Television on the Line
Before the internet, before cable or satellite, before premium subscription channels, there was just television. In the U.S., three nationwide commercial networks—ABC, CBS and NBC— competed for a captive audience. By the time Fox Broadcasting joined them in 1986, there were myriad television-viewing options. The internet was a separate entity until streaming video appeared, delivering TV shows and films directly to computer users. The future of television is here, and it is online.
Soap operas, which began as radio broadcasts in the 1930s, really hit their stride when they moved to television. By the 1960s daytime network TV had become one of the most profitable markets in the history of broadcasting, buoyed by the soaps’ cliff-hanging story lines that kept listeners tuning in daily. Named for the cleaning products hawked by Procter & Gamble and other companies that sponsored and even produced the early radio serials, the immensely popular programs were never considered serious art, despite the highbrow allusion to opera. Because the daytime audience was largely presumed to be busy with household responsibilities, soap operas often repeated information so viewers didn’t have to watch every moment to keep track of the story. Soaps kept up the suspense for decades by convoluting plotlines, resurrecting the dead and establishing webs of sordid secrets among characters.
When home computers arrived and the television set lost some of its hold on America’s eyeballs, the popularity of soap operas declined. Many of the longest-running shows went off the air, including All My Children, which debuted in 1970 and ended production in 2011. Despite an impassioned fan base, a promised web-only version of All My Children hasn’t materialized.
Arrested Development, which debuted on the Fox network in 2003, adopted some soap opera traditions, including continuous and ever-more-tangled stories and connections among characters. A situation comedy created by Mitchell Hurwitz, the show traces the relentless riches-to-rags decline of the Bluth family and its real estate development business. As father and son, Jason Bateman and Michael Cera play the straight men, most of the time, to their eccentric and lawless relatives, who include a Segway-riding magician; a tippling, embezzling matriarch; and a self-described “never-nude.”
Despite superb writing, a stellar ensemble cast and critical acclaim, Arrested Development lasted only three seasons on network television. Its fans were intensely, cultishly loyal—and then there was everybody else. The show’s endless maze of flashbacks, flash-forwards, deeply buried in-jokes and convoluted plots rewarded loyal, attentive viewers but hopelessly confused those who tried to tune in midseason. The weekly format, which suits sitcoms (generally episodic in nature), didn’t work. A week was too much time between episodes with such complicated serial plot development. Arrested Development may have been a little too smart for traditional television—and apparently, for its own good, too.
Arrested Development was already in a precarious spot by its second season, when Fox requisitioned a reduced number of episodes. This ominous sign prompted fans to launch “Save Our Bluths,” a campaign to keep the show’s dysfunctional clan on the air. When it became clear the ax was likely to fall, the creative team behind Arrested Development still declined to pander to a wider audience. In fact, the third season was even more self-referential. An episode titled “S.O.B.’s” repeatedly alludes to the series’s impending cancellation: The family stages its own “Save our Bluths” fund-raiser, and characters discuss whether the Home Builders Organization (HBO) will bail them out.
No cable network rescued Arrested Development, but its fans ultimately did, with the help of the next new broadcasting medium, streaming video. The very things that made Arrested Development a failure on traditional television made it perfect for watching online; viewers could pause, rewind or see an entire season at a single sitting. Arrested Development’s fans, who multiplied after the show’s network cancellation, finally enjoyed a fourth season in 2013, broadcast by Netflix. All 10 episodes were released together, allowing streamers to catch up with the Bluths in one long-overdue marathon.
If “video killed the radio star,” as the Buggles song says, the videocassette seemed poised to have a similar effect on traditional television. Over two decades, beginning in the 1980s, the three big networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—lost their hold on prime-time viewers to cable and satellite options, new broadcast networks and the increasingly popular videocassette recorder. Independent video-rental stores proliferated, but Blockbuster’s strategy of investing in a massive inventory of big-budget films was what transformed a night at the movies to at-home entertainment. Home Box Office, which until the 1990s typically ran a repeating schedule of movies interspersed with sporting events, was no match: Video rentals enabled people to watch what they wanted when they wanted.
In addition to “blockbusters,” the chain offered a wide range of classics and other films. With its selection, branding, marketing, state-of-the-art computerized inventory system and multiple locations, Blockbuster became massively successful in the 1990s. Besides dominating the rental market, it drove a thorn deeper into the side of network television. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em—which is exactly what CBS’s parent company, Viacom, did when it merged with Blockbuster in 1994.
Blockbuster had once seemed ahead of the technology curve with its sophisticated database-tracked inventory system. But the video-rental chain seemed caught unawares when Netflix married online movie selection with old-fashioned mail delivery. It didn’t sound like the innovation that would take down a Goliath like Blockbuster, but at least one aspect of Netflix’s service hit the target: no late fees.
Blockbuster needed late fees to ensure that movies were returned promptly and kept in constant circulation, thus allowing it to maximize profits on its vast and costly inventory. Netflix used a subscription business model, charging clients a flat monthly fee regardless of how long they kept a movie. By the time Blockbuster responded with “no late fees” promotions and its own mail-order service, it was too late: Netflix had its customers hooked and by then had introduced streaming video, allowing subscribers instant gratification. In 2010 Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection; it was bought by DISH Network the following year, but its future remains uncertain. Netflix, meanwhile, lost customers with a poorly handled—and quickly reversed—decision to split its DVD and online-viewing services. New internet streaming options, such as Hulu and individual TV station websites, quickly moved into the gap.
Online shopping is ruled by algorithms, mathematically generated predictions of customer preferences based on past purchases and other data. When you sign in to your Netflix account, algorithms are responsible for those uncanny film suggestions that sometimes seem to perceive your exact tastes. In 2006 Netflix, wanting to up its ante, announced an open competition that would award a million dollars to anyone who could improve on the accuracy of its current algorithm, Cinematch, by 10 percent. Several competitors managed to make progress but consistently ran into glitches seemingly inherent in a handful of films whose likability was hard to predict, including Lost in Translation, Sideways and, most famously, Napoleon Dynamite, a wildly popular 2004 independent film that people tend to either love or hate. The difficulty posed by all these quirky, polarizing films came to be known as the Napoleon Dynamite Problem. In 2009 a team of programmers called BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos finally managed to make an algorithm that bested Cinematch by just over 10 percent. Napoleon Dynamite remains something of a wild card, a fact that must be of comfort to those who insist that human taste is deeply personal.
Daytime network soap operas were designed both to rivet busy housekeepers and, with slow-moving story lines and repetitive plot exposition, to keep them up-to-date if they missed a segment. When nonnetwork TV stations began to grab audiences with compelling, carefully produced nighttime serial dramas, they employed some elements of the traditional soaps but left others behind. The Sopranos (1999–2007), HBO’s critically and commercially successful serial drama, certainly had ongoing stories and loose ends. But, as viewers learned with the final episode, “Made in America,” the show demanded their complete attention. When the screen went suddenly black in the midst of an extremely suspenseful scene, leaving the fate of lead character Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) unrevealed, frustrated viewers demanded to know what happened. Producer David Chase responded, “Anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there.” Some concluded that Chase meant the ending was not ambiguous and took up the challenge, watching and rewatching and obsessively piecing together minute details to “prove” Tony had (or hadn’t) been assassinated. With The Sopranos, the soap opera had evolved perfectly to fit streaming video, a medium that accommodates and even rewards fanatical and attentive viewers.