Now on the various podcasts I listen to and in the media articles I read, again and again comes the refrain from Americans and Brits alike: ‘Argh! There’s Too Much TV!’
It’s a golden era of TV, apparently. It’s too golden. Gold is heavy. And too shiny. It’s getting me down. Stop all this heavy shiny stuff. It’s too much.
As you can probably tell, all this talk of ‘too much TV’ has been bugging me. And it’s also been bugging me that I didn’t know why it was bugging me. But I think I’ve worked it out. The claim that there’s ‘too much TV’ is flawed for a number of reasons.
1. There’s Been Too Much TV For DecadesIt’s just lots of it has been cheap, lousy and boring or trying to sell us stuff.
And then came Sky. And Channel 5. And cable. Freeview. Freesat (seriously, who has that?) with hundreds of channels available, pumping out reruns of stuff no-one wanted to watch in the first place, cheap documentaries and infomercials. You couldn’t watch all of it. You wouldn’t want to. But there was already too much of it.
Now the economics have changed. For a variety of reasons, TV has become cheaper to make and distribute. Cheap TV still looks cheap, but you can make £120k go a long way these days. We made Bluestone 42, which looks pretty expensive, for less than £300k an episode. Back in the 1980s it would have cost a lot more and would not have looked half as good.
Plus there is greater investment in TV as Controllers, Commissioners, Bankers and Financiers are realizing that TV can be sold globally and make serious money. So, we can make more TV for less money. But there’s actually more money. And so loads more TV. Now, there may be too much TV for everyone to make money, but that’s a slightly different thing.
2. There’s Been Too Much Decent TV For DecadesAnd you could always get hold of it if you really wanted to.
And then came the DVD and a booming economy. DVD sales were through the roof. And then rentals soared with Netflix, which, in time, became a streaming service. Plus there’s, iTunes, Youtube, Amazon and Hulu.
That’s a lot of TV.
But there was always too much. And there were always options to watch something good. And in the UK, at least, despite the lazy claim that ‘there’s never anything on TV’, most people have had access to too much TV for at least thirty years.
So, what’s new? Not a lot. But why does this feel like a new problem? Why does the ‘There’s Too Much TV’ claim have resonance? It’s partly this, I think:
3. Why Do We Expect To Keep Up With All Decent TV?
|How can they both look like Robert Reford?|
But why the groans? It’s bizarre to hope that the world’s media will only produce just enough excellent content for one normal person to be able to watch in their spare time. Why do we have such an unreasonable expectation?
We don’t really apply this way of thinking to any other form of entertainment or culture, do we? I’d love to be able to watch all live Test Cricket involving England, full highlights of Premiership Rugby, Match of the Day, the NFL, IPL, all the major golf and tennis tournaments, plus some Formula One and Darts. But I can’t. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I work. And I have a wife and kids. But it would be odd for me to have a genuine industrial grievance that there’s ‘too much sport on TV’.
I’ve not got round to watching The Wire or Breaking Bad. They both sound brilliant. I’ve not watched them because I’ve got other things to watch (like Line of Duty and Parks & Rec) and a finite amount of watching time. And, you know what? I can live with the fact that I’ve not had time to watch Breaking Bad, allegedly the best TV show of all time.
I can also live with the fact that I’ve not had time to read some of the great books, ancient or modern. Gimme a list of the Top 100 books of all time – I won’t have read most of them. I’d like to. I can read. I love reading. But the fact that I’ve not read certain great books yet, or really good ones that are being currently produced is not a source for major complaint, surely?
But it’s not just that.
4. Maybe We’re Getting Better At Making TV. Is that so hard to believe?If we accept that there’s always been a lot of TV, and that there’s now a lot of good TV, it might mean that we’ve got better at making TV. It shouldn’t be any big surprise. Every industry improves. Better cars are now made faster for less money. Aeroplanes are better, greener, cheaper to run and safer. Why should this not be the case with TV?
Maybe we’ve learned some lessons, improved our abilities at storytelling and TV production and the stuff that used to be indifferent is now decent. And the stuff that was decent is now excellent.
Except it’s not really a problem, is it?
Especially when you consider that in the same year in America that there were 409 scripted shows, there was also room for 750 reality shows. Yes. 750. And 350 of them were brand new. How is that even possible? In America right now, it seems to be increasingly difficult to avoid being on television. But the point is that there’s plenty of TV. There always has been. There always will be. Things might be getting better because TV professionals are, shock horror, improving their skills.
And bear in mind that if you miss a season of The Mindy Project or Hannibal, does it really matter? You didn’t read Hard Times, Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath either. And you only read The Great Gatsby because it was short. Get over it.
Here’s the problem. Or my problem, at least.
Okay, it’s an observation.
5. Most of This Decent TV Isn’t ComedyHow many of those 409 scripted shows were out-and-out comedies or sitcoms (like Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs and Veep), let alone shows filmed in front of an audience? I’m sure you’ll think of some, but I suspect you won’t get to a hundred. You might not even make it to fifty. (I tried to get a break down of that 409 and failed).
It’s a similar story in the UK. There’s a bit of single-camera comedy that’s doing very well critically, like Catastrophe, The Detectorists and Toast. The mainstream stuff like Birds of a Feather, Still Open All Hours and Mrs Browns Boys is tolerated but largely ignored by the press because they’d rather gush about something much more nuanced, novel and likely to win an award.
But let’s bear in mind what the best performing show is on those channels that do nuanced and novel. BBC2, BBC4 and Channels 4’s highest rated show throughout 2015 has been… Dad’s Army reruns.
Moreover, let’s look at all the Christmas and New Year Specials and new series: Sherlock, And Then There Were None, War and Peace, Dickensian, Endeavour and so on. Not much comedy unless you include Aardman's The Farmer's Llamas. And a drama about the making of Dad's Army.
So not only would I'd say there's not 'too much TV.' I'd also say there’s not enough sitcom.
But then I’m a sitcom writer looking for work. So I would say that.