Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Nothing Gold Can Stay

I read an interesting article at Slate.com last week, the premise of which was that the much-hyped but largely real Golden Age of TV that began at some nebulous point around the turn of the millennium, probably about the time the first episode of The Sopranos (A show I still haven't watched.) aired on HBO, hasn't just peaked or even ended, as has been argued, but has turned into a full-on slide from peak to trough.

When the fulcrum shifted from the networks to subscription services and then to streaming, it very much felt like a tide that would not easily turn. The level of quality expected by viewers rose so substantively it seemed hard to imagine anyone settling for less. 

In many ways that remains a sustainable argument. Certainly, production values and the quality of both script and performance haven't slipped noticeably from the high-water mark of ten or fifteen years ago. All the big-budget shows still benchmark at or above the comparable standard in cinema, a target that would have seemed laughably unattainable in TVs previous "Golden Age", let alone in the regular programming of the wilderness decades of the sixties thru the nineties.

As has been discussed many times in this corner of the blogosphere (We really need to figure out a better way to describe our nebulous collective. If there's one thing spheres definitively do not have, it's corners...) the increasing tendency of all the streaming platforms to commission shows they then decline to renew, often for reasons that remain opaque, is starting to look like an existential crisis for the format. Viewers are making decisions on what to start watching based on their assessment of how likely they are to be able to find resolution when the show concludes, creating a negative feedback loop that only increases the likelihood the shows won't get renewed.


Perhaps more damagingly, there's increasing evidence of a concerning tendency of streaming platforms to straight up abandon shows altogether, not just in terms of forward continuity but even in retaining episodes already made for viewing. Along with the rise of streaming, digital distribution and the worldwide web, came an easy expectation that everything would be available forever. Physical media rapidly fell out of fashion and there was much talk of future generations owning nothing but their devices and a handful of contracts and subscriptions to that great media library in the cloud.

I should probably say here that I was one of those people who believed a decade and more ago that we were on the cusp of a true digital revolution. I thought that, while I was too old, my cultural expectations and assumptions too ossified to do much more than creakingly shift a little in place, generations coming up behind would break almost entirely with the need or even the desire to acquire and horde hard copies of the things they loved, and especially of the things they had loved, once, but now thought of only occasionally and in passing.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that was a techno-utopian vision as unlikely to come true as the jetpacks and hovercars we all thought we'd have by the 'nineties at the latest. People like stuff, it seems. There can be no other rational explanation for vinyl's dead cat bounce turning into a tiger on a trampoline. More importantly, at least to rights-holders and producers, as soon as they find financial security, people can't seem to stop themselves buying back their own past. The rolling nostalgia market has to have product to sell.

Now, though, there's a far less abstract justification for buying offline copies of shows you'd like to watch again, one day. It's that or nothing. And the more niche your tastes, the more alert you'll need to be. While some recent panics, like the culling of big-name shows like Westworld as part of a Warner Bros. cost-cutting excercise, have turned out to be false alarms (The shows are, mostly, shifting to a forthcoming non-subscription service.) many less-celebrated shows have simply vanished into the ether, quite possibly never to be seen again.

Since most shows these days don't get a physical release either on Blu-ray or DVD, I guess we're just going to put our hope in those public-spirited fans who love either the shows or their own subscriber numbers so much they're willing to upload entire seasons to their YouTube channels. Even then, I wouldn't count on any of them staying up forever. About the only way you can rely on a show still being there when you want to watch it is if you have it safely tucked away at home.

Looping back to where we started, there's always a disconnect between what's best and what we remember most fondly. Whether the current faltering of TV's second Golden Age is the prelude to a fall or merely a mistep, soon to be corrected, it seems hard to argue against the prevailing wisdom that things aren't as good now as they used to be. 

There are fewer "Must Watch" shows and those that we have seem to land with slightly less cultural impact. Runs aren't just less secure, they might also be shorter. The fracturing of the streaming market into multiple competing platforms awkwardly mimics the broadcast era with its network structure and the proliferation of individual channels within the streaming structure, many requiring subscriptions of their own, casts a rose-tinted haze across our collective memory of the brief quasi-universality of the early 2000s.

Like net neutrality and the yearning of information to be free, it all seems like a message from another, more innocent time. I hesitate to say winter is coming, not just because I'd be quoting a show I've never watched but because in a while, maybe even that meme won't stand.

All of which is fine and well but I actually came here to talk about Daisy Jones and the Six. And Locke and Key. And Camp Camp. I guess I'll just have to save my thoughts on those for another day. Always assuming I can remember what they were. My thoughts, that is. The shows, those I always remember, even when they're gone.


  1. More importantly, at least to rights-holders and producers, as soon as they find financial security, people can't seem to stop themselves buying back their own past. The rolling nostalgia market has to have product to sell.

    I'm guilty of that myself with RPGs. I've collected some older ones in the past year, mainly those I knew about but never played, because I wanted to see what these RPGs were about. And to be honest, I wanted to have copies that weren't pirated.

    I think my push toward purchases such as that are driven not only by altruism but by guilt, because I have pirated things in the past and this is a way for me to make up for that.

    Now, though, there's a far less abstract justification for buying offline copies of shows you'd like to watch again, one day. It's that or nothing.

    While creators would be more and more reluctant to work under such arbitrary and opaque conditions, it also provides impetus for pirates to exist. If people are concerned about whether something will be available for streaming online, they'll go out of their way to pirate copies for themselves.

    1. With the successful rollout of subscription-based streaming services for both video and music, it's easy to forget that one of the drivers for their creation in the first place was industry paranoia over piracy. While I completely understand and agree with the argument that most creators are hugely under-rewarded for the work they're largely compelled to distribute via streaming platforms, it seems to me that any attempt to rectify that by passing the costs of recompensing them appropriately on to the consumer is very likely to result in a return to the piracy problems the services were created to solve in the first place. Similarly, if we continue to move towards a streaming marketplace with ever-increasing numbers of channels and platforms, all charging individual subscriptions, the notion of sidestepping them altogether is likely to prove more attractive to more people all the time.

      The thing that does puzzle me, though, is the degree to which it's already possible to avoid paying for entertainment, particularly music, competely legally and with the overt co-operation of the rights owners. For example, the entirety of Lana del Rey's new album, which I bought on CD last week, was available for free on YouTube the same day - on Lana's own, official channel. I could just as easily have listend to it there as payed money for it, especially since I mostly listen to music through my PC anyway. How this works commercially is something I'd quite like to understand.

    2. I'd imagine that if you're out and away from wifi, streaming via YouTube will become a huge data stream sink; you'll end up gobbling up your monthly data pretty quickly. Streaming music via Spotify would be cheaper in bandwidth, but you'd have to pay a subscription if you don't want ads. (Or, I'm told, listen to the music directly. I refuse to pay for streaming music because of the pittance they give musicians compared to CDs and LPs.)

      If nothing else, it seems that media conglomerates tend to find new and interesting ways to shoot themselves in their collective feet and encourage piracy when they have no need to do so.

    3. And don't get me started on Netflix dropping shows. I wanted to watch some Bettany Hughes documentaries, but Netflix (in the US) dropped them all about a year or two ago. So if I want to watch them I have to watch poor copies of some of them on YouTube where people uploaded their VHS tapes (I think).

  2. Not laser-focus on a tiny detail, but as someone who really enjoyed Westworld and had intended to rewatch it, maybe several times, it being moved to a free but ad-supported service feels almost worse than it just being removed completely. Ads? Ads! Who puts up with ads these days!!? I switched from watching America NFL Football to British EPL Football just to escape ads! :)

    I'll probably buy Westworld but because I'm dumb & lazy, I'll probably buy it digitally.

    Generally though, I'm still pretty happy with the TV shows on offer and we feel like there is more to watch than we have time for. It is possible my standards are low, though.

    Shorter seasons, though. It's crazy to go back to an old show and say "Oh, there are 3 seasons, that's nothing." and then realize 3 seasons = 75-ish episodes!

    I look forward to your thoughts on Locke & Key. We're watching the final season now, mostly because my partner enjoys it. I never really connected with it and find it all kind of dumb.

    One thing way out of my wheelhouse I just watched is Alice in Borderland. It is WAY more violent than the content I usually watch (like legit trigger-warning violent) but the mystery drew me in. It's also a 2 season show with an actual ending, which was kind of nice. OK this is turning into a blog post.... better stop. :)

    1. Ads are another odd one. I watch some stuff on FreeVee, one of Amazon Prime's many sub-channels. Anything I watch is heavily flagged as "Free with Ads" but I've never seen a single commercial in the whole time I've been watching. Considering I've seen every episode of every season of Corner Gas Animated there, as well as several seasons of Parks and Rec, the whole "with Ads" part just doesn't add up. Maybe it's ad-free for Prime subscribers but if so, why not say that?

      As for YouTube, which is supposedly supported by advertising revenue, I literally *never* see any ads there, either. I run YouTube throughanother app, which is available through Firefox and it suppresses 100% of all ads, always. What's more, Chrome has built-in ad block for YouTube and they're both owned by Google! It makes me wonder who *is* watching these ads and why companies are buying them.

      As for Locke and Key, not to pre-empt my review, which will probably have to wait until I've watched all three seasons (I'm near the end of Season 2 now.) but I expected it to be a fairly childish, somewhat silly romp and of course turned out to be tense, dark and disturbing. I don't know why that surprised me - it happens every time. It's a lot better than I was expecting, though. I'm really enjoying it.

  3. So many thoughts here, but I have work to do tonight. Here's a quick summary:

    * The streaming enterprise is being killed by bad-to-awful writing. The secondary causes include the complete unwillingness to hire actual character actors, an overblown seriousness even in the comedies, and an insistence on showing off overpriced production values.

    * The oft-noted disintegration of the streaming space has also really hurt streaming. Nobody wants to grub through a dozen expensive streaming services to find the thing.

    * It is also often and correctly noted that there is so much competing for peoples' time now. People disperse their entertainment hours across a wide variety of media and activities. There is no "must see TV" anymore.

    Honestly, I'm pretty done with bread-and-circuses TV anyhow. I won't lose any sleep over it either way.

    1. The standard of writing and acting imay have declined but only relatively. Even the top end of 70s-90s drama wouldn't stand out even in the middle of the current pack and everything before that is like transmissions from another dimension - fascinating but alien. I do think the fracturing of streaming services is going to damage if not destroy most of the players in the field. Presumably there will ventually be a consolidation. As for competition for entertainment time, that's certainly true but TV and movies still dominate the media news agenda. Until that changes they'll remain culturally significant in a way other leisure activities can only wish they were.

  4. I barely watch TV or movies, but when I do, I do from my HDD, which isn't gated behind god knows how many different and competing paywalls, never decided to stop storing something I wanted to watch, and usually is easily and conveniently fed from a Torrent source. I barely can stand paying for Steam games knowing they might just be removed Someday TM, but paying for TV? Paying SEVERAL competing fools for it? That's some alien language. One three three seven torrent got my TV itch covered for as much as I am willing to pay (specially since my optic fiber ISP delivers flat rate data).

    1. I'm on something of the reverse trajactory in regards to TV. I was already drifting away from watching broadcast TV just before I started playing EQ at the end of the '90s, after which mmorpgs replaced 100% of my TV time for over a decade. I completely missed the entirety of the first decade of TV's second Golden Age, only slowly easing back into watching from about 2015 or so onwards.

      Now, though, my gaming time has reduced hugely and some of those hours are going back to television. I watch about two hours a day now, which is less than half of what I would have watched in my thirties but still a substantial amount. After having caught up on much of what I missed, I now find it relatively hard to find enough that interests me to fill the time I have available.

  5. I'm definitely one of those people who "like stuff", and I've never stopped buying it whenever I could.

    This all sounds pretty alarming tbh, and now I'm even more pissed off that I'm not and most likely never will be able to buy The Mandalorian, Reacher, Bosch and more on Blu-ray.

    1. I'm still on DVD, never having made the move to Blu-ray. I thought the superior quality format would drive the older one out but so far it seems that hasn't happened and now, as you suggest, the issue is finding what you're looking for on any format at all.


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