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Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

TV changed a lot this decade. But it started changing way before

We often refer to our favorite shows as TV shows. But with a new decade on the horizon, TV may be dead after all

SHARE TV changed a lot this decade. But it started changing way before
SHARE TV changed a lot this decade. But it started changing way before

You sit down to watch the latest viral television show. Your friends recommend it. Your boss celebrated it. Sure, your sister hated it. But your boyfriend loved it.

You open up Netflix and scroll through the long lists of shows. Original content and reboots are everywhere.

Soon, you find the show. Fifteen hours later, you’re done with it. Finished it in one sitting. And the most surprising part — you may have done all that without once looking at a television screen.

TV isn’t just TV anymore. It now encompasses streaming, viewing on a phone and, of course, binge-watching. And over the past decade, it’s become ubiquitous.

Classic episodic shows like “I Love Lucy” and “M*A*S*H” have made way for the 10 hourlong episode epic, begging you to sit down and watch an entire season. Television has evolved from short episodes we anticipate every week into hourslong films, ones that we watch because our friends recommend them, or because we’re bored on a Thursday and need something to escape.

The past decade saw drastic changes in television offerings and viewing habits. And it will continue to change — so much so that we may not call it television in the near future.

The rise of new television

Television’s shift didn’t necessarily start in the last decade, though.

What’s become commonplace now began in stages during the 1990s and early 2000s. Now, plenty of TV shows are serialized epics that rely less on episodic tropes and more on a lengthy story.

Tools like TiVo — a digital video recorder introduced in 1999 — allowed viewers to keep up with their latest shows, which made them want more products that existed outside of just one episode.

“Babylon 5,” which ran from 1994 to 1998, became one of the first projects to do it. In 2002, ABC’s “Lost” began mixing episodic television with a hint of a greater story. HBO’s “The Sopranos” debuted in 1999 and AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” which came along in 2008, created television shows that were essentially long films cut into multiple pieces rather than 22 episodes that could exist on their own.

“There’s no event that said, ‘OK, you know, 2009, 2008 changed everything for TV,’” said Don Schecther, owner of Charles River Media Group and a professor at Tufts University in the film and media studies department. “I think a lot of people point to the sort of the golden age of television being when storytelling went from episodic to more long-form storytelling.”

The golden age of television doesn’t necessarily have a starting point, either. “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” — two shows that began on AMC — were early pioneers of what we see as TV now. So is HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

But the practice of binge-watching does have a definitive starting point — Feb. 1, 2013, when Netflix released “House of Cards,” a political thriller that told the story of Francis Underwood. It did something no popular or mainstream show had done before. Netflix dropped an entire season at once.

“This is a really new perspective … to drop them all at once, but I think that’s how we watch TV now,” said the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Netflix didn’t have much competition at the time, and it didn’t need to release episodes week by week.

“This is the future, streaming is the future,” said showrunner Beau Willimon, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “TV will not be TV in five years from now. ... Everyone will be streaming.”

Willimon was right. These days, it’s rare that someone isn’t using either Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. Networks have their own platforms, like CBS with CBS All Access and NBC with the forthcoming Peacock. Then there are the digital providers of live TV, like Sling and YouTube TV. Hulu has a live TV function. The NBA has a digital League Pass package where you can watch any game. MLB has a digital MLB TV package. ESPN has ESPN Plus.

But as we near the end of 2019, things are once again changing.

A return to the old ways

Welcome to a time where streaming is everywhere. About 51% of Americans are streaming television shows, with most using Netflix as their avenue of choice, according to a CNBC All-American Economic Survey from 2018. Of those streaming, 53% use Netflix while 33% use Amazon Prime.

According to the CNBC survey, about 36% of viewers have both a streaming service and cable subscription. Only 20% of Americans have actually cut the cord. There’s even a small segment (12%) who use neither.

The episode dump fad of the early 2010s still exists in tandem with week-to-week drops. Shows like “Stranger Things” drop with an entire season even as popular shows like “Better Call Saul” and “This Is Us” all come week to week.

More recently, Disney Plus has decided to release both “The Mandalorian” and “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on a weekly basis. And it appears to be working. Look no further than the popularity of Baby Yoda.

Broadcast television companies have changed their products to be more than just episodic. NBC has three current shows — “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago M.D.” — that take place in the same setting. The network will have crossover events, too.

In an era of streaming, a week-to-week release can create major pop culture moments.

“I think the general audiences are somewhat rebelling against or at least are OK with now the slower release, because they liked that sort of anticipation of what’s going to be next week and talking about what’s happening from week to week,” Schecther said.

He said we’re shifting to a culture where things are “somewhat similar to the normal desires and habits that we had in the past.”

Unique and original content — as well as access to television favorites — has become key to the streaming platforms’ success. And that’s good for the customer. We can find our favorite show at the click of a button. Maybe we don’t want to watch “The Office” on Netflix. But we enjoy “Star Wars” so we subscribe to Disney Plus.

“We’re picking and choosing what it is that we want versus relying on gatekeepers,” Schecther said.

Even original movies have made their way to streaming. “The Irishman” — a mobster movie from Martin Scorsese released on Thanksgiving Day — is a prime example.

“It’s a film on Netflix. But it’s not in cinemas,” said Schecther.

There’s a blend of movies, television, miniseries and long-form storytelling — all available on your television.

“We don’t quite have the words yet to explain what it is we’re doing. And maybe one day someone come up with it,” Schecther said. “I think what it’s become is TV is something you do on your own at home or with family. And film is something you go to movie theater and watch or has been shown in a cinema.”

The future is uncertain

So what comes next?

Netflix spent close to $12 billion in 2018. Amazon and Apple have each spent $6 billion on original content. Disney Plus has spent $1 billion. These companies will continue to invest in content. But what content they produce will shift with an ever-changing culture.

Streaming services will start to target specific audiences. CBS will release “Star Trek” content. NBC may be known for legal shows. Disney Plus will own Marvel and “Star Wars” content.

“We’ll be picking and choosing our platforms based on one or two programs,” Schecther said. “The audience is just going to be, you know, making decisions on what’s the most important.”

Netflix flipped the script. Television networks changed the game before that. What changes everything for us in 2020 and beyond?

Quibi is one option. It will be a new streaming service that offers quick bits of content, which could run 10 minutes or less.

“You leave the house every morning with a little TV in your pocket. It’s called your smart phone,” said CEO Meg Whitman in 2018, according to Entertainment Weekly. “During the day, you have these in-between moments. Ten minutes here, 15 minutes there, where you want to see something great.”

The service — set to launch in 2020 — comes packed with Hollywood titans. Chrissy Teigen has a show. Shows featuring Idris Elba, Jennifer Lopez, Kristen Bell, Tracy Morgan, Andy Samberg and several others will be there, too. Steven Spielberg will have a series that you can only watch at night.

There’s no evidence Quibi will be a game-changer. But it shows that culture is always changing. Television shifted a lot this last decade. But it’s been shifting for 20 to 30 years.

And it will continue to do so.

“I think we’re gonna be surprised by what the next thing is,” said Schecther.