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TV Critics

What Makes Great Televison?

Eric Deggans compared the best TV shows to poetry. They don’t explain everything. But the messages are there to figure out, if you’re willing to apply some intelligence and observation as a viewer.

“A great TV show is entertaining, compelling and it helps if there is a deeper message to the show that is more sophisticated than just what you see on the surface,” said Deggans, TV and media critic at the Tampa Bay Times.

While the producers control everything that happens on a TV show, Deggans said they are almost always coming from the writing side of the industry.

“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, David E. Kelley and David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” are all writers and producers. And they controlled their TV shows.

So it’s no surprise that the best writing is on television these days.

“Writers just naturally go into TV because they can do ambitious work and be in control,” said Deggans.

There are also more opportunities in television than in the movie industry. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult and expensive to make movies these days.

TV critic and founder of online magazine TVWorthWatching David Bianculli, recalled the impact on the movie industry in the 1970’s after the release of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” These blockbuster hits began to roll out, attracting a male audience between the ages 18-35.

“The men keep getting younger and the movies keep getting stupider,” said Bianculli.

He said that the demographic is still important but there are different jobs and audiences to be satisfied.

“By treating different scenes of a television show as a novel, or parts of a novel, you can have a depth of character and story,” he said.

Appealing to the Masses

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“The goal is to appeal to as many people as possible as much of the time,” said Bianculli. “What’s weird about the model of HBOGo and Netflix is—you don’t have to do that.”

He’s talking about the revolution of the video experience. Streaming services such as Netflix, HBOGo and HuluPlus are appealing to enough people with enough different content to make the same amount of people willing to stay.

When he started writing, Bianculli said there were only three networks and public television. Today, technology has changed the traditional platform of entertainment by introducing several devices and services for television viewing. But even with so many options, the aggregate audience for any one thing is shrinking.

The mass-viewing experience is fading away. Instead of 30 million Americans tuning in to watch the newest episode of a hit TV show such as “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead,” it’s 4-5 million viewers.

“We lose a little bit of shared cultural identity and excitement that way,” he said.

Streaming killed the Cable Bill

We’re also getting used to not paying for entertainment.

“Why pay for something you don’t want, when you’re not even paying for things you desperately want?” said Bianculli.

More U.S. households are canceling their $150-200 cable bill and are looking for alternative platforms to watch what they want when they want it.

Americans’ television viewing habits indicate more content-based consumption rather than time-based. This a la carte approach to television viewing allows streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime to get to know their subscribers pretty well and cater to their needs effectively.

Immediate Release and No Ads!

It appears that streaming services are favoring the immediate-release strategy when premiering exclusive original content.

“This feels like the natural extension of where audience’s tastes are going,” said Deggans. “The question is: can you make money that way?”

Now viewers can decide how to consume their entertainment. Netflix released all 13 episodes of its original series “House of Cards.” Subscribers could choose to binge-watch the first season or spread the episodes out according to their own convenience.

With no ad interruptions and automatic advancement to the next episode, subscribers can indulge in a TV show for hours.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure from consumers to not have commercials on streaming services,” said Deggans. “And they’re going to have to raise fees for subscriptions and drop the commercials.”

Netflix has the Buzz

Netflix has been quick to dominate this evolving concept of television viewing.

Bianculli said that streaming services need to give people a reason to sign up. He compared the origins of television and satellite radio to the early phase of Netflix’ new original content model.

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Milton Berle gave Americans a reason to buy a television. Howard Stern gave Americans a reason to subscribe to satellite radio.

“It only takes a few things even in this crowded universe to differentiate yourself if you’re good enough and if you get enough buzz,” said Bianculli.

Netflix is buzzing.

Even if people sign up to the service for one TV series such as “House of Cards” and cancel once they’ve consumed it in a weekend, chances are the service will garner and keep some of the new subscribers.

“At some point it is always the content that matters, not the delivery system,” said Bianculli.

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He points out that the FX network didn’t exist until the first season of police drama “The Shield.” Now, FX is regarded as a quality network with TV shows like “Justified,” “American Horror Story” and “Louie.”

Eric Deggans is a TV/Media Critic for the Tampa Bay Times. He also creates commentaries about TV trends for NPR.

David Bianculli has been writing about TV since 1975. He is a TV critic on NPR’s "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" and he teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.