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Feature || Television 2.0

Back in the equatorial timeframe of the previous century, the mode of popular, private entertainment that began to eat its way into the pantheon of leisurely visual pleasure had been a little thing called ‘television’.

The ills and ails of the medium has been a focus of discussion even as sweeping terms such as the ‘idiot box’ or the trusted consort of the proverbial ‘couch potato’ failed to deter its popularity and keep it from drawing rooms all across the globe.

A victim of rampant exploitation it has certainly been – a tad more abused than any other medium of ‘art’ that preceded its coming. Giving birth to the chaotic vagaries of advertising bent on earning the ‘quick buck’, desensitizing generations to mindless drivel via soaps or skewered depictions of reality, even neutralizing the magical allure of the silver screen – its crimes have been as true and as many as its virtues.

Television has been a tough nut to crack for many who have excelled and set gold standards in cinema or theatre. Yet, for more than form or content, it has been the ‘dumbed down’ culture of popular TV, amenable to the diktats of advertisers and shady ‘ratings’, that has resulted in television being a haven of mediocrity.

It may be true that even in a sea of insignificance, one can easily spot a ‘Game of Thrones’ or a nifty ‘Modern Family’ among the millions of cloned droplets of ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’. But that has not slowed down the surfacing of ‘cult classics’ – critically acclaimed gems, shut down post a season or two thanks to a decision solely by numbers.

Numbers do not lie, they claim, and the little truth that they do propagate is that of an unfair assumption, where success is too often its popularity index, diluting or putting in jeopardy the very possibility of the niche and space for something that would go on to be an ‘acquired taste’.

The emergence of the uber-digital age, where many came to regard the computer as a one-stop for all of one’s entertainment requirements, threw up a surprising alternative to television viewing as audiences have come to know it for decades.

The inception and subsequent popularity of streaming services for network TV shows not only sent the entire ratings system into complete disarray but also created a virtual platform for shows that could nigh get produced thanks to business decisions that are neither sound on paper nor in private.

TRANSPARENT: Not only did Jeffrey Tambor’s transgender act fetch him both the Golden Globe and the Emmy, the show was the first, produced by any streaming service, to win Best Series at the Golden Globe Awards.

These shows, the majority of which has been commissioned by either of the two streaming giants in the business – Netflix or Amazon video, vary tremendously as far as their subject matter is concerned. While there have been critically lauded and awarded, sensitive comedies such as ‘Transparent’ (featuring the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor) & ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ (co-created by Tina Fey), there is also space for an alternative take on post World War II history that re-imagines the fate of the world where the axis powers have won the war (‘The Man in the High Castle’, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name) and a saga of power play in the highest echelons of the American government – the Kevin Spacey-starrer ‘House of Cards’.

Progressive studios such as ‘Marvel’ has already recognized the potency of handing over the reins of episodic viewing to the final viewers   instead of whimsical networks and their schedules, choosing to test the waters by releasing two highly anticipated and acclaimed shows via Netflix – ‘Daredevil’ and ‘Jessica Jones’, while Amazon has succeeded in pulling off a coup of sorts – convincing veteran auteur Woody Allen to take the first step into the world of episodic storytelling.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE: A painstakingly constructed glimpse into an alternate history of North America in a world where the Axis powers have defeated the Allied forces in World War II

Whereas Mr. Allen’s vocal concerns and nearly neurotic criticism of his own work reemphasizes the notion that smarter intellect cannot measure up to the consistent pressure of television which calls for necessary ‘compromise’ on several planes, it can be said without much room for debate that ‘content for television’ supplied via the internet has put an ultimatum in the court of the big networks, whose employ of simple mathematics when it comes to artistic decisions has signaled the premature demise of countless potential works of higher art.

A disturbing fact remains that such tyranny of network TV is not restricted to the US and exists in nearly every part of the globe, including India. Even though YouTube has inculcated the habit of ‘streaming’ in erstwhile tele-addicts in this part of the world, one is yet to see the emergence of a service dedicated to tread the unbeaten path such as Netflix or Amazon has done on the other side of the world.

The Star Network’s presence on the internet – ‘Hotstar’ being an extension of the network’s extant policies rather than a revelation, and the fact that Netflix’s recent entry into India is presently restricted to the bouquet of its existing shows sans quality local content, means that the pie that may very well be Television 2.0 is up for grabs for the next bright era of executive decisions and entertainment par excellence. []

First published in Issue #3 of CultureCult Magazine (Winter 2015-16)