Cable TV Winning Big Audiences
For TV, it was a decade of "Lost" and found.
At the broadcast networks, which saw their overall numbers drop by around 8 million viewers, it was 10 years of ratings decline. Yet if those viewers were lost to broadcast, they were found by cable - and what those viewers found was an ever-expanding range of choice.
But don't cry for broadcast yet. They may be smaller fish, but they're still by far the biggest in the electronic pond. (Even in this decade of dispersion, 52.5 million people watched NBC's 2004 "Friends" finale, a number unlikely to ever be matched by a cable series.) And the upside to smaller ratings: Lower expectations allow shows to thrive that would never have survived back when every series had to be a blockbuster.
So, what did the 2000s bring to TV? Here are six trends for the 10 years:
'Lost' and the rise of the Internet
This was a great decade for drama, with shows like "The Wire," ''Rescue Me," ''Boomtown," ''Battlestar Galactica," ''Mad Men," ''24," ''Grey's Anatomy," ''True Blood" and "Pushing Daisies" all making their debut after 2000 (and 1999's "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos" just missing the cutoff). But if you want one show to represent the stretch, go with ABC's "Lost" for its sweep, grandeur, ambition, achievement and ability to play by, and yet ultimately alter, commercial TV's rules.
Though quality clearly matters most, "Lost" also owes its success to timing. "Lost" was designed to create and encourage passion just when advertisers became willing to reward passionate viewing. And that passion has been amplified by the decade's booming commercial arena: the Internet, which enabled fans to focus (some would say obsessively) on the show's myths and feints and allowed the writers (some would say obsessively) to plant ever more clues for those fans to find.
It has created a community unlike any other - and it's one of the reasons "Lost" will be one of those series people cherish and remember for decades to come.
'American Idol' and the triumph of reality
We've always had shows that featured "real people" (including the '80s show "Real People"); we just didn't think of "reality" as a genre. Not, that is, until 51.7 million people watched Sue and Richard on CBS' first "Survivor" finale in 2000, and networks suddenly realized the dramatic potential of snakes and rats.
So the floodgates opened, and as long as you avoid drowning, much of the water is fine. Look at the epitome of the genre, "American Idol," and consider not just the stars it has launched and the entertainment it has provided, but also the impact it has had on TV. Without "Idol," Fox is not the top-rated network - and un-Foxian, serious hits such as "24" and "House" never take hold.
If talent shows, dating shows and contests were all reality had to offer, we'd be fine. Unfortunately, there was also an MTV show called "The Osbournes" that inspired a thousand faux biography series, starting with almost-celebrities, moving to people related to celebrities, and now landing on people who are simply desperate to be celebrities. Which is why no triumph is ever celebrated unanimously.
'CSI' and the popularity of procedurals
"CSI" did not invent the procedural (a self-contained show that follows the procedures used to solve some mystery, usually but not always a crime). What it did was reinvigorate the form with newly invented forensic techniques for solving crimes and newly invented TV techniques for showing them. The result? One of the most popular and influential shows of the decade.
An instant, unexpected hit, "CSI" helped CBS end NBC's Thursday hegemony and fueled its climb to the ratings peak. Its influence extends from the obvious clones - two more "CSI"s and two "NCIS"es - to pretty much every mystery on the air, from "Bones" and "Numb3rs" to "Cold Case," ''Castle" and "House." Even the show's look is influential: Every time you see a bullet plunge through skin into some internal organ, you're seeing "CSI."
'Mad Men' and the dramatic growth of basic cable
In 2000, when you said "cable series," you pretty much meant HBO, which started the decade with holdovers "Sex and the City" and "Sopranos" and quickly added "Curb Your Enthusiasm," ''Six Feet Under" and "The Wire." The network remains a factor, but the energy and the Emmys moved to basic cable. From pioneers such as "The Shield," ''Battlestar Galactica" and "Monk" to current standard-bearers "Rescue Me," ''Breaking Bad," ''The Closer," ''Damages," ''Burn Notice" and Emmy champion "Mad Men," basic cable has come into its own as a source of original programming.
The basic networks found an economic sweet spot between premium and broadcast, producing fewer episodes than broadcast and doing so much more cheaply than both. Many of the shows are light "blue-sky" entertainments (such as new USA hit "White Collar"), but at the networks' best, they've also found an artistic midpoint, series that are smaller, often more somber and leisurely than ratings-driven networks shows can be, but more commercially viable than HBO's more esoteric offerings.
'Leno' and the fall of NBC
How disastrous was this decade for NBC? In its final season, "Friends" drew more viewers than all four of NBC's current Thursday sitcoms combined. The network hasn't produced a single true scripted hit all decade (with the possible short-lived exception of "Heroes"), and doesn't have a single scripted show in the season's Top 20. The only two achievements current management can claim are dismantling a "must-see" lineup that had lasted 20 years and "super-sizing" sitcoms, a creative nadir that masked and exacerbated the network's failure to create new hits.
That's until this year, when NBC turned five hours of prime time over to "The Jay Leno Show," horrendously damaging the rest of its schedule, its affiliates' local news, its own late shows and NBC's and Leno's reputations. It's not just that the show is awful and a failure, though it's a failure of historic proportions. It's that it's lazy, cynical and ill-conceived, which was pretty much NBC's trademark for the past 10 years.
DVRs and the impact of timeshifting
From a business standpoint, this decade may end up mattering less for what we watched than for when and where we watched. Most of us still watch shows as the network gods intended: on our TVs, when they air. Even those increasing numbers of us who have recording devices use them to watch semi-live, adding in a 15- to 20-minute delay to bypass commercials.
But changes are coming. In the next decade, our ability and propensity to watch anytime and anywhere is likely to grow as TVs and computers combine and delivery to handheld devices becomes more sophisticated.
One thing, however, will remain the same: There's no such thing as a free program. People who think otherwise, who think they'll be able to see any show they want without watching ads or forking over some fee, are kidding themselves. You'll pay for shows in the coming decade, or you'll no longer have them.
It's as simple as that.