, says hers will feel like a "bachelorette party" every day. (Question: Would you want to go to a bachelorette party ... every day?) Queen Latifah, an enormously charismatic and interesting entertainer, gave such a polished, managed, perfected pitch for her curved-sofa show that it was hard to tell it was Queen Latifah as opposed to, say, Martha Stewart. It could have been made in 1996. And the representative from Sony — which is distributing her show — reminded us that they also do Wheel Of Fortune and Jeopardy, which still get huge audiences on plain old broadcast television. (A point I once made about Judge Judy.)
Some things about TV are thoroughly disrupted already — people do expect it to be portable and available on demand. They have adapted to shorter seasons. They watch with strangers on Twitter. A significant number of them (probably?) will watch a show that doesn't really have a network or a studio in the traditional sense at all, but comes online only.
But much does not change. Right now, people seem to be into robots and vampires and time-traveling, but very often, those things cross over with staples of TV: Cops. Government agents. Doctors. Families. Dark conspiracies. And while some comedies feel adventurous and interesting, many still have the setup-punch structure — accompanied by the sound of suspiciously too-loud laughter — that marked comedies 20 years ago. Thirty years ago. Forty and fifty years ago. Why? Because people still watch that stuff, and people watching stuff keeps the lights on.
You want to make the revolution go faster? Watch better stuff. The more things stay the same, right?