How literature, history and streaming's 'on-demand culture' shaped the new golden age of TV
CBC's Tashauna Reid explores the novelization of TV, why the remote control still matters and more
Television has changed and evolved significantly over the last couple of decades — both the kinds of shows we watch, and the ways we watch them.
Critics and historians have referred to the 2000s and 2010s as a new golden age of television, pointing to the long-form storytelling and complex characters in shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Particularly in the last decade, technology has spurred further change, as streaming services like Netflix entered the landscape traditionally dominated by network and cable stations.
In the CBC Radio special Changing Channels, CBC's Tashauna Reid explores how television has evolved — and in some ways, gone back to its roots.
The novelization of TV
Author Andrew Pyper says the so-called new golden age of television owes much to an even older storytelling format: the novel.
"If we understand television now, a good television series … is a long-form narrative that takes roughly between six or eight or 10 hours to watch," said Pyper. "That's roughly the period of time it takes to read a novel."
Thanks to services like Netflix launching entire seasons at once, viewers can now "binge watch" programs, similar to reading a novel in a single sitting or weekend.
According to Pyper, television shows from decades past were held back, in part, because their format was designed to accommodate multiple commercial breaks.
"[It wasn't] a natural way to tell a story. It was that way so TV networks could sell soap," he said.
With the advent of streaming and subscription services, writers were set free to tell stories without throwing to a commercial every few minutes.
With series like Game of Thrones and Handmaid's Tale winning awards and large fanbases, Pyper says TV executives are more receptive to authors pitching adaptations of their work.
"I think that is a happy side effect of the TV world recognizing: 'You know what? We're really making novels here. We should maybe bring the novelists in, as opposed to closing the door in their faces,'" he said.
History gets its moment
Some of the most critically acclaimed shows today are based on major moments in history that many of us already know — to an extent.
Vanity Fair's television critic Sonia Saraiya calls Chernobyl, which chronicles the meltdown of the eponymous nuclear power station in the former Soviet Union in 1986, a "paradigm-shifting" example of historical storytelling.
The five-episode miniseries shed new light on an event that many might only have partial knowledge of, she explained, while portraying the horror the meltdown wrought on the people involved.
Saraiya traces the genre's latest spike in popularity to 2016's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which chronicled the former football star's infamous murder trial.
"It showed you a story that you already knew, but then added so much that was deeper or was hidden or just wasn't as obvious at the time. And it changes the way that these things live in our memory," she said.
When historical shows tackle relatively recent events, the writers can interview the people at the centre of the stories, she added.
The writers of When They See Us spoke directly with the so-called Central Park Five, a group of young men who were charged, then later exonerated, of the assault and rape of a woman in Manhattan's Central Park in 1989.
"That's a direct contact with first-person sources. It's like a historian's dream in some ways, to be that close to what really happened," she said.
But Saraiya notes that a historical drama isn't a documentary, and may play fast and loose with the facts to craft an entertaining product.
"[Chernobyl] does a lot of historical work, but they definitely fudge and smooth stuff around so that they can create a dramatic series," she explained.
Die-hard fans of that show, however, could also delve into a companion podcast hosted by series creator Craig Manzin.
"Viewers could essentially get an education on what was true, and what might have been condensed or created for dramatic effect," said Saraiya.
Reality shows survive and thrive
Of course, television today isn't all about novel-length epics or emotional historical dramas. Nearly 20 years after the debut of Survivor, reality TV is still going strong.
According to National Post TV critic Calum Marsh, the reasons for this are fairly straightforward.
"It's really, really cheap to produce, and it has a consistent basic draw. … The concept kind of sells itself," he said.
Viewers remain drawn to the grey area shows like — Big Brother or Keeping up with the Kardashians — occupy between authenticity and artifice despite the genre's label, Marsh explained.
In the last decade, reality TV has developed a symbiotic relationship with social media.
Cast members who would appear for one season and disappear can now maintain a presence and fanbase on Twitter or Instagram. Showrunners look to budding social media influencers for their new crop of stars.
"Those people are kind of camera-tested and usually attractive and interesting in the kind of way that they want," he explained.
However, the growing interest in reality stars' lives can take a toll on the people who may have come from outside the traditional show business, and aren't prepared for the amount of scrutiny after the cameras stop rolling.
"We've seen some fairly high profile cases in the last year of former reality TV show contestants having fairly negative consequences, mental health issues," said Marsh.
"And that's something that I think we still haven't really reckoned with in a serious way."
A sense of (remote) control
Whether you're surfing through reality shows on cable, or slinging YouTube videos from your phone to the TV via a Chromecast, the concept of the remote control has remained a critical part of the experience.
According to Caetlin Benson-Allott, associate professor at Georgetown University and author of Remote Control, the humble TV clicker became indispensable in the '70s, when the growing number of channels rendered the knob on your TV's front panel impractical.
Benson-Allot sees echoes of the remote control in most modern consumer products, from voice-activated smart speakers to personalized Netflix playlists.
"We want to be able to watch whatever we want, whenever we want on our own terms, and the remote control device is really an important precedent on the way to 'on-demand culture,'" she said.
It's all about giving consumers the power to be the "ultimate sovereigns over our media consumption," and possibly over our lives in general.
"I'm not sure that without … this sense of empowerment that [the] remote control gives us, we'd still be consuming television today. It would be a completely different paradigm."
Written by Jonathan Ore. Radio special Changing Channels produced by Tashauna Reid and Kent Hoffman.