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New Golden Age of Television

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Kit Harington in season 5, episode 9 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/Courtesy HBO/TNS)
Kit Harington in season 5, episode 9 of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” (Helen Sloan/Courtesy HBO/TNS)

By Chris Powers – Web Editor

This is truly a new Golden Age of Television. While many fondly remember the days of three channels and black-and-white, television has undergone a renaissance over the past decade where viewers can watch high-quality shows in ways their parents and grandparents never dreamed possible.

Most college students don’t even watch their shows on a TV. And if they do, it’s either time-shifted by a DVR or streamed from Netflix. What does that mean for today’s TV producers? When an audience can catch-up on Netflix or any on demand service, it opens the door to allow for serialization, an ongoing storyline that doesn’t have to reset to a status quo at the end of an episode.

This is why we agonize over every death in “Game of Thrones” and binge watch shows like “Orange is the New Black.” There is a sense of urgency that builds with every episode. We can’t wait to see what happens next to our favorite characters.

The ability to catch up allows networks to create shows based on longer-form storytelling such as book series and comic books. “Game of Thrones,” “Arrow,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” and the upcoming “American Gods” are but a few examples.

“Game of Thrones” never would have been made 15 years ago. But if it had, network executives never would have allowed Ned Stark to die at the end of the first season. He’s the protagonist. He’s the hero. Audiences would never watch a show where the hero dies, they’d say.

Imagine a “Game of Thrones” where audiences have to be allowed to miss an episode and still be able to follow the plot. It would be a much different show. Characters couldn’t develop out of fear of, “Why did that just happen?” Serialization is so important to TV now that “Game of Thrones” has been the most pirated show online since 2012.

“Game of Thrones” also benefits from the shorter seasons that HBO and other cable networks borrowed from the BBC. While it would be great to have 24 episodes in Westeros every year, it would be prohibitively expensive. In many ways, “Game of Thrones” and others like it produce five movies every year. There is very little difference in terms of acting or directing from major motion pictures.

In years past, television was beneath most movie stars, but even Oscar winners like Matthew McConaughey and Halle Berry do TV now. It offers a chance for big-time Hollywood actors to develop a character over many hours instead of two or three.

And of course, the definition of television has expanded to include Netflix and other streaming offerings. “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” were the breakthrough series for streaming television. Kevin Spacey would never have committed to a series with a long, traditional schedule. Netflix offered him the chance to flesh out Frank Underwood on a much more manageable timetable.

A decade ago, it seemed as though television might become a veritable wasteland of unscripted drivel: reality shows, game shows, and competition shows. The rise of Netflix and its original programming has helped turn that around. It has even resurrected shows that viewers thought were gone forever.

Cult hit “Community” began its life on NBC but never really made the sorts of ratings executives wanted. It was on the cancellation chopping block every year. When it was finally cancelled after season five, there were rumors that Netflix would pick it up. Rumors likely brought on by Netflix’s pick-up of another quirky comedy cancelled before its time, “Arrested Development.” Yahoo ended up producing the latest season, making it only a movie short of “six seasons and a movie.”

In fact, the tide has turned so much that NBC, the former home of “Must See TV” and “Comedy Night Done Right,” has shown signs that it is getting out of the comedy business. The network almost single-handedly resurrected the genre in the 1980s with shows like “The Cosby Show” and “Cheers” and grew its legacy with “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “The Office” and “30 Rock.”

When “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey brought the network a new series, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” they passed and the series wound up with a two-season guarantee on Netflix despite being produced by Universal Television, NBC’s sister company. Former “Office” writer/actor Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” also from Universal Television, ended up on Fox.

How do we keep up with all of this great content? We can’t.

We’re all busy and can’t watch everything. Friends are bound to post spoilers on social media. Twitter and Facebook isn’t going to wait until Monday night or later to freak out about who died on the latest “Game of Thrones” or who that new inmate is on “Orange is the New Black.”  It’s no longer as simple as plugging your ears and humming to yourself until you can watch whatever you missed.