Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Television's Third Golden Age: What Is It and Where Is It Going?

One of the events we host during Duluth Dylan Fest each year is a Dylan-themed Trivia Night at Carmody's, a pub in downtown Duluth. The event is usually well attended and sometimes even packed.

This year's Trivia Night was different. The place was nearly empty. Why?

As it turns out, it was the last night for this season's Game of Thrones, which averages over 25 million viewers every Sunday night for HBO. Zounds! This incident speaks volumes about the power of series television.

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In the mid-90s, when Michael Crichton spoke to the National Press Club he declared that because of the Internet, television would be a dinosaur in less than ten years.

What really happened was the emergence of what many are calling the Third Golden Age of Television, characterized by season-long stories year after year. The innovation and long-form story telling combined with multiple methods of streaming media has generated a wide range of new opportunities for creative expression.

This past year I read the book Difficult Men by Brett Martin, a deep dive behind the scenes a deep dive into the inner workings of television characters and storytelling, and cultural influence, in what he terms the Third Golden Age of Television. The book's aim is to examine the elements and era "that made it okay for intelligent people to like television again."

For most of my adult life I've avoided television. Privately, however, I became immersed in the show Mad Men, following it through six seasons via DVD.

One of the big surprises in this era of series television is how big screen stars have been swimming back to this form of storytelling. It used to be that television was where you started, hoping to be cast as a "big name" on the silver screen. Today there's no disrespect for assuming roles in series television.

Some, such as French scholar Alexis Pichard, prefer to call this the Second Golden Age. All agree that the Fifties was an explosive golden era where producers relentlessly explored the possibilities of this new medium.

I asked Hollywood insider Katie Strand to weigh in on all these thoughts.

EN: What's your take on what's happening in Hollywood today as regards series television?

Katie Strand: I’m very curious to see how the film and television industry evolves considering how drastically different things are than they were – not only since the 50s, but even since the late 90s when the internet became ubiquitous.

Almost everything is related, and nothing evolves in a vacuum. Television's changes are directly related to the invention and rise of increased internet speed and bandwidth. It’s also related to the advent of video tape, making television a more affordable medium, accessible to creators and consumers.

The entrance fee to make a project went from tens of thousands (for the camera, film stock and processing), to thousands (for the more affordable consumer video-cameras, tape stock, analog and digital processing/editing), to now being able to shoot and edit a project with a device that fits in your back pocket, that you already own for other reasons, and then stream it directly online! It’s unprecedented! Never in human history have we been able to directly and quickly reach this large a worldwide audience with our visual ideas and stories.

The actors making the move to television, or episodic projects, may not have all of this in mind, but they’re certainly doing what artists throughout history have done…

You’re correct that actors used to take TV roles to gain notoriety so they could act in films. Now, we see many movie actors working on series projects. People like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts and Billy Bob Thornton, who were pretty exclusively film actors on movies that played in movie theatres, have all made the transition to work on streamed and episodic projects.

The same is true behind-the-scenes. Many Directors, Producers and DPs (Directors of Photography) who only worked on theatrical films are switching to episodic projects. What do artists do? Myself included!? We go where the work is… Where we can not only make a living as an artist, but also (hopefully) do our best work. We’re looking to thrive. We’re looking to explore and evolve in our creative work, expression and collaboration…

The talent and workers are…. Going where there’s work. Right now, that’s in “television,” or episodic projects, the majority of which are available streaming immediately or shortly after their premiere.

Additionally, I’ve experienced and heard from industry colleagues and friends that many of the newer streaming platforms (though they’re currently being bought-up by bigger entities, for example Disney’s purchase of Hulu), give creators more freedom. Netflix is notoriously more hands-off on the creative process.


One of the chief complaints of creatives working on network projects is the “notes” from the executives to change their story, dialogue or characters… Most creative view these “notes” as a nuisance, from uninformed and uninspired “suits” or banking-type-businessmen who “don’t know the first thing about storytelling or filmmaking.” (Here I’m using filmmaking as a generic term for any TV/film medium.) With some of these new “networks” (“streaming platforms” is a more apt title, henceforth SP) like Netflix and Amazon, the creator’s experience seems to be less protracted and disrupted, with these SPs being more hands-off, fluid and supportive when there are “notes.” These SPs who don’t have traditional corporations or production studios, but have a platform and direct-to-consumer distribution, have become big-players in an industry that was extremely difficult to be any kind of “start up,” being that six major companies (like Time Warner and Comcast) essentially own the multitude of cable stations and media outlets.*

What all this means is: we may not only be in the Third Golden Age of Television, we might be experiencing and witnessing a whole new ballgame as far as the production of image-plus-sound-based storytelling and how those stories get to our viewers.

I remember as a child being fascinated and curious about many things, but especially my senses and storytelling. I longed to smell what Julia Child was cooking and touch what Bob Ross was painting or pet the squirrel he rescued. I wanted to go on a field trip with Mr. Rogers to smell the wood and hear the sounds of the pencil factory. I wanted to raise my hand and ask Carl Sagan questions about stars and planets and the Cosmos. I wanted to be in the scene in the Wizard of Oz, singing and dancing with Dorothy and the munchkins… It’s worth noting here that we were a PBS-household when I was a kid – our TV perpetually stuck on the local WDSE. My parents rules and TV time-limits didn’t apply to PBS shows!

I thought we’d have smell-a-vision by now. For anyone living in a cave (how are you reading this?), we don’t! We’ve had virtual reality and 3D video systems for a few years and 360° cameras, but they haven’t taken-over the way streaming “shows” or episodic projects has… The future of Hollywood and television is exciting and multi-faceted and we probably can’t fathom how it will all evolve. Perhaps there will eventually be smell-a-vision. Perhaps with virtual reality we can experience things (way) more exciting than one of Mr. Roger’s field trips. All I know is, I remain curious, and largely grateful to be a part of an industry and time in history where we’re seeing such rapid and monumental changes and shifts in our creative communications and storytelling.

* https://www.webfx.com/data/the-6-companies-that-own-almost-all-media/

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Katie Strand is a member of the Catalyst Festival team. This year is their 14th annual event, October 9-13 here in Duluth. For information about how to participate or get involved visit the Catalyst website here.

HERE IS A LINK to the PRODUCTION GUIDE Page that lists the kinds of skills and needs they want to have listed in the guide, as well as contact information for Katie Strand, Riki McManus and Keely Gelineau. https://www.catalystcontent.org/production-guide

Related Link
New York Times: 20 Best TV Dramas Since The Sopranos

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