The passing of Sid Caesar, a comedic genius if ever such a term could be used without fear of hyperbole, reminds us that television once had what its fans considered a Golden Age.
The very name of Caesar's early-fifties landmark, "Your Show of Shows," exemplified a time when the medium flourished and entire genres were being invented. More than half a century later, we are witnessing – on 60-inch, wall-mounted screens, no less – television's second Golden Age.
Not since TV's first gilded era have there been so many compelling viewing options and breakthrough formats. Delivery systems are expanding and viewing patterns shifting, but at the root of change in the medium is a welcome message: there's more worthwhile content than ever before.
It's always best to evaluate TV based on strengths rather than weaknesses. After all, even during the first Golden Age, the FCC chief Newton Minow famously described television as a "vast wasteland." Today there is an even greater volume of waste across the dial, much of it more toxic than anything Minow had sampled. Yet, the current riches are remarkable.
Sunday night, for example, has become so crowded with compelling shows that viewers are frequently torn between what to watch "live" and what to catch later via DVR. This month, a tribute to the Beatles on CBS, the blockbuster drama "The Walking Dead" on AMC, and the night's runaway winner, Winter Olympics coverage on NBC, each drew monster ratings. Other Sundays in the year routinely feature such gems as CBS's shrewd legal drama "The Good Wife," Showtime's CIA thriller "Homeland," HBO's cutting edge comedy "Girls," and PBS's acclaimed period drama "Downton Abbey," among numerous other quality choices.
During a fallow period several decades back, when viewers had far fewer compelling options, a savvy program executive named Paul Klein authored his Theory of Least Objectionable Programming, or "LOP." Klein believed that so much TV fare was downright awful that viewers would gravitate to shows that were tolerably banal. Setting the bar low, in non-threatening formats, was key.
That no longer works in a market stuffed with delivery options, where consumers are empowered with the convenience of time-shift viewing. The treats are so tempting that an entirely new programming strategy, aimed at so-called "binge viewers," has taken hold. A notable example, the political drama "House of Cards," began its second "season" this month, with the simultaneous release by Netflix of 13 new episodes.
This Golden Age is a perfect storm. Technology has brought big screens, high definition, Internet options – even commercial-skipping DVRs – into the average home, at a time when staying home is a pleasing thought for many Americans. Meanwhile, programmers are reaping the benefits of what has finally become a truly global market.
Whereas U.S. television producers were once almost exclusively program exporters, nowadays the rest of the world tests and then supplies many of our most successful shows. "Downton Abbey" and "House of Cards" are from Britain; "Homeland" is from Israel, and even ABC's acclaimed competition series for entrepreneurs, "Shark Tank," comes from Japan.
Yet, for all these riches, almost every aspect of the television business is in flux if not total turmoil. The announcement that Comcast will spend $45 billion to buy Time Warner Cable is but the latest seismic shift in the video landscape. Comcast is already the nation's largest provider of home phone service, Internet connections and cable TV. It owns many of the program channels that it distributes. Smaller programmers might reasonably fear the centralization of such power in a single mega supplier.
Even the very definition of "television" is due for revision. Is TV anything we watch on a screen? Is it a 14-minute online installment of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee"? Is it a viral YouTube clip of someone's cat chasing the mailman? Is it cellphone video of the school soccer match? It's all that and more.
For the moment, viewers are reaping the rewards of television's new era. As long as programmers continue to believe that the best way to profit in a crowded marketplace is by investing in quality content, the age will retain its luster.