2013: The end of television as we know it

2013: The end of television as we know it

Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass were wed in Central Park on December 17, 2012. The small ceremony was conducted by Ms. Waldorf’s stepfather, Cyrus Rose, attended by a handful of family and friends. To the surprise of no one, the nuptials were interrupted by the New York City Police Department. Also, at some time near the ceremony, a person close to the bride and groom was revealed to be the pseudonymous blogger Gossip Girl—though of course it had to be someone with an intimate relationship to Chuck and/or Blair, given the blog’s narrow focus on their peer group over the last six years. Upon learning Gossip Girl’s true identity, witnesses to the nuptials—their number predicted to range in the low millions—were quoted as saying, “Who cares?”

As Mr. Rose would’ve said in a past life, “Inconceivable!”

But is it really? Before Gossip Girl shuffled down the ad hoc aisle toward its super-sized series finale, the show took a long, long tumble from its prominent place as one of television’s most-talked-about—and, if you believed The CW’s hyperbolic ad campaigns for Gossip Girl’s first and second seasons, dangerous—shows. As Judy Berman astutely summed up in The Atlantic earlier this month, part of that fall from guilty-pleasure grace can be blamed on the economy. Because who wants to come home from a tenuously held job to watch a bunch of morally compromised twentysomethings blow off their Ivy League educations to make more money doing nothing than you’ll make in your entire life? Fewer and fewer people with each passing season, that’s who.

But there’s another factor at play here: Much as the money thrown about by the Van Der Woodsens and Vanderbilt families of the Gossip Girl universe goes back several generations, the show as conceived, written, and broadcast belongs to a past era of television—one that’s due to end sometime in the next 365 days. The show debuted when the broadcast networks held nearly all the cards in the TV game. In the fall of 2007, premium-cable outlets had produced some of the most challenging, rewarding, and medium-jump-starting programs in the history of television, but their basic-cable counterparts were still seen as small potatoes by the competition at ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. 

The previous summer, after The Sopranos ended its run on HBO, the network previously known as American Movie Classics made a splash with a critically acclaimed, modestly rated period piece set in and around an advertising agency at the turn of the 1960s. Magnificent and bracing as the first season of Mad Men was, it by no means escalated AMC to major-player status. It hinted toward future greatness, sure, but no one could’ve predicted that the network’s follow-up to Mad Men would frequently outmatch that series in terms of quality—or that a future AMC offering could lay legitimate claim to being the most popular show on television among the only viewers advertisers care about: Those economy-bolstering audience members who are old enough to own their own TV, yet still young enough to scratch the occasional consumerist itch. This economy may have killed Gossip Girl, but the continued buying power of Americans ages 18 to 49 made The Walking Dead an unstoppable force.

Heading into 2013, the year that spells the end of TV as we’ve known it in the post-Sopranos era—for better and for worse, but mostly for the better—it’s only appropriate that two of the biggest series on television are post-apocalyptic affairs. The cable and broadcast climate as represented by the ascent of The Walking Dead and Revolution isn’t going to be all scorched earth, but it’ll be a definite shift from the era that’s passing with the end of Gossip Girl, 30 Rock, The Office, and other mid-’00s touchstones. 

For example, finales of those last two series—30 Rock wraps January 31, while The Office will continue on into May—destabilizes NBC’s long-running Thursday-night comedy bloc, leaving Community and Parks And Recreation sorely exposed. The critical clout of 30 Rock and the relative Nielsen success of The Office have allowed the Peacock to justify the continuing existence of the two best, most adventurous comedies on the network dial; renewal notices for Community and Parks And Rec currently rely on a pair of untested programs: the White House-based sitcom 1600 Penn and the re-revamped Up All Night. Cherish this coming October 19, Community fans—it could very well be your last. (Though we’re all used to that by now, right?)

The spring of 2013 may as well be the last stand for blocs like NBC’s Thursday-night lineup across the board. My colleague Todd VanDerWerff declared 2012 “the year of the half hour,” but much of the excellent work done in television comedy this year went unseen by a majority of the TV audience. And when viewers did catch the likes of Community, Parks And Rec, New Girl, or The Middle, it wasn’t in the hour- or night-long chunks prescribed by network programmers. NBC’s Thursday-night lineup wasn’t strong to begin with, and Fox’s attempt to establish its own stronghold for single-camera sitcoms on Tuesdays—built around New Girl, which premièred to big ratings but began hemorrhaging viewers at the same time it became appointment viewing—has inspired similarly unmerited indifference. 

It doesn’t help that the 9 o’clock hour on Tuesdays is absolutely chockablock with sitcoms, many of which draw from the same pool of audience members. The appeal of former Friends star Matthew Perry puts freshman series Go On at an advantage over New Girl, which has in turn diluted the ratings for the third season of Happy Endings. Airing behind Modern Family last spring, Happy Endings was an up-and-coming challenger to the comedy throne, thumping the likes of Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea? among adults under 50; after premièring deep into the fall 2012 season, it was lucky to pull more than 1 percent of viewers 18 to 49 on any given Tuesday—largely because it’s airing opposite a show that’s so similar to Happy Endings, they briefly shared Damon Wayans Jr.

The only successful programming blocs on the schedule are those tied to a proven powerhouses like Modern Family or How I Met Your Mother, but even those shows are shedding viewers as they grow older. Almighty CBS puts two of its biggest sitcoms opposite The VoiceHIMYM and 2 Broke Girls—but the Nielsen cachet of the latter series was diminished considerably by the DOA Partners

The fact of the matter is most of the shows that ruled the roost since ’07 are being visited upon by a creeping obsolescence—and if they’re not, then their showrunners and network brass have done the smart thing and agreed upon an endpoint. Case in point: Breaking Bad, which will live free and die in the summer of 2013. The new television epoch that begins next year isn’t just predicated on the continued decline of the network TV model, it’s marked by the end of big, era-defining shows like this, too. As an editor for a publication whose TV section has been treated very, very well by 30 Rock, The Office, and Breaking Bad, it’s terrifying to look at a future with none of those shows. Take a glance at the top 10 of The A.V. Club’s best-of list for 2012 TV series—two of them (the aforementioned 30 Rock and Breaking Bad) won’t be around at this time next year. Two of them—Community and Parks And Rec—are on a terrifyingly close-to-bursting bubble. Louie won’t be back until 2014.

But after you’ve finished gnawing through your cuticles, take inventory of what shows are left: Mad Men, Homeland, Girls, Game Of Thrones, and Bob’s Burgers. Of those five, only Mad Men has aired more than two seasons, and only Bob’s Burgers is a broadcast-network program. Game Of Thrones is a certifiable cable phenomenon on the level of The Walking Dead; Homeland and Girls drew enough praise, viewers, controversy, and hand-wringing in 2012 to make them the pride of Showtime and HBO, respectively. Like it or not, the new faces of television are Lena Dunham and Claire Danes; its voice, meanwhile, is that of the Belcher children.

The funny thing about the phrase “the end of [noun] as we know it” is that there’s a ring of hope beneath the surface-level dread. The mechanism that brings you many of your favorite television shows is grinding to a halt, but another is rising up to deliver just as many (if not more) series worthy of your attention. Nineteen cable series made The A.V. Club’s big list this year (20 if you count Cougar Town crossing the divide in a few weeks), up from 16 in 2011 and 15 in 2010. 

Taking those numbers into consideration, is it really any surprise that The Walking Dead—or even something as marginal as Duck Dynasty—comes off as a more appealing option than the network shows that air against it? While the Big Four try desperately to broadly appeal to mass audiences that no longer exist, cable has perfected niche programming on a budget that can justify it—and on a less-demanding schedule that can provide those networks with high-quality content. HBO still specializes in the prestige series The Sopranos made possible; AMC emphasizes unorthodox storytelling methods; FX shows an interest in unique perspectives (that can be bankrolled by 50 hours of Charlie Sheen); IFC showcases a skewed sense of humor. Our brave new television world is one ruled by many scattered clans—now it’s up to cable providers to reflect that in the way they let viewers choose what TV they pay for.

As for the broadcast networks, they’ll continue to exist because they can still point the greatest number of people in the direction of advertisers. Pragmatically speaking, television is and will remain a business, and the sons and daughters of Gossip Girl will be subsidized by words from their sponsors. That and the sheer number of episodes such money demands. You can blame outside business interests and political factors for the ultimate fall of Gossip Girl, but the rigors of the network-television production cycle are just as much at fault. The show ran out of good ideas in the middle of its third season; the best pre-wedding gift The CW could give Mrs. and Mr. Blair Waldorf was an abbreviated final-season order. The best gift it can offer their TV offspring is a similar chance not to burn out so quickly. (Best of luck, The Carrie Diaries!) Not that much of what makes it to air in the coming years will resemble Gossip Girl. By the time they do, Gossip Girl and its characters will belong to an entirely different era.

XOXO, I guess.