- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

We could forgive the major networks for slipping into creative irrelevance in the face of competition from cable’s bold and varied programming and, more recently, Internet-driven content.

Instead, the big four — or five if you count the fledgling CW — have fought fire with fire, creating a Golden Age of Television 2.0 that rarely gets the credit it deserves.

Sure, every network has its stinker or three, but just look at some of the shows currently available — ABC’s “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” Fox’s “24,” “House” and “Prison Break,” CBS’ “CSI,” “How I Met Your Mother” and, most recently, “The Unit,” and NBC’s indefatigable “Law & Order” franchise, to name a few.

They draw huzzahs from both critics and Joe and Jane Sixpack — often deservedly.

And it isn’t all just innocuous, time-wasting fare. “ER” recently addressed the tragedy in Darfur, “24” confronts terrorism while feature filmmakers cower, and “Law & Order” rips so many stories from today’s headlines the franchise should join the Newspaper Guild.

Douglas Gomery, professor of media studies at the University of Maryland, says today’s programs are “more complex visually, [and] feature more exciting characters that are more well-developed” than past shows.

“This is the golden age of television,” he says. “It’s now.”

Viewers can thank in part the proliferation of cable channels for the boost — but not necessarily for the reasons one may think.

With so many channels available, and with viewers lumping broadcast and cable outlets together, viewership per channel continues to shrink, Mr. Gomery explains. Networks can’t count on the colossal ratings they enjoyed in the pre-cable era — and therein lies a source of artistic liberation.

What was once a small audience share is respectable today. This, in turn, Mr. Gomery argues, affords television executives a new luxury: No longer needing to command mass audiences with each new series, they no longer need to water down programming to reach the broadest possible market.

Instead, they are able to selectively target demographic niches.

The niche especially coveted by advertisers comprises affluent, educated people ages 18 to 49 who are still young enough to be flexible in their tastes and brand loyalties. “That’s what ‘Law & Order’ hits, what ‘CSI’ hits,” Mr. Gomery says, explaining that “advertisers pay a disproportionate fee to reach those people.”

Television now regularly draws filmmakers — David Mamet created “The Unit”; Jerry Bruckheimer is the executive producer of the “CSI” franchise — into the fold. The result is better-produced programming.

Box-office titans like Mr. Bruckheimer bring the tricks of the big-screen trade with them. That, combined with digital editing techniques that keep prices from skyrocketing, means that, in terms of production values, the average television show looks more like a movie than ever before.

“Prison Break” creator Paul Scheuring recently took in the big-screen remake “Poseidon” and walked away without seeing a single new idea.

“Television,” he says, “is willing to take more chances.”

“I’m accustomed to the notes given by studio executives,” says Mr. Scheuring, who also works in feature films. “They absolutely strangle the life out of any story.”

In sharp contrast, he says, the television executives at Fox offered very few notes for his first season of “Prison Break.”

Mr. Scheuring argues the current TV landscape is a far cry from the “safe and cliched” programming of the 1980s and ‘90s. “You might attribute some of television’s [current] golden age to the ballooning budgets of features,” he says. “Corporations have so much money on the table now for [films like] ‘Spider-Man 3’ they become increasingly conservative. Film becomes what TV was in the ‘80s, vanilla and boring.”

Another factor in television’s creative renaissance can be tracked back to HBO, one of the earliest cable channels to provide nuanced shows and specials.

“Any kind of movement begins with revolutionary thought,” Mr. Scheuring says, referring to a small cadre of HBO talent in the mid-1990s who created quality shows audiences were ready to embrace. “They were the rock that started the landslide.”

Competition may be spurring success, but in one example it’s the lack of it that has opened new avenues.

Dr. Neal Baer, executive producer of NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and one of “ER“‘s original writers, says movies have ceded social-issue stories to his medium.

“Movies once were in the forefront dealing with really tough issues like alcoholism or war or racism,” says Dr. Baer, whose “SVU” series has confronted gun violence, end-of-life issues and designer babies this season alone. “Now, movies are tentpole features to draw the biggest crowds.”

Asked about the impact of premium cable programming on the broadcast world, he cites some “cross-pollination” of talent between the two arenas, which may be stimulating the dramatically richer content now flourishing on the major networks.

The current television scene is far from perfect. For every “Lost” there’s a “The War at Home” still on the schedule, and too many formerly hot shows like “Will & Grace” linger well beyond their sell-by dates.

While ABC’s “Emily’s Reasons Why Not” may not have deserved more than one episode before getting canceled, the networks are still too impatient with new shows trying to find their audiences.

But the shows that do make it past their first few episodes, more and more, are programs worthy of our leisure time.

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