Ten years ago this month, there was almost no reality television, and the networks still had a near-stranglehold on quality scripted content. People generally watched TV using that quaint device, a television set — and for most people, watching a show anytime other than in its regular time slot meant hauling out a VHS tape.
It's an understatement to say that, as we edge our way toward the second decade of the century, a lot has changed. Here are 10 of the things that have changed the most.
A Moment Like That: The first season of American Idol, with Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, helped usher in a wave of unscripted shows. Idol played a role in shaping the music of the 2000s, too.
A Moment Like That: The first season of American Idol, with Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, helped usher in a wave of unscripted shows. Idol played a role in shaping the music of the 2000s, too. Lucy Nicholson/AP
1. The growth of unscripted shows. There's really no such thing as "reality TV" — or at least no single concept that can encompass franchises as diverse as Survivor, American Idol, Trading Spaces and Breaking Bonaduce. What we call "reality TV" is instead a series of mini-trends that have added up to a giant earthquake.
When Survivor kicked off in the summer of 2000, MTV's The Real World was what people meant when they said "reality TV." There was no significant presence for unscripted prime-time network shows, other than a few programs with law-enforcement themes (think Cops and America's Most Wanted) and newsmagazines like Dateline and 48 Hours.
And then Survivor came along, and two summers after that, American Idol. Then a whole variety of branches sprang from the same roots of low cost and high (or respectable) ratings: the competition shows like The Amazing Race and The Apprentice; the home-ec line including Trading Spaces and, increasingly, food shows; the celebrity-voyeur shows like Being Bobby Brown; the job shows like Deadliest Catch; the sappy "transformation" shows like the unsuccessful Extreme Makeover and the wildly successful Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The list goes on, and most cable channels and networks have found their own niches.
Linda Holmes writes and edits NPR's entertainment and pop-culture blog, Monkey See.
The ascendancy of unscripted shows has also, it should be mentioned, helped unimaginative network dramas avoid being tagged as the uncreative sludge that they are — because most of the highbrow vitriol is saved for reality shows. You can make violent, dumb crime procedurals all day, and the plain fact is that people will still complain more about Dancing With the Stars.
2. Cable gets serious. In 2000, there were dramas on HBO, and there had been scattered stuff on Showtime like It's Garry Shandling's Show. But for the most part, original programming came from the broadcast networks.
Now, the cable outlets that offer significant original scripted programming include TNT, USA, FX, Lifetime, SyFy, TBS — and that's in addition to HBO and the other premium channels. These days there are a whole pile of cable networks that take their offerings very seriously and consider themselves to be players come awards season.
3. The single-camera comedy boom. You'll hear "single-camera" thrown around as a synonym for "shows similar in feel to Arrested Development," but it's trickier than that. Older comedies were often single-camera shows too, M*A*S*H and The Brady Bunch being signal examples; it's not like "single-camera" means "fancy and ironic."
What most people are really talking about when they refer to the "single-camera" shows of the 2000s are the single-camera shows without laugh tracks. That's the big difference (in production style, not in quality) between The Brady Bunch and 21st-century comedies like Malcolm In The Middle, Arrested Development, The Office and 30 Rock. And it separates these newer shows, too, from even the better sitcoms of the '80s and '90s, like Cheers, Roseanne, Friends and Frasier.
Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank
Shut It: On The Office, the tomfoolery of Michael Scott (Steve Carell) & Co. isn't punctuated by canned laughter.
Shut It: On The Office, the tomfoolery of Michael Scott (Steve Carell) & Co. isn't punctuated by canned laughter. Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank
This change didn't entirely occur after 2000 — you could look at Sports Night in 1998 as a precursor. (That much-mourned comedy phased out the laugh track over its two seasons.) And there were exceptions all along, like The Wonder Years.
But it was in this decade that a particular kind of show — with no laugh track, shot on film and lacking some of the broad setup-punch line rhythms of traditional sitcoms — really took over. There are still traditional laugh-tracked multi-camera shows, including Two And A Half Men and the far superior The Big Bang Theory, but single-camera rules not only NBC's Thursday comedy block, but ABC's successful Wednesday block, too. The combination of evolving shooting styles and the vanishing of piped-in laughter has made network comedy look and feel completely different.
4. Dumb guy, pretty wife. What's funny about this major development in late-'90s and particularly 2000s TV is that it's already over — when at one time, it seemed like a generic sitcom titled Dumb Guy, Pretty Wife would be with us forever. Still Standing and Yes Dear and According to Jim were bad, while The King Of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond were significantly better. But at one point, this formula — probably inspired by the '90s hit Home Improvement — seemed to be taking over family comedy, and now it's essentially gone. It may not be important going forward, but this was the face of (supposedly) inoffensive comedy in the middle of this decade.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
You Be The Scheduler: The rise of TiVo and its brethren have put viewers more in control of when they watch what they watch.
You Be The Scheduler: The rise of TiVo and its brethren have put viewers more in control of when they watch what they watch. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
5. Scheduling matters less and less. Fact: Jay Leno isn't getting his behind kicked by other shows in the 10 p.m. time slot so much as he's getting his behind kicked by whatever people have recorded on their DVRs and decide to watch at 10 p.m. The takeaway: More and more, people will do their own scheduling, and placing shows in direct competition with each other — as Fox did when it famously pitted The Simpsons against The Cosby Show — may be less important from here out.
6. The second failure of Jericho. It's a painful memory for Jericho fans, who got a lot of attention for an online campaign that brought their favorite show back from the dead. But in the end, that disastrous victory was important for different reasons than they intended.
The rise of online fandom had convinced many fan groups that the ability to mobilize would mean they could prove their loyalty and get their shows saved. They tried it for Roswell, they tried it for Veronica Mars, they tried it for lots of shows. And the gag, in most cases, was to send something to the network in solidarity. Send the network hot sauce! Send the network potatoes! Send the network — in the case of Jericho — nuts! (Don't get me wrong; this kind of thing happened before the Internet, but online fandoms were greatly empowered by their ability to coordinate quickly and cheaply.)
Then one group actually got its wish: They got Jericho back. And then, when CBS put the show back on the air, nothing happened. The hype over the fans' victory did nothing to raise interest in the show.
Now, it's not that the fans were deluded. This idea that Jericho must be quality TV if so many people were willing to support it so fanatically was apparently a sellable notion — once. But it didn't really work out that way at all in this case. And the "street team" concept of fandom was dealt a blow.
Smart fans have changed their tactics. The Chuck fans who decided to support the sponsor by purchasing Subway sandwiches had a vastly superior idea, because it actually indicated that they were noticing and promoting the sponsors. (This approach suggests a little more thought — and it doesn't have nearly the nuisance factor of making a network's offices clean up thousands of chocolate bars.)
But the traditional fan campaign where you just send piles of debris? That's probably dead. You've got to have a better idea, because now all somebody has to say is "Jericho."
The 'Tween Scene: The Disney Channel's dominance in programming for kids ages 6-13 included Hilary Duff's turn as Lizzie McGuire.
The 'Tween Scene: The Disney Channel's dominance in programming for kids ages 6-13 included Hilary Duff's turn as Lizzie McGuire. Krista Niles/AP
7. The Disney Channel. You don't have to like it, but if you live in a house with a kid between the ages of 6 and 13, you know that the Disney Channel's growing dominance in 'tween programming has totally changed what they — or at least a lot of their peers — are watching.
The successors to Saved by the Bell and the like, these shows have taken off in the last 10 years: Lizzie McGuire launched in 2001, That's So Raven in 2002, The Suite Life Of Zack & Cody in 2005, and a little show called Hannah Montana in 2006.
Nickelodeon has made some inroads with Drake & Josh and the enormously popular iCarly. But between its lineup of regular shows and the High School Musical franchise, I think you have to give the edge to Disney for feeding the 'tween television blast.
(Incidentally, if you had to be trapped in a vault with any of these shows, I definitely would recommend iCarly, which is, to be honest, not terrible. I would say it is, in fact, a lot better than Saved by the Bell generally was.)
8. Online viewing. Nobody knows yet how networks are going to make peace with audiences who want to watch television online. We're going to wind up paying something, somehow, because that's the way the world works. But it's not a reversible trend: In the last 10 years that people have gone from assuming that shows couldn't be watched on your computer to assuming that most of them can be. Remember, iTunes didn't even exist in 2000. These days, thanks to the networks' own sites as well as pay outlets like iTunes and Amazon, missing a show just isn't what it used to be — even if you don't have, or forget to use, a DVR.
9. The DVR. Speaking of the DVR, how could we forget that? TiVo was the first digital video recorder to be both widely available and embraced by some measurable segment of the public, but it wasn't until cable companies started offering their own hybrid DVR-tuner units — which meant you wouldn't have to purchase a separate stand-alone box — that digital time-shifting went quite so mainstream. There are still people who use VCRs, but they're decreasing in number.
What does that mean for TV? In some cases, faster skipping through commercials. Much easier recording, without setting the time and the channel or worrying about preemptions and schedule changes. Much easier erasing and adding. Season subscriptions. The ability to pause something you're watching live, so you can answer the door or put the baby to bed or put dinner in the oven.
It's hard to prove, but the TiVo and its brethren may have been a real boon for dense serial dramas like Lost, because a DVR is far easier than a VCR if you really want to make sure you don't miss anything. (Other people like the commercial-skip button, but the real boon to viewers is the 8-second rewind.)
10. Television is just better. This may not be so if you force yourself to include every cable channel and average out all their offerings to arrive at a mythical Average Show. But do the math this way: How much good television is available for you to watch?
In 1999, as we've said, you really had just the networks and HBO when it came to original programming. In the fall of 1999, if we're going to discuss actual artistic quality, you'd find among the relatively sparse highlights:
- Buffy, certainly, and The X-Files, at least sometimes
- Ally McBeal, which was very uneven but could be satisfying if you like it quirky
- Once And Again, which was a solid adult soap opera
- The West Wing, which had just started and was, for the moment, excellent
- ER, which people certainly liked, but which had a very conventional format
That year was also notable, of course, for the single season of Freaks & Geeks. And there was, as there had been and perhaps ever shall be, The Simpsons. (The Sopranos had just debuted earlier in the year, so it may belong among the above — though just barely, and as a phenomenon, it belongs to the decade now ending.)
But compare that to what's on now — Mad Men and Big Love and Damages and Breaking Bad, plus network shows like House and Lost and Friday Night Lights and Chuck.
Look at comedies like 30 Rock and The Office and Modern Family and Parks & Recreation. Now throw in off-the-wall stuff like Glee and Better Off Ted.
You cannot escape the conclusion that television is wildly more satisfying and varied than it was when almost everything "respectable" and self-consciously highbrow was about cops, lawyers and hospitals.
(Seriously: From 1990 to 1999, 34 out of 50 Outstanding Drama nominations went to cops, lawyers, and doctors — and that's if you don't count Mulder and Scully as cops. From 2000 to 2009, that number dropped to 20.)
There's more that's empty-headed and banal, yes. There's more that's frightening and potentially destructive. But if you choose wisely, there's also more that's ambitious and creative.
Combined with the increased control every viewer has over when and how and what to watch, that suggests that for a medium with such a middling reputation, television has actually had an awfully strong decade.