From streaming services and on-demand programming to the rise of edgy, boundary-pushing dramas and comedies, few things have changed more radically in recent years than television.
Once considered a second-rate medium by actors, producers and the viewing public, TV has undergone an aesthetic renaissance in the last two decades. Accomplished actors, directors and screenwriters now flock to the small screen, seeking to tell their stories on growing, risk-taking networks like AMC, HBO and Netflix.
Those shows – like AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad – have since begun to pile up awards and accolades, ushering in what many have called a new “Golden Age” for the old idiot box.
That idea, along with the myriad hurdles, challenges and adaptations that have accompanied TV’s 21st century evolution, was the basis of an Aug. 9 Lifelong Learning program hosted by Ed Carroll, chief operating officer for AMC Networks.
Carroll, who oversees operations for all AMC Networks brands, including AMC, IFC, SundanceTV and BBC America, has been instrumental in developing some of the nation’s most popular and critically acclaimed television series, including The Walking Dead, Portlandia, Doctor Who, and the aforementioned Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
The presentation, co-hosted by Brookdale’s Lifelong Learning division and Vonage, offered community members and TV fans a unique glimpse behind the screen, where content creators and network executives are busy adapting to an ever-changing media landscape.
“There are more networks that are trying harder to make higher quality shows than ever before,” said Carroll, speaking to a crowd of nearly 70 attendees at Vonage’s corporate campus in Holmdel. “So as a consumer, you have more choice. But also, the definition of a hit has changed.”
In the 1960’s, Carroll said, there were roughly 52 million American homes with a television set. The nation’s top rated program – Bonanza – drew 19 million viewers, each of whom were watching in real-time, on the same channel. Today, he said, there are 116 million homes with a TV, but the top rated scripted show – NCIS – draws roughly 12 million viewers.
As the range of channels and viewing options expands, networks and streaming services are focusing less on mass appeal and more on inventive storytelling, Carroll said.
“Today, a streaming service would be happy for a show to do over a million viewers. That’s success for them,” he said. “That was failure not that long ago. Those shows would have been ripped off the air. Mad Men would have been ripped off the air if it had come along a decade earlier.”
While American viewership may be spread thinner than ever before, network executives are now afforded the freedom to take chances on shows that would never have been considered in decades past.
When considering the pitch for Mad Men, a series populated with womanizing, chain-smoking, habitually deceptive advertising executives, Carroll said he couldn’t find a friend or potential advertiser who thought the show was a good idea. It went on to win the Emmy Award for best dramatic series, slowly earning millions of fans who loyally tuned in week after week.
“Today you could not sit on a script like that. It would just be gone,” he said. “There is an arms race… So if you are a writer or a producer, it’s a great time.”
Carroll also took questions from the audience about network practices, advertising tricks, censorship and the future of television. The revolution, he said, is likely to continue.
“It is possible that one day we will think of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon as the new ABC, CBS and NBC, and there will be a whole bunch of niche streaming services, designed for different interests,” he said. “Just as cable put broadcast television on the run, we are now seeing streaming put cable on the run.”
That, according to many in the audience, may not be a bad thing. In introducing the presentation, Brookdale Lifelong Learning Director Linda Martin explained how the changes in television production and distribution are actually being driven by viewers themselves.
“All of us in this room have been watching TV for years, some of us for decades. But while we have been watching television, television has been watching us,” Martin said. “What do we want to be, and what do we want to see? Whereas TV was once a community event, it’s becoming increasingly personal.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Fair Haven resident John Chiarella, who attended the program to learn more about the evolution of the medium and how his favorite shows made it to the screen.
“I thought he did a great job of distilling how complex the inner workings of network TV can be,” Chiarella said. “It’s really intriguing how the ratings have gone down but the shows have gotten better and more diverse. And you realize that a lot of the best shows might not have existed if it weren’t for one decision at the right time. Like with Mad Men and the rise of anti-heroes, how so many people thought audiences wouldn’t root for guys like that. Now everybody is into them. It was really interesting.”
Prior to the presentation, audience members were also treated to refreshments and a guided tour of Vonage’s state-of-the-art corporate campus.
Browse the catalog of upcoming Lifelong Learning programs here.
Check out more photos of Ed Carroll’s presentation here.