Friday 12 March 2021

Divergent Evolution of Television

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, cable television systems moved to digital delivery and expanded
(Image via Pintrest

beyond their original constraints of 35 channels. Technological optimists began to dream of a 500-channel universe.

In 1979 alone, ESPN, C-SPAN, Nickelodeon, The Movie Channel, and the USA Network all hit the airwaves. There was to be a channel for every audience, and an audience for every channel. In 1992, American science fiction fans received their own dedicated channel, while the Canuck equivalent began operations in 1996.

Many imagined that this fabled 500-channel universe would provide a practically unlimited number of high-quality television shows. We would be able to flip channels almost endlessly until we found the content we desired. In reality, and at its peak at the turn of the millennium, there were in excess of 68 million cable subscribers in the United States, and in most parts of the country consumers could access a roughly similar platform of 60 or more channels.

There is good reason why this stretch of time saw an equivalent diversification of genre fiction; almost three times as many prime time science fiction dramas premiered on television in the 1990s as had in the 1970s. Throughout this flourishing of genre fiction, the majority of it was broadly available to middle-income American viewers who had a basic cable package that included the Sci-Fi Channel.

Even a show on the Prime Time Entertainment Network (one of the most marginal networks of the day) reached enough viewers to garner a few Hugo Award nominations for J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5.

There were, however, inequities within this distribution model. People living in some remote areas might not have had access to Star Trek: Voyager when UPN started broadcasting in 1995. People living in Canada were largely unable to access the TV show based on the Jean Claude Van Damme movie TimeCop. Among English-language entertainment, British television series remained significantly less
Only nine episodes of TimeCop
aired before Universal decided
to #DefundTheTimePolice.
(Image via YouTube.)

accessible due to differing frame rates and lack of distribution outlets across the pond. Channels were usually bundled rather than being offered à la carte. If you were interested in The Secret World of Alex Mack, you might find that it was on a channel that wasn’t in the same bundle as the channel airing Weird Science: The TV Series.

But despite these relatively small gaps, for the most part there was a common technological platform, media provider, and billing system that handled all media.

The proliferation of streaming services that media consumers are now experiencing is fundamentally different from the growth of niche-content channels in the mid-1990s. It’s worth discussing these differences, as they could be seen to encourage compartalization, and perhaps even a sort of tribalism, across science fiction fandom.

These streaming services should not be compared to individual television channels, but rather to cable packages. Thus, we have not reached the fabled 500-channel universe, but rather a balkanized media landscape made up of a variety of 30-channel universes.

These 30-channel universes are not segmenting the market in the same ways that niche cable channels did; rather they are organized around broad-based appeal, each aiming to build momentum off the strength of three items: a tentpole science fiction series, a relaunch of a 1990s sitcom, and a buzzy prestige drama.

Disney+ was launched on the strength of a new live-action Star Wars show. Apple+ was launched by
How many goodly channels are there here!
How beauteous streaming is! O what a Brave
New World
that has such content in it.
(Image via

hiring an acclaimed Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica creative force to craft a much-hyped science fiction project. Peacock was launched with a high-budget star-laden adaptation of Brave New World. Every platform has a band of content for situation comedies, high-brow dramas, reality shows, superhero shows, and cop shows. It is not segmented by interest, but rather segmented by brands that are all trying to compete for all viewers.

It is not reasonable (or for most of us economically feasible) to subscribe to every streaming service that’s offering something we might want to watch. In an average American city, the combined price of Netflix, Hulu, Apple+, Disney+, Paramount+, Amazon Prime, basic cable, HBO Max, Showtime, FX, Peacock, and STARZ will exceed $1,300 per year. It is therefore likely that most fans will pick and choose their streaming services based on which tent-pole productions they are most interested in. If The Mandalorian and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds are must-haves, then Tales From The Loop and For All Mankind will likely fall by the wayside. It is a sad truth that many technologically adept fans may end up illegally downloading other shows when more moderate, collective pricing might increase both audience and corporate profits overall.

This fragmentation is compounded by the unrelenting deluge of content that is being generated every year.

Ignoring all reruns, in 2009 there were 210 scripted English-language prime-time television series on the air in the United States (a total that fails to include reality shows, daytime dramas, or children’s series). This is an enormous amount of content; it would take you 4,380 hours to watch it all. By 2019, the amount had more than doubled. (It’s worth noting that up until the Pandemic, this growth in high-budget content creation had been mirrored at the movie theatres, with the number of theatrically released movies increasing from 520 in 2009, to 792 in 2019.)

Looking just at science fiction and fantasy, the number of English-language genre shows premiering in a given decade has quadrupled since the 1980s, from 50 to more than 200. When we consider the increasing globalization of science fiction, and the need to include multicultural voices in the awards system, the numbers would be staggering.

The era of “Peak Media” presents a significant obstacle to those who wish to use the democratic forum of the Hugo Awards to celebrate the truly extraordinary storytelling achievements of this era of small-screen entertainment.

One of the great things about the Hugo Awards is the democratic nature of the institution. But access to information is a requirement of a functioning democracy … and in some Hugo categories, access is in decline.

There was a time when it was reasonable to assume that most Hugo voters would have access to a representative sampling of dramatic presentations, either by passive choice or osmosis. Today, it requires more effort, more attention, and more willingness to step outside of our comfort zones.

The increasing segmentation of the television marketplace into streaming fiefdoms is making it more difficult for a worthy series on a less-popular streaming service to break through to broader audiences. No matter how great a science fiction show might be, it has next to no chance of connecting with enough Hugo Award voters to get on the shortlist if it is a Peacock Original.

There is already a significant overrepresentation of well-established franchises on the shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form). By our count in the past decade, more than 70 per cent of finalists in the category have come from long-running multimedia franchises.

It appears that Hugo voters will sign up to Disney+ to ensure they keep up to date on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars Galaxy. There is reason to worry that the award could devolve into “the best show in the walled garden that most Worldcon people subscribe to.”

The evolution of television is diverging. Our collective imagination is the habitat of cultural myths, and as this habitat becomes fragmented, these myths might speciate.

1 comment:

  1. to your point...I never saw an episode of brave new world