Critics keep saying that we’re in a Golden Age of quality TV, and, who knows, maybe we are. But don’t you wonder how we got here? What happened? What changed? As 2015 closes, it’s time for some insight into the year’s biggest media story:
by Joshua Gans
When we think of Golden Ages it is looking back and realising that things were better during some period of time; we just never realised it at the time. But we are currently living in a Golden Age of Television. It is better than at any point in its history. And what is more, we know it. That is simply a remarkable state of affairs.
When did the Golden Age begin? Many will mark 2008 as a turning point with Breaking Bad (or maybe a year earlier with Mad Men). Others will go back to 2002 and 2003 with The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and Lost. In reality, the Golden Age, as we know it, is really a phenomenon of the last five or six years as knowledge of great alternative programming became widespread. And there is no end in sight.
What is remarkable about it is that at the beginning of the Golden Age, industry insiders were proclaiming doom for the industry. The Internet and YouTube, in particular, not to mention piracy were destroying all and sundry (supposedly) and with them any incentives to create good content. Suffice it to say, if that was something at play then it is hard to imagine just how good television could be today. That said, the more likely hypothesis is that precisely the opposite happened: the Internet has led to better incentives to create high quality content.
Interestingly, this highlights something important about creativity and whether we get it: obtaining creative content is a choice. To see what I mean by that let me dismiss something that might be a candidate for the current boom: a change in the supply of talent. One might think that the constraint in the past on great TV content was a lack of talent. Somehow now we have great writers, directors, editors, musicians and actors that weren’t there in the past. While it is hard to rule out, I would be very surprised if suddenly these appeared out of nowhere. More likely is that the talent was always there it was just deployed in ways that didn’t architect better TV content. From my here, value-laden perspective, it was wasted. Importantly, what that means is someone chose to have this great content where they previously chose not to have it.
Who made that choice? The first candidate off the mark have to be consumers. Did their tastes change so that now these programs were desired where previously they were not? This is a tough exercise but in thinking it through you have to note that it isn’t all consumers. The vast majority of TV content is still traditional — not good — stuff. So for most consumers their tastes and demand are the same. So these consumers haven’t driven a change.
Instead some smaller niche of consumers has got larger and now can support this content. This niche may be those who don’t like sitting down to watch broadcast television on a schedule but instead like to time shift to their own schedule. Moreover, this niche may be very large indeed as the Internet allows more of those options. But why would a desire to time-shift be correlated with TV of this quality? And if it is, why is the majority of that content still distributed on a weekly schedule? It is hard to draw the theoretical link here.
If we dismiss a change in tastes, the question of who made the choice falls to the publishers of content. These are the intermediaries who are primarily responsible for product design. And the Internet has given them far more power in the market as they have more options to access consumers than through broadcast television or cable channels. (See this useful discussion by Ben Thompson for more on that).
That said, while you might think that this has raised the return they receive and so lead to better content, that would neglect a number of mitigating factors. In particular, they face far more competition between eachother and from others. Moreover, one suspects that talent is still the relatively scarce resource and so any greater ability of publishers to collect rents would flow back to creators. Instead, we need to look at how these changes have altered the incentives of publishers at the margin over the type of content they commission….