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Opinion: TV sucks now

And it’s not entirely subjective.
Image by Noah Liebl
In the wake of the streaming era, the quality of small-screen content has declined.

While watching the camera cut to black during the final episode of “Succession” — arguably the last original show worthy of weekly appointment viewing — an unfortunate realization crept into my head: television is in the midst of a dark age. 

Hollywood used to believe it could build brands and networks around carefully crafted original programs. 

Since 2000 alone, HBO has given us masterpieces like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Even “Game of Thrones,” which aired two consecutive bleach-your-eyes-worthy final seasons, had our culture in a stranglehold for eight years. 

HBO was far from the only network pulling its weight. AMC gave us “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” ABC had “Lost,” NBC had “The West Wing” and “Law and Order,” and even Fox produced “24” and “Arrested Development.” 

Compare this lineup of all-time great shows to the conglomeration of spinoffs, unnecessary franchise extensions, live-action adaptations and sputtering dramas we have now. 

Some of the most critically acclaimed shows, like “Succession,” “Better Call Saul,” “The Crown,” “Ted Lasso” and “Barry,” have all ended. Outside of that group, the current roster of Emmy-nominated or culturally relevant shows — “Stranger Things,” “Yellowjackets,” “Euphoria,” “The White Lotus,” “Yellowstone,” “The Morning Show” or whatever “Star Wars” or “Marvel” spinoff Disney puts out — leaves much to be desired. 

The ability of Hollywood to create bold, original shows that challenge viewers and address the complex nuances of life is fading. 

Studios and streaming services no longer need high-quality programming to capture viewer attention. They only need watchable content. Why else would they force reboots and IP extensions like “That ’90s Show,” “Velma,” “Secret Invasion” or “Squid Game: The Challenge”? 

Worse yet, despite the influx of new shows, shorter seasons and shrunken writers rooms, now called “mini-rooms” within the industry, created a paradox of fewer jobs. 

In the early 2000s, the average writers room for a network series consisted of up to 20 writers. Streaming services have shrunk it to six to eight, giving shows less creative support. 

The issue of quality versus quantity was one of the main talking points of the recent SAG-AFTRA strike. Although likely prioritizing profitability over fairness, executives seem to have gotten the message, given the 40% decrease in adult scripted series ordered by networks and streaming services since 2019.

Even Bob Iger, the man helming the most notorious recent offender (Disney), has acknowledged how quantity has destroyed quality in television. 

Perhaps studios have finally recognized the poor state of the television industry. The question now becomes whether we can trust them to fix it. 

Streaming service consolidation ramping up is a good sign. Alongside recent HBO Max/Discovery+ and Showtime/Paramount+ mergers, industry rumors suggest NBCUniversal is exploring potential integrations of Peacock and Paramount Global or Warner Bros. Discovery. 

On top of financial benefits, fewer streaming services will hopefully subject us viewers to fewer low-effort releases from subscriber-hungry studios. 

There are still plenty of areas of concern, though. 

Rachel Canoun, head of the Entertainment, Media, and Arts Law Club, said AI and IP/brand protection issues within the industry, which were two other SAG-AFTRA strike talking points, will continue evolving.

“These are just very basic rules,” Canoun said. “This agreement expires in 2025. We could be living in a whole new environment when it comes to AI and the speed it’s changing.”

Artificial intelligence raises a host of cost-cutting questions for studios. 

Consider their response to SAG-AFTRA’s request for residual payments. Ethan Drogin, one of the writers behind the recently popular “Suits,” made only $259.71 for his role in writing five episodes, and consulting on numerous other ones, despite the show obtaining the record for most viewed minutes (3.7 billion) in a week last July.

Ethan Drogin is merely one example. With residuals, studios demonstrated an inability to treat their writers and actors fairly. Why should we expect them to handle future issues around AI any differently? 

While there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the future, at the very least, we have not been completely deprived recently. “House of the Dragon,” “The Bear” and “The Last of Us” look poised to satisfy audiences for the next few years. 

Perhaps, as Minnesota Film Critic Alliance member Joe Botten said, there is a cyclical nature to quality programming. 

“It takes one or two really good quality shows … it’ll come back around, but you just, unfortunately, have to wait through a couple seasons of ‘Old Sheldon’ to get to that,” Botten said. “Old Sheldon” refers to the currently unnamed “Young Sheldon” spinoff in the works.

As someone who has seen enough of “The Big Bang Theory” cinematic universe, I implore any TV fans to consider the impact of what they decide to watch. 

As viewers, we have a substantial influence on content decisions in Hollywood. If our cultural bar for what is considered great television remains at a level where shows like “The White Lotus” get 23 Emmy nominations, what incentive is there for studios to try and raise it? 

When we allow for lower quality, lower substance storytelling to gain such a strong cultural pull, we effectively rob ourselves of the bold, original and challenging shows that dominated the 2000s and early 2010s. The next time you hate-watch a show like “Velma,” consider how a subscriber-hungry streaming service might react. 

Perhaps this sounds like the pretentious ramblings of a wannabe entertainment critic. But I am not trying to tell you what you can and can not watch.

I say this from a place of someone who loves being a part of the cultural zeitgeist that surrounds excellent television.

Shows like “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” gave people more than a water cooler conversation every Monday — they forced them to consider complex ideas about themselves and their lives. 

It is hard to say the same about many of the shows we now consider prestige television. 

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  • Michael
    Apr 11, 2024 at 8:26 pm

    Absolutely spot on. As a 90s kid who grew up with X files, Millennium, ER, NYPD Blue, then came to adulthood with Sopranos, Lost, Hell on Wheels, Justified…TV is terrible now. True Crime docs in the background while cleaning is as good as it gets. Storytelling on screen is dead.

  • Steve Hauser
    Mar 13, 2024 at 3:44 pm

    I disagree. Strongly. I am old, and as such have been watching TV since the early 60’s. There’s much more worthwhile content now. It IS frustrating that many worthwhile shows only run a season or two, but my wife (also old) and I agree that the quality of content is better. And to watch without commercials, by itself, is a vast improvement.

    That’s my two cents. And get off my lawn.