TCA Journal No. 6: Welcome To the Platinum Age Of Television — And Good Luck With That

Television has never been so great - nor so depressingly difficult to survive.
"Seinfeld" would never have survived the Platinum Age of Television. Think about that.

Chief Television Critic Tim Goodman will be writing these journals throughout the Television Critics Association summer press tour, bringing insight, analysis, counter-spin and some snark to the nearly three week industry presentation.

Welcome to the platinum age of television. Or, if you need that said more emphatically, the Platinum Age of Television.

Calling it a continuation of the Golden Age doesn't work anymore. A continuing Renaissance, sure. The quality abounds. It staggers. In its collective beauty of great show after great show it haunts and intimidates.

The shows of the Golden Age wouldn't compete in this new television landscape. They would barely be seen. A bunch would be canceled. Their stars would be less known. Their shelves pointedly lacking Emmys.

The sad fact is that the Golden Age of television would get its ass kicked in the Platinum Age. The Platinum Age would knock that smile/smirk right off the Golden Age's face. You don't want to play in this new world, it would say. You couldn't handle the pain and the disappointment.

The problem we created with the Golden Age descriptor is that it was freely applied to everything from the 1950s, (I Love Lucy, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, Phil Silvers, etc.) to the nostalgia-hazed 1960s (Dick Van Dyke, Get Smart, I Spy, The Fugitive, Bonanza, etc.) on to the grittier 1970s (All In the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, The Odd Couple, etc.), and even the blinkered 1980s (The Cosby Show, Cheers, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, etc).

We didn't start thinking in terms of a "new Golden Age" until the 1990s and the radical changes in dramatic television and the expansion of quality options across the dial. The term, then, didn't really serve anyone well as a catch-all through the ages.

But no matter how far back you want to go in your recollection of the Golden Age, everything would be changed — erased, damaged, reduced in influence and maybe prestige. Seinfeld wouldn't exist — canceled, not saved, as it stumbled. The same is true for Hill Street Blues, which was so impressively different in its time. It's easy to envision something like Cheers standing tall as a huge hit no matter the era (a game you can play with a number of series), but at the same time it's not just conceivable but rather likely that The Odd Couple, Miami Vice, The Cosby Show and others would have struggled for eyeballs, for acclaim, Emmys and notoriety in the Platinum Age.

You know how old people are always telling younger people how good they have it now? Yeah, well in the Platinum Age all of those older shows had it ridiculously easy comparatively.

There hasn't been a more competitive, cut-throat, quality-saturated era in television ever. Period.

John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, for years has been the brightest and most thoughtful commentator on the state of the industry. He was here Friday expanding on the data that his research unveiled a year ago now that rocked everybody's world and explained, with an exclamation point, the frustratingly impossible task of TV critics back then. The numbers were stark: there were more than 1,700 series on television, from the broadcast networks to cable to streaming services — in primetime (8 to 11 p.m.) alone, which is almost unfathomable. No day parts. No late night shows. No news. No sports. Just series in primetime. Of those, 352 were scripted (comedies, dramas). About six months later that number rose to 371. And on Friday, Landgraf said this:

"By our best current estimates, we believe 2015 will easily blow through the 400 series mark."

And then he added this, which you should read slowly and carefully:

"I’m also asked when and if this proliferation of scripted series will level out and/or even decline. But just when I think we are at that point, another network jumps into the scripted game. I, long ago, lost the ability to keep track of every scripted TV series, as I know you do, even though we all do this for a living professionally; but, this year, I finally lost track of the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted programming business. And as you critics know better than anyone in America, this is simply too much television."

That, people, is the numerical outline of the Platinum Age. But this period is not just being defined by the volume of its content, but the quality of it. All of those programmers Landgraf mentioned jumping into the scripted game are, seemingly against the odds, creating very good television. Often great television. In fact, the content crush is so impressively well done that it's forcing a change in how we note, with generic descriptions, a categorical separation of that quality. Meaning, shows critics might recommend can no longer just be flippantly tossed off as, "here's a collection of good shows, a smaller assemblage of very good shows and these five that are truly great that you can't miss."

Oh, no, no, no.

It's way bigger than that.

The pool of great shows is nearly as bloated as the good and very good pools. That's a lot of water to drown in. And that's really the problem we have here. This isn't just a quantitative problem, but also a qualitative one. That's way more complex and challenging than any moment of any Golden Age we've described in the past. So many great shows don't get seen at all — series that would have been festooned with accolades and Emmys in the Golden Age. Other great series go through full seasons with barely any notice and are at the mercy of channels that must decide whether to bring them back for a second season in hopes that overwhelmed viewers will eventually, somehow, hear about them, binge the unseen first season and then return en masse for the second.

That is, if they don't get distracted by all of the rest of the great shows out there in similar situations, not to mention the very good ones they have heard about and recorded but didn't watch on their DVRs.

The Platinum Age of Television. What a clusterfuck of possibilities within an impossible business environment that can't sustain it.

Or, for a more literate assessment of the situation, here's FX's Landgraf:

"My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America and that we’ll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond. For programmers, this bubble has created a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories. It’s also had an enormous impact on everyone’s ability to cut through the clutter and create real buzz."

Yes, that. And if that doesn't reduce a creator's enthusiasm for getting into the game during the Platinum Age, there's this additional cherry on top, also from Landgraf:

"I now believe it would be virtually impossible for one show to ignite an entire network the way The Shield or Mad Men did for FX or AMC. There’s just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones."

Not surprisingly, Landgraf predicts the bubble won't necessarily burst immediately but it will lose air over the next couple of years.

"I don’t see it bursting so much as sort of beginning to slowly deflate," he said. "If there are more than 400 shows this year, I don’t think there’s going to be 300 two years from now. I think you’re going to start to see some deflation, because you’re still going to see increase in some places. For example, Netflix and Amazon and Hulu are still increasing the number of shows. So even if there is a decrease in the number of shows produced for commercial television, there’s going to be an increase in the number produced for noncommercial television. So we’ll see. I mean, it’s bold making a prediction about the future because it’s easy to be wrong. But I still will stand by my gut that this year, 2015, or next year, 2016, will probably represent the peak."

So a major element of the Platinum Age of Television incorporates Peak TV, a bubble of too much television — and specifically too much excellent television. It's a strange maelstrom of obstacles to people actually discovering and watching the wonderful content being created right here, right now. Let your nostalgia for the Golden Age run as rampant as you wish, but those good old days were really the easy days and they are long gone.

We're in the Platinum Age now — amazing and difficult times.

Twitter: @BastardMachine