Over drinks with the CEO of an Internet company, I find that he wants to talk not about technology but about his other passion: Glee. In an e-mail exchange, a major player in the publishing world quickly strays from industry gossip to the finer points of his TV preferences ("I'm liking Nurse Jackie more than United States of Tara this season"). At an arty downtown party, I'm sucked into a conversation that is not about art per se but about television about art—specifically a show called Work of Art: The Next Great Artist on Bravo. "Oh, you must watch it," insists a gallery owner I've just met.
Must? Really? As in, it's mandatory?
"It's gotten a little bit homework-y, the way we're expected to consume these status shows so that we can feel like we're intellectually hip or something," says Sarah Bunting, cofounder of the TV-recap website Television Without Pity. She admits that she still hasn't gotten around to watching two of the smart set's favorites, AMC's Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which results in a lot of scolding from friends.
Only recently has demonstrating your intellectual and cultural bona fides involved advertising which TV shows you watch (not long ago you bragged about not even owning a television set). But gradually television started getting less lame, then pretty good, then occasionally even great. Simplistic crime dramas like Adam-12 gave way to the intertwined story lines of Hill Street Blues and the topical plots of Law & Order, which later spawned the ambitious social commentary of The Wire—now so revered there's a class at Harvard dedicated to its study. Over time, says Bunting, "TV stopped being the redheaded stepchild of the arts."
By 2000, basic cable was drawing bigger audiences than the Big Four broadcast networks. As a result, it became increasingly unnecessary for programmers to appeal to the lowest common denominator. "The advent of cable meant well over a hundred networks," says Marty Kaplan, director of the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center. "So how are you going to know what to watch? 'Critical darling' became one of the criteria. It didn't matter whether something was popular—in fact, not being popular was a plus."
It also turned out to be a plus with advertisers, whose research had begun suggesting that a critically beloved show with, say, a million viewers could attract a more appealing demo than one with 15 million. "There were a bunch of studies done showing that TV shows with high loyalty have much greater commercial retention, persuasion, and recall," says Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at the ad agency Deutsch. Translation: If viewers get really addicted to a show, they're much more likely to buy the stuff that's advertised during the commercials. So once the ad-supported cable networks saw how much viewer love HBO was getting with critical darlings like The Sopranos, they rushed to get in on the act. Building in snob appeal—i.e., convincing elites who used to condescend to TV that some TV was actually, gasp, must-see—became a profitable M.O. for programmers.
The niche-ification of television's audience also meant that Oscar-winning auteurs could try their hand at television—as Alan Ball did with Six Feet Under and True Blood, and Martin Scorsese is doing this month with Boardwalk Empire—without being accused of slumming. Adding to the smart set's burden: the rise of the DVD, the full-season box set, the DVR, and Netflix—not to mention Hulu, BitTorrent, and iTunes—all of which created a new breed of television completists. (Last year's top five most-DVR'd shows, according to Nielsen: Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Damages, Rescue Me, True Blood—all essential viewing for slightly different classes of highbrow viewers.)
And so it is that we've allowed ourselves to become fancier versions of the soap-addicted seventies mom who would blather endlessly about her "stories." In the same way that a housewife might daringly express her individuality by choosing, say, General Hospital over The Days of Our Lives, we're all expected to signal our high-low cultural with-it-ness by locating the Trollope in Glee or the Dante in Dexter.
Except, let's face it—a lot of the time it's sort of a stretch. In retrospect, was Lost really worth 100-plus hours of anybody's life? Is Big Love that essential? Is Hung worth getting so hung up on? And would all the time you've devoted to Entourage have been better spent hanging out with your own entourage?
In other words, maybe it's time to stop telling everybody just how much you've been gorging on TV.Read More:
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