Nothing lasts forever.

Photograph: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

TV's New Golden Age Is Doomed

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
Read More.
a | A

The current golden age of television is reckoned to have dawned with the debut of “The Sopranos” on HBO in January 1999. David Chase’s mafia drama brought new ambition and prestige to what people once called the boob tube, and our world was transformed. Or something. I’ll let Grantland TV critic Andy Greenwald explain:

During the roughly 10-year period that followed, the small screen went from being cinema’s idiot brother to the last auteur-driven mass medium. What was once seen as a cul-de-sac of hacky cops and laugh tracks became a thrillingly limitless canvas for storytellers and creators. 

Greenwald actually declared this golden age over in 2013, apparently because “Walking Dead’s” huge ratings had sent TV executives back to their time-honored practice of trying to imitate existing successes. But for those of us with less-discriminating palates, TV, broadly defined, is still pretty great.

For one thing, there are far more entities willing to bankroll high-cognitive-demand TV shows such as "The Sopranos" than there were 15 years ago. Newcomers Netflix and Amazon have started delivering addictive, “auteur-driven” programming and the pay-cable channels have continued doing so. The basic-cable channels  may be becoming more formulaic, but they still develop compelling new shows. And the broadcast networks, which a few years ago were on the verge of becoming taken over by reality shows, are undergoing a scripted-TV revival.

That’s all awesome. Maybe it’s not exactly the TV golden age that Greenwald cherished, but it still seems golden-agey to me. It also seems unsustainable.

What got me thinking about this was something my Bloomberg View colleague Megan McArdle wrote this week:

[I]f you agree that we're in a golden age of television, you should be very cautious about making radical changes to the environment that produced that television.

This was in the context of a defense of the cable bundle, which paid the bills for most of the shows that earned TV its new acclaim. But the cable bundle was in place long before the new TV golden age began, and the environment that’s currently producing such a glut of quality TV clearly isn’t just about the cable bundle.

Good TV shows are now being bankrolled by upstart streaming services that want to displace the cable bundle, and by broadcast networks that want to more firmly establish themselves as part of it. Show owners can also look forward to future revenue from selling and renting episodes on iTunes, cutting deals with streaming services and placing reruns on broadcast TV and basic cable. They might even sell a few boxed-DVD sets.

Today’s quality programming is thus being financed from the past (broadcast and basic-cable advertising revenue, DVD sales), the present (cable subscriber fees, iTunes), and the future (streaming subscription fees and ad revenue).

This is the unique environment that is producing so many great TV shows, and it's clearly in flux. The future is arriving, the past is receding and the present is under threat. Cable’s lucrative mix of ad revenue and user fees is being attacked by streaming services that are already stealing away viewers and new “skinny bundles” from Dish Network, Apple and soon others that could soon be stealing away lucrative subscribers.

On the plus side, this could take a while. Recorded-music and newspaper revenue collapsed under digital assault. Broadcast TV (and radio) have so far held up much better: they’re in relative decline, but their ad revenue is flat, not plummeting. If cable has in fact peaked, its decline may be similarly slow. The TV golden age is doomed, but we can at least hope that its demise will be drawn-out and replete with high-quality entertainment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net