The Two Things That Made The Decade of Peak TV Possible

They happened a week apart 20 years ago, and nothing has been the same since.
  • The Sopranos and TiVo debuted a week apart in 1999, setting the stage for all that followed.
    The Sopranos and TiVo debuted a week apart in 1999, setting the stage for all that followed.
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    For the past few days the people who write about TV (and everything else) have been leaning into end-of-the-decade narratives. And why not? Our screen-time habits today look nothing like they did 10 years ago. We’ve cord-cut and dumped our dishes. We now binge-watch so often, Netflix doesn’t even bother to ask “are you still watching?” We use our time in Ubers to catch up on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Perhaps most telling of all the changes are these things we all have called watchlists. They’re stuffed with shows from the past decade that we’d really like to watch ... as soon as we have the time.

    We’ve spent half of the past decade talking about Peak TV. And by all measures, the summit keeps rising. 

    So yes, the past 10 years have been huge. But I have to take exception with the explainers out there who are crediting Netflix with ushering in the Peak TV era. Netflix, Hulu, and all the other streaming services were actually late to the game. If we’re going to tell the full story of how we went from bored channel surfers to the most pampered leisure class in history, enjoying an embarrassment of fabulous entertainments all at the click of a remote or touch of a screen, then you have go back 20 years, not 10.

    It happened with two big bangs that occurred a week apart.

    The first big bang was the introduction of the digital video recorder, or DVR, at the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show. Within months these set-tops from TiVo and Replay were getting plugged into TV sets, including mine. To be honest, it didn’t strike me as that much of a game-changer, though it was definitely more convenient than setting the VCR. It was speedy — DVR listings cost $10 a month — and the software was kind of dumb. Early on it wouldn’t record the last two minutes of the Letterman show because it was convinced the program ended at 12:35 a.m.

    Unlike me, author Michael Lewis was not slow at all to see the revolutionary proposition of the DVR. “Anything you want to watch, when you want to watch it,” is how one of TiVo’s founders described their invention to Lewis in his prescient 2000 New York Times article. With just a few clicks, a viewer could record all episodes of a desired series forever, thanks to hard drives and the digitization of TV listings and show recordings.

    While the DVR was doing this, Lewis reported, it was also collecting viewer data and sending it to the cloud. Whoever owned the cloud could offer viewers a completely personalized experience with targeted advertising and recommended shows. Doesn’t sound like a big deal now — was a huge deal then. The TV networks realized this and gobbled up stakes in TiVo and Replay. Once bandwidth got big enough, Amazon, YouTube, and Hulu muscled in on the DVR’s turf. It was only a matter of time before original shows went to the cloud instead of through traditional TV networks.

    So now you could watch what you wanted, when you wanted. But what to watch? That brings us to the second seismic change. A week after the world was introduced to DVRs, HBO began airing The Sopranos.

    Here’s a little-known fact about TV before The Sopranos: A lot of it wasn’t that great. I did a story once about a group called Viewers for Quality Television, which was so appalled by the networks’ habit of cancelling even slightly above-average shows that they organized letter-writing protests to save them. Likewise, TV Guide started an annual Save Our Shows campaign in an effort to crowdsource support for low-rated series, and actually kept a few of them going (notably Party of Five).

    “Original quality programming does exist on alternative channels, and if the networks aren't going to air it, we’ll go there,” the founder of Viewers for Quality Television told me. But really, those were empty words until The Sopranos came along. Before 1999 HBO had a sterling reputation for quality. It virtually owned the movies-and-miniseries category at the Emmys, and The Larry Sanders Show was a widely admired, if not imitated, sitcom.

    But The Sopranos was something different. With its sprawling cast, sophisticated blend of violence and comedy, and above all its refusal to overexplain scenes, homogenize dialogue, or otherwise pander to its audience, The Sopranos ascended to a tier of quality that I think no one at the time really believed television was capable of. (Certainly Emmy voters didn’t — they kept giving the best drama award to The West Wing.)

    I wouldn’t say the floodgates opened after The Sopranos, but FX’s The Shield and ABC’s Lost, NBC’s Friday Night Lights, HBO’s The Wire and Six Feet Under, and AMC’s Breaking Bad and Mad Men all were built on a business model that expected challenging, high-quality television shows to find an audience. The quality-TV-viewer’s promise, “We’ll go there,” suddenly had teeth. Soon the cable networks were overtaking broadcasters in prime-time ratings, original programming budgets, and awards won.

    Then, and only then, came streaming. Starting with Netflix’s Lillehammer and Hulu’s Battleground in 2012, quality scripted TV began bypassing traditional channels entirely. Soon the streaming companies started delivering shows its customers loved in quantities never before seen. As viewers responded, creators pushed further, unconstrained by traditional TV boundaries like ad breaks and runtimes, creating a whole new lexicon for storytelling that combined the best of TV and movies.

    As for the DVRs, Replay vanished in 2011 and TiVo’s once-limitless promise has faded considerably (my essay is mostly channeling Simon Sinek’s much-viewed TED obituary for TiVo). Today, far more of us have Roku and Fire TV devices than DVRs, and almost everyone owns a smartphone, which does everything those devices can do plus order takeout food. All that being said ... streaming is not the gizmo That Changed Everything. In fact, I’m not even sold on Lewis’ argument that time-shifting is what changed everything.

    Everything changed, dear viewer, because you changed. You started to sample the much better TV shows a few creatives were finally able to put on, and you said, “More please.” It took more than a decade to get to this place where we are now, where no one person can possibly hope to keep up with all the great viewing out there. And yet ... you keep saying more.

    Peak TV isn’t going to last forever. The economics seem unsustainable. The question is, where do we go from here? When people 10 years from now (not me) are writing epitaphs on the 2020s, what will they say?

    Perhaps they’ll say something like, “Remember when there were a million great shows on and no one had time to watch them all? Now they just take the best ideas and make a lot fewer shows. The studios spend movie money on them and we all spend our movie money to watch them at home.”

    Would that be a better outcome than navigating today’s madcap marketplace of content — or worse? All I know is, you’ll be the judge.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: TiVo, Hulu, Netflix, The Sopranos