Branching Out: A Brief History of The Development of Artisticism on Television

By D.G. McCabe

The success of my Game of Thrones series (which multiplied the number of visitors to this little webpage by a significant margin) has made me realize something – if I can write about movies, why not television too?

It has become conventional wisdom that television has “grown up” as an artform over the last two decades.  For the majority of its existence, television consisted of four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS) and a local, independent station or two.  If you were lucky enough to live near the Canadian border, you could get CTV and CBC on your TV as well.  This meant that television had to appeal to the largest audience possible, and the name of the early game was volume, volume, volume.  While some quality programming emerged during the pre-cable period, television was very much business first, artform second.

The early days of cable televisions did little to change this dynamic.  For the first decade or so, cable consisted of re-runs of old network programming and specialty channels (CNN, ESPN, The Weather Channel, MTV, etc.).  It wasn’t until the 1990’s that cable channels started showing original programming, and these early efforts were usually low-budget affairs and early reality shows (USA’s Pacific Blue, MTV’s the Real World, etc.).

Meanwhile, network programming was experiencing a renaissance in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The success of Hill Street Blues in the 1980’s led networks to understand that there was a place on television for high quality, cinematic dramas.  Likewise, groundbreaking comedies like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and The Cosby Show were re-inventing the television comedy (I’ll address television comedies at a later date).  Still, in the public consciousness, television was not an artform that could rival the cinema.

Arguably, this changed in 1999 with the premiere of two programs, The Sopranos on HBO and The West Wing on NBC.  While the first four seasons of The West Wing represent what could be considered the apex of writing, character development, and cinematography on network television, The Sopranos demonstrated that cable was the perfect outlet for cinematic-style serial programming.

In the 2000’s, the artistic quality of network programming was undergoing a decline.  With some notable exceptions, such as ABC’s Lost, the networks retreated into airing music competitions, formulaic serials, and sitcoms that stayed around long past their expiration date.  Meanwhile, without the pressure to amass network-sized audiences, cable brought us FX’s The Shield, HBO’s The Wire, AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad and numerous other critically acclaimed and highly successful programs.

So that leaves us with our current dichotomy today.  The networks have all but given up on the cinematic serial television series.  In contrast, that format has thrived on cable television.  It is no small thing that of the 10 or so most critically acclaimed and influential cable dramas, the majority of them have aired in the last 15 years on cable.  So let’s talk more about television, shall we?

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe