Some media theorists argue that the late 1940s to 1960 marked the Golden Age of television. That era featured many successful anthology dramas like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, and sitcoms that formed the basis of modern TV like I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best. The medium also shifted from live telecasts and reenactments of radio dramas to original programming made only for television. It ended the era of radio as the main entertainment form, and began something new.
Another popular theory, however, posits that the actual Golden Age of television is from the 2000s to today. High quality dramas—both in production and writing—have dominated the critical and popular circuits for the last decade. This trend began, arguably, with HBO’s The Sopranos and expanded over time to include shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Game of Thrones. These programs, largely the products of HBO and AMC, pushed the limits of television in terms of quality and content. There are also several “runner-ups,” which may not be as highly acclaimed as the big names but also fit the mold of high-quality TV drama, like The Walking Dead, True Detective, Hannibal, and BBC imports like Sherlock.
But of the big neo-Golden Age shows, the vast majority have come to an end and failed to produce comparably excellent series in their wake. Television is a more tempermental medium than film—a story might continue indefinitely through the seasons of a program, but any show can be cancelled at any time if it doesn’t make enough money. It’s entirely a game of numbers; something with a passionate fanbase can get cancelled after only one or two seasons, while a mediocre sitcom might get renewed for 10 years if it earns more. Nielsen ratings, a system that measures television audiences, largely determines what gets axed. These calculations are mostly based on “share,” or the percentage of TV sets in the country tuned in to a specific show when it airs. It is possible, therefore, to have an audience that is larger than its actual share, especially in the digital age when it’s incredibly easy to pirate or just watch on an internet platform after they’ve already aired. This unreliability in TV ratings and the resultant audience disappointment when shows are cut short or rushed to an end has given new power to what may be the next era of entertainment: internet television streaming.
When a major network cancels a show, it’s no longer necessarily a death knell. Internet streaming services don’t just stream easily accessible re-runs; they have the power to continue production on whole projects. Netflix produced a fourth season of cult hit Arrested Development, and Hulu picked up The Mindy Project last year. These continuations are not the only powers of these internet platforms—many sites, especially Netflix, now produce original programming that rivals that of any major television network.
Netflix has won over 30 awards, including four Emmys, for its original show Orange is the New Black. Other company originals like House of Cards, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and documentary series like Making a Murderer and Chef’s Table have proven to be incredibly successful. The site’s original documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? and original film Beasts of No Nation were both nominated for Oscars in 2016. Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube Red, and many other websites may not have as much successful original programming as Netflix, but they are all expanding their content at a rapid pace.
So what, exactly, does internet-based television have to do with TV’s Golden Age? It seems to be part of a historical pattern. When one medium begins to become outdated, it goes out with a bang and ushers in something new. Just as radio gave way to television, perhaps cable television will give way to internet TV. This doesn’t necessitate the death of the old medium — TV shows no signs of collapsing as a billion-dollar industry any time soon, and even in 2016 people still listen to the radio. It seems almost certain, however, that a change is coming. As television’s best shows come to an end, perhaps the Golden Age of online TV is just beginning.