The Golden Age of TV: America's TV Revolution

What television (and its viewers) can do to advance diversity.

Photo Credit: Photo: Nensuria via Getty Images

| March 07 2017,

11:15 pm

In 2015 TV experienced a renaissance, or revolution of sorts. From Scandal to the massive hits, Power and Empire, TV became more like the diverse viewers across the country. CNN also took to calling 2015 the "year of the African-American viewer", due to Empire's success and shows like it. In other words, new faces were in the television world, not just on the screen, but in the writer's room. It was the sign of more to come. It also invites the question of how we got here and what's next. Are the diverse shows truly a shift in modern American television or a one-shot bubble ready to burst at any moment?

In today's world, it is no surprise we have a variety of tech at our disposal. In previous rounds, audiences used to watch television on a TV set, on cable or on paid channels. Now, with the rise of digital television, TV has taken on new forms unlike anything prior to it. TV, in the modern sense, is now supplemented, or in some cases, replaced, with online streaming services. "The landscape of television has changed in large measures thanks to the introduction of online streaming hubs like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime", writes Jason Parham, senior editor ofThe Fader in his essay for WIRED's September 2016 TV-themed issue. "The sweep of shows across legacy networks, scrappy cable channels, and streaming services is as robust as it's been in decades". Because of this increase in quality television programs across these formats, experts have taken to calling this particular period, "the golden age of television". Despite the term "golden age" being more cliché than any other term in human history, it is one way to describe what we, as viewers, are starting to see more of. 

Younger viewers (18-24) tend to gravitate towards online or digital television via streaming services (usually Amazon Prime, Hulu, and/or Netflix) that offer both original television programming and films, as opposed to a TV set. However, in certain cases, viewers watch television through a TV set and streaming services, combining the two. New terms that relate to TV such as "binge-watching" has entered the common language among viewers. This is most likely due to the new program structure that differs from broadcast television. When watching shows on TV, episodes are typically shown on a weekly basis. To use an example of this, Empire is a show that appears on the cable network FOX on Wednesdays at 9:00 PM, EST. If you are a loyal viewer, you would tune in on that day and wait for a new episode the next week (at the same time, of course). Netflix, on the other hand, operates differently. A television program would be filmed/produced for a period of time, and the show's episodes are all shown on the hub at once. This means that you can watch an entire season of a show to your heart's content, without the need to wait for a new episode. The only downside to this would be the issue of "spoilers", especially if it is a show with a large audience. Whereas, on broadcast TV, you have a week to be briefed and can avoid spoilers.

This process is very appealing to viewers, more so, if the program has an excellent narrative or premise. It has proven to be one of Netflix's strongest and notable features and one that has brought unique results. In 2015, Netflix's original series, Marvel's Jessica Jones, based on the Marvel comic series, Alias, won a Peabody for its vivid cast of characters, neo-noir tone, and exploration of social issues -- such as sexual assault and PTSD. 

While all of these achievements are remarkable and impressive in equal measure, it is also reminiscent of a distant time in TV's history. In the 1990s, United Paramount Network (which is no longer running) or UPN for short, was known for featuring black sitcoms and programs. "UPN's show creators and staff writers rendered black Americans in full, vibrant strokes", Mr. Parham recalls. "These were not tales of the exceptional but of the mundane". Iconic shows that were broadcasted on UPN included, but are certainly not limited to, Moesha, Malcolm & Eddie, The Parkers, and Girlfriends. These shows are not only notable for the prominent feature of black actors, but for its vibrant narratives on the day-to-day lives of African-Americans, and the variety of themes and issues explored: from working-class angst and the lifestyles/drama of teens to black businesses and a modern, revamped take on African-American women. "The image of the black woman morphed and expanded before viewers' eyes- she was loving, she was witty, she was vulnerable, she was free", as stated by Mr. Parham on the topic of the show Girlfriends

While images such as these create a sense of nostalgia and awe for its efforts, it should be stated it has been two decades since these shows initially appeared (UPN is no longer on the air). These shows have been succeeded by newer entries such as Atlanta, Power, Orange Is The New Black and others. This new generation of television shows is an all-star lineup of its own. However, there are still challenges and issues that must be addressed before television can truly become a form of media that is welcoming to the wide variety of viewers in the nation. In WIRED's TV issue, data is presented that shines a light on this issue: "in a March 2016 report by the Writers' Guild of America, West found that minorities account for 13% of television writers and 'remain underrepresented by a factor of nearly three to one'". The issue also found that on shows on broadcast television, "minorities are underrepresented 11 to one". For viewers, a Nielsen poll showed that "African-Americans and Asian-Americans have both become a larger share of the viewing audience and 1 in 5 viewers are now Hispanic/Latino". If television truly wants to become as diverse as the people who watch it, new programs have to be created to reach these rising audiences, and efforts to increase diversity behind the scenes of these shows have to be increased. 

Another challenge is not only to open the doors to more minorities and women but in creating and expanding the depth of the stories we see. "Shows like Empire and Power, traffic in a one-sided notion of black affluence: their protagonists acquired wealth through illegal means- selling drugs", says Mr. Parham. "America's middle class is rapidly dissolving, yet few shows engage the country's working poor (one example is FX's Atlanta). Despite TV's current gold rush, shows fail to portray the full plurality of our day-to-day existence". Lee Daniels, the creator of shows Empire and Star, spoke to WIRED about the state of TV in America. In the article, Mr. Daniels stated, in reference to Empire, that "working on a story that culturally has a black voice is very tricky. This isn't make-believe. This is real-life stuff we're dealing with, even if tongue-in-cheek. You can't write what you don't know". On the goal of appealing to viewers, Mr. Daniels advises that "a smart creator who wants his or her show to thrive has to be honest to the characters. If they're able to write in an honest way about the people you have created, then you have half the chance of telling the truth".

While it is important to celebrate the new voices on TV, it also falls on the new viewers in America to hold these creators accountable to the goal of creating works that not only are rich in depth and scope but features diverse teams, both on and off the screen. "It's time to ask ourselves what new stories should be told and how creators will go about telling them", writes Mr. Parham. The consumer has the power to apply or take away the pressure to improve performances and raise the status quo. In other words, viewers have to be active and vocal in how stories are made and who should be the ones to tell them. 

The question of whether or not we are in a "golden age" of television in America is really up to both the viewers and creators to answer. As viewers, it is important to make demands for better, in-depth stories that represents a multicultural audience and to do so in numbers. For creators, the doors have to be opened to create a wider variety of voices and thinkers -- from the director's chair to the writer's office. This is a process that should be embraced as it has the potential to create a long-term impact on future storytelling and the unique cultures we all share. As WIRED's TV issue states, " The burden shifts to all of us, not just the networks and creators, but consumers whose support ultimately dictates a show's success. After all, a renaissance is only as meaningful as the art that defines it".