Those were the Big Three networks that served up the TV shows I – and most other folks – cared about.
When my buddy Greg convinced his parents to subscribe to a new universe known as HBO, I looked forward to spending the night and enjoying an endless stream of (mostly R-rated) films.
The universe was truly my multiplex — at least when Greg invited me to share in the magic of his set-top box.
In high school, my folks agreed to sign up for the “expanded basic cable” package, which served up a burgeoning network of non-stop music videos known as MTV. Suddenly, I catapulted toward coolness and ordered an $8 logoed T-shirt so I could parade around school pretending I had arrived.
Exciting as these entertainment options seemed, however, they still required me to plant myself in front of the tube at a specified time to catch whatever program I craved – usually Mork & Mindy or The Love Boat (pitiful, I know).
Teleport to today, and the options are dizzying…hundreds of TV channels, thousands of web options, and the potential for anyone – and everyone – to become a producer, director, lead actor, critic, or nonstop virtual couch potato. Thanks to the accessibility and portability of technology, compelling content is always just a couple of clicks away.
The big three networks still exist, of course, but they’re much smaller and less powerful than they once were.
And they sure are fighting like crazy to remain relevant to new generations of entertainment junkies who are no longer held captive by the notion of tuning in to prime-time TV.
Those traditional broadcasters also are scurrying to figure out how to connect with viewers who want to participate in programming through real-time engagement (a la Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other platforms yet to be pioneered). I’m still amazed that mainstream TV shows are embracing the use of hashtags and that serious news programs regularly feature viral videos. It makes perfect sense, of course, but it must be somewhat humbling for the formerly almighty oligopoly to be taking cues from young social media upstarts.
It also makes you wonder who’s really in the driver’s seat shaping the future of entertainment. One thing’s certain: the field is vastly wider and more diverse than it used to be.
The Great Content Explosion
As entertainment platforms and producers continue to morph and multiply, what’s surprising to me is that the most engaging programming is coming from unexpected sources.
Cable TV networks that originated as broadcasters of existing content are broadening their appeal by producing original programming. Can you say MadMen? The Walking Dead? Game of Thrones? Bates Motel? You can’t see any of them on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.
Netflix, which began as an online subscription service for distributing DVD movies, recently debuted a new model for delivering an original TV series. By releasing the entire first season of House of Cards concurrently, Netflix granted subscribers complete control over when, where and how they view it. (I’m counting down to May 26, when they usher in the triumphant return of Arrested Development, Season 4).
Meanwhile, the old guard is fumbling to discover/create their new reality amid a sea of tired franchises and blatant rip-offs of previous ratings bonanzas. I mean, how many different singing, dancing and/or dating reality programs can broadcast TV legitimately support???
You might say that the whole world of TV entertainment has been turned on its head.
What hasn’t changed is that the strongest programming will endure – and the quality of content is rarely based on who produces it, where it originates, or how much money is spent bringing it to market. Rather, it’s evaluated on how well the characters, narrative and plot resonate with our minds and emotions.
In other words, the best stories will win the day.
Underneath the sexy technology and glitzy marketing campaigns, we humans love a good yarn – whether it’s spoken around a campfire or streamed directly on our smartphone.
Not only do stories entertain and captivate us; they connect us with each other and to our shared humanity. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a close relative or a fictional TV character, we are naturally drawn to compelling storytelling.