In the days of my youth I was shown what it means to be a man.
No, wait. That’s the opening line to Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times.” Sorry, let’s try this again.
In the days of my youth, I witnessed a titanic struggle. It wasn’t the first of its kind, but to a kid growing up in the early ‘90s, it felt like the alpha and omega. I’m talking, of course, about the console wars fought between Nintendo and Sega. That corporate battle for the minds and hearts of young kids set the tone for how tech brands would think about their (increasingly younger) consumer base. Exclusive titles (or even exclusive features, like Mortal Kombat’s “Blood Code” for Sega Genesis) could sway kids to one side or the other, and both companies knew that once that first system was plugged into the ol’ TV, they’d earned themselves a fiercely devoted brand loyalist (I remember touting the virtues of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and mocking Earthworm Jim with no small amount of vigor).
Those days are over. Nintendo’s off in family game time-land, and Sega’s been bought and sold more times than your mother. (I’m SO sorry; I don’t know your mother at all. What a horrible thing to say. I’m sure she is — or was, sorry again — a lovely person.) Microsoft and Sony have taken their places, but they seem way less interested in actually establishing supremacy than in accumulating the wealth of a small nation through micro transactions and churning out enough sequels to make Hollywood blush.
Yes, the console wars are over. But the people who lived through their heyday (including yours truly) are witnessing a new (and yes, more interesting) corporate battle: the TV wars.
At one time, the phrase “the TV wars” would’ve meant a battle for viewers between the four networks. A little after that, it might’ve meant throwing in cable channels and even a subscription service like HBO. But it still wouldn’t have been much of a war. With so few outlets for TV shows (not to mention the pervasive notion that TV was so many rungs below film in terms of prestige that every self-respecting actor, writer, and director in Hollywood was scrambling to get off the small screen and onto the big), “losing” the battle for ratings or critical acclaim meant you still had an enormous percentage of the public’s TV-watching eyeballs, even if you didn’t have to try very hard to get them.
Those days are over too. Sure, from a ratings perspective, the networks still win (although not by as much as they once did, and thanks in large part to NFL broadcasts, which routinely top the ratings during the fall and winter), but there’s no question that they’ve lost in other, arguably more important arenas — with critics, awards, and the kinds of viewers who drive the TV-centric conversations on social media.
Let’s start with the critics. And, let’s note here that “critic” doesn’t just mean snooty columnists from dying forms of media anymore. The kinds of outlets that Metacritic rolls into their ratings metric include a whole bunch of websites where really smart people are writing thoughtfully about media of all sorts, all while embracing the fan-culture perspective that has emerged almost entirely because of the internet. What Bill Simmons did for sportswriting, sites like the A.V. Club have done for film and TV.
So anyway: the critics. A quick glance at Metacritic’s highest rated shows from the past few years makes it painfully clear that the most acclaimed shows no longer live at the networks. In fact, you have to go nearly 40 spots down the list before you see a season of a network show from the last five years (ABC’s American Crime scores an 85). Amazon, FX, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, the BBC, IFC, the CW, FXX, Bravo, Comedy Central, Starz, and Showtime all have seasons rated better, and many of them have more than one. HBO has seven. FX has eight. The reasons for this dominance are well documented. These so-called alternatives to traditional networks offer more flexibility and artistic control to actors, writers, and directors, and they’ve entirely removed the stigma of TV as a lesser opportunity than film. They’ve beaten the networks at their own game from the standpoint of programming quality, all while rewriting the rules of an entire industry.
Now for the awards. Let’s just use the past three years, since that’s really when the streaming services became full-time players in the original programming game. We’ll use the Emmys, because although they aren’t a perfect measurement of a show’s success or greatness or whatever, they are still the industry standard recognition for work well done. Here’s how the last three years shakes out in terms of Emmy wins by each network/service* (these numbers only reflect the telecast awards, which don’t include a lot of technical awards; they’d be even more lopsided if I’d included those, for what it’s worth).
HBO: 23 wins
FX: 11 wins
AMC: 7 wins
ABC: 6 wins
CBS: 6 wins
PBS: 5 wins
Netflix: 4 wins
Amazon: 4 wins
NBC: 3 wins
Fox: 1 win
Yikes. Now, the networks do a little better here, but I’d argue that award ceremonies tend to be pretty conservative. That’s why Beck won that Grammy for Best Album and a movie like The King’s Speech (which is well done but safe) wins Best Picture at the Oscars over edgier, more ambitious films. In any case, prestige dramas on cable networks win the day, while streaming services see their influence grow. None of that’s good news for the old guard.
Lastly, there’s the least precise, but potentially most important metric I’d use to determine who’s winning the TV wars. Call it juice, call it heat, or call it swag, it’s that indefinable sense of cultural importance that simple critical acclaim, award wins, and raw viewership don’t quite provide.
For example: Game of Thrones is responsible for a lot of HBO’s recent Emmy success, it’s the network’s highest-rated show, and it’s done pretty well with critics. But none of that really gives a sense of just how meaningful GoT is in a larger sense. Like, that show matters. People are naming their kids after characters, every episode creates a tidal wave of conversation on social media, writers across the internet devote thousands of words to recapping every week’s twists and turns, and fan sites offer fresh conspiracy theories every day. The People vs. O.J. Simpson is great TV (hence its critical acclaim, etc.), but it doesn’t matter to people like GoT.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the means to quantify a show’s big picture significance. There’s no meter that can determine just how deeply felt a given show is. I’m sure somebody could calculate how many articles have been written about each big deal show and factor in the number of mentions across social media, but I am not that dude. Instead, I’ll just go with my gut. Is that fair? No, but I’m the one whose put 1200 words into this thing so far, so I’ll take a few liberties and not feel too bad about it.
What does my gut say? It says that in the last 5 years, the following shows have mattered more than any others: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, VEEP, The Daily Show, and Scandal. Arguments could be made for Transparent and Empire. Totally unscientific? Yes, but there you have it. By that entirely made up final measurement, we can score another one for cable and HBO, with the networks getting just a taste of life at the top.
And frankly, that’s where I think we’re gonna stay for a while, with Netflix and Amazon getting in on the action with increasing frequency.
So does any of this get us any closer to declaring a winner in the TV wars?
It’s a trick question. None of these companies is winning. They’re just fighting the war. We’re the ones winning. We’ve got brilliant creators being given heretofore unthinkable creative license to create bold, diverse, complex pieces of art, delivered into our homes at the press of a button, on our schedules. Just as Nintendo and Sega pushed each other in the early 90s, so this collection of original content providers is pushing the development of a frankly embarrassing amount of great TV.
Long may they fight.
*Numbers courtesy of Deadline