At a certain point in the last 12 months—I cannot remember now what that point was—I began to lose interest in “connecting the dots.” After all, the logic of the Twitter thread was already ascendant: in the florid speculations of one or another liberal game theorist; in the sprawling web of Rachel Maddow’s intently Russo-centric A-block; in the warnings of columnists who’d recently styled themselves experts in the rise of authoritarianism, as if flouting the rule of law were not as thoroughly woven into the fabric of the United States as our ostensible commitment to it. Against the nonsensical ramblings of the president, the unabashed lies of his aides and advisors, and the open embrace of white supremacist, homophobic, and misogynistic ideas among even the “mainstream” members of his party, the vein of paranoia that ran through parts of the center left read as an inadequate defense. Because both were, it seemed to me, expressions of the real transformation afoot, indications of groupthink, of lemming-like leaps from the cliff, of unquestioning fealty to partisan affiliations, ideological bubbles, economic classes, socio-cultural tribes. And as with so much of this seeping-pustule annus horribilis, shadowed from stem to stern by a former reality TV star and apparent TV addict, these changes were playing out on, and through, the medium of television.
Let’s call it The Great Consolidation.
This goes further than the long-awaited peak of “peak TV,” though a plateau, if not an outright contraction, appears to be imminent. After a decade-plus in which basic cable led the charge, streaming services in 2016 accounted for all the growth in original scripted series, according to data compiled by FX Research. And while the numbers for 2017 are still pending, the recent spate of high-profile cancellations from Amazon (Z: The Beginning of Everything, The Last Tycoon) and Netflix (The Get Down, Gypsy, Bloodline, Sense8) suggests, at minimum, that the days of streaming spendthrifts are coming to a close. Even before Amazon Studios vice president Roy Price resigned from his post in response to sexual harassment allegations, he was under pressure from CEO Jeff Bezos to discover “the next Game of Thrones,” the influence of which Price has compared to Jaws and Star Wars. For his part, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos admitted that the streaming giant’s cost-benefit calculus is “pretty traditional”: “A big expensive show for a huge audience is great. A big, expensive show for a tiny audience is hard even in our model to make that work very long.” Toss in Hulu’s shift from niche comedies (Difficult People, The Mindy Project, Please Like Me, Casual) to high-end dramas (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Looming Tower, Castle Rock), and one gets the feeling that we’ve been here before.
Indeed, we have. Cycles of chaos and consolidation, creative ferment and economic retrenchment, are among the defining features of the history of American film and television—from the rise of the studio system to the end of the “Hollywood Renaissance,” the explosion of indies to the dominance of the franchise film, through not one, not two, but three “Golden Ages”—and Sarandos and Price’s comments are scarcely the only signals that the hothouse atmosphere of “peak TV” is on the precipice of an analogous change. It’s in the expansion of Marvel’s small-screen footprint: 2017 saw the debut of seven TV series based on the imprint’s characters, on networks as varied as FX (Legion), Netflix (The Punisher), Hulu (Runaways) and ABC (Inhumans), with two more (Cloak & Dagger, New Warriors) slated to premiere in 2018. It’s in the intensifying fever for nostalgic revivals: 2017 was the year of Twin Peaks: The Return, Prison Break, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Battle of the Network Stars, DuckTales, Will & Grace, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Talk Show Formerly Known as Total Request Live, with Roseanne and American Idol to return early next year and the likes of The Office and Mad About You now in the works. It’s in the desperate quest to create “the next Game of Thrones” or “the next Walking Dead”—both of which, it’s worth noting, had their most dismal seasons to date in 2017—and then wring those properties of every conceivable dollar until they become the dried-out husks of once-compelling ideas, which broadcasters, cable networks, premium channels and streaming services alike will presumably burn for warmth when there no more profits to turn.
Such programming choices are rarely the motor of transformation, though—they are, rather, one potential response to macroeconomic changes, technological advancements, and the flux of political and cultural forces. Others include strategic realignments, such as Viacom’s decision to focus its cable division on its “flagship brands,” including MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET, and the newly renamed Paramount Network, and WGN America’s abandonment of acclaimed originals like Underground for a new block of cheap (sorry, “cost-effective”) Canadian crime dramas. Or mergers and acquisitions, most notably Disney’s planned purchase of 21st Century Fox, through which the conglomerate that already controls ABC, ESPN, Freeform, Marvel Studios and half of A&E Networks will assume ownership of FX, FXX, National Geographic, and an additional 30% of Hulu, creating a media behemoth so dumbfoundingly large that many observers could only wonder what it might mean for the X-Men. Or promotional window-dressing, such as NBC’s resumption of the “Must See TV” slogan—first coined during the Clinton administration—after a three-year hiatus in which the network apparently thought its own programming unworthy of the name. Or flagrant disregard for the commonweal, not to mention the institution’s founding mission, by the Federal Communications Commission, which in 2017 not only voted to repeal net neutrality regulations but also to roll back limits on TV station ownership, opening the door for the arch-conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group to own as many as 223 stations in 108 markets.
In this, The Great Consolidation is necessarily ideological—it not only reflects cable news images of the Cabinet’s robber barons slashing their own taxes while the rest of us eke out an existence on the border of bankruptcy. It also threatens to widen the already enormous divide between the haves and the have-nots by narrowing our field of vision, by reducing the number of possible pasts, presents and futures we can imagine on screen. As FCC Chairman Newton Minow recognized, speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, television is inseparable from “the public interest,” because the flip side of fragmentation, experimentation, and representation is amalgamation, repetition, and invisibility: ”[W]hat you will observe is a vast wasteland,” he warned, not long after the end of the medium’s first “Golden Age.” “You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”
Re-reading Minow’s address as research for this piece, I regained my interest in “connecting the dots,” in recognizing patterns, in understanding that TV’s most recent “Golden Age” and its “platinum” postscript are as contingent as the heyday of Marty and Murrow and live TV.
In the medium’s next Gilded Age you will see a procession of useless revivals, featureless comedies about totally unbelievable assholes, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Ryan Murphy miniseries, Game of Thrones knockoffs, Reddit-made science fictions posing as “serious” dramas, Marvel bad men, Marvel good men, criminal profilers, serial killers, more violence, and cartoons. This is to say nothing of Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, with their increasing appearance of “state TV,” or of the FCC and DOJ, unconcerned by the growth of the new trusts (except, perhaps, when the president’s personal vendettas are at play), or of the notion that the sheer scale of media companies by definition weakens their commitment to the public interest, having become, as it were, too big to care. This is to say nothing of the still-meager space made for women, people of color and LGBTQ people on screen, in writers’ rooms, behind the camera, and in corporate offices, which conglomeration seems likely to limit just as attention to the issue has started to gain steam. This is to say nothing of what consolidating the power of the telecommunications bully pulpit in the hands of a tiny faction of predominantly white, straight men has meant and will continue to mean with regard to the plague of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault in media, writ large. This is to say nothing, in other words, of the underlying danger of the Great Consolidation, which is not that television will become a “vast wasteland” in and of itself—the medium is now far too vast for that—but that it will lose its ability to offer an alternative to the country’s next Gilded Age, its fundamental sickliness, its own blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, and murder painted over with Trump Tower gold.
Here’s the thing, lest I be labeled a hysteric, a Seth Abramson of the airwaves, a Louise Mensch of the medium. Having spent 20 years in the midst of television’s most recent “Golden Age,” I fear that we’ve forgotten what it looks like to live through a Gilded one, forgotten—and here is Minow’s central insight—that we own the air. Not the Walt Disney Company. Not Sinclair. Not Viacom. Not Comcast. And as such it is up to us, not only as consumers but also as citizens, to demand more, to call in our chits, to assert the importance of “the public interest” in the making of television. Despite the unwillingness of appointed regulators and elected officials to apply the concept, the fact remains that the media conglomerates at the leading edge of this epochal transformation are working on what amounts to leased property, accruing debts to you and me and everyone we know. “You must deliver a decent return to the public,” Minow advised broadcasters in 1961, “not only to your stockholders.”
More than 50 years later, it’s time to pay up.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.