Imagine the gang from Friends, all '90s urban cool and youthful energy, clustered around a home computer watching American Idol on Hulu.com. That's the journey the small screen has taken in less than 10 years, transforming from the nation's communal hearth to a honeycomb of Web sites and cable channels primed to reward everyone's singular obsessions at once. These days, television feels like a medium in the middle — partway through a change that few fully anticipated, heading toward a future most can only guess. Rather than count down the best shows of the decade (The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, The Simpsons and Battlestar Galactica would top my list) here are my Top 10 things that transformed television:
The triumph of the consumer
1 There has never been a better time to be a small-screen junkie, thanks to cable TV services with hundreds of channels; free online services such as Hulu.com; DVDs; and pirated stuff on the Web. And as it gets tougher to draw an audience, whatever that audience wants to see is more likely to drench the tube. The downside: When the audience wants not-so-nice stuff, from an overload of celebrity news to an obsession with the Balloon Boy, they get that, too.
Debut of Survivor and the creation of so-called "reality TV"
2 Derided as a sign of media-fed social collapse in 1999, CBS's Survivor gave birth to a new form of TV, exploiting (I mean "discovering") real people in contrived situations calculated to spark real emotion. They are a younger generation's sitcoms and soap operas rolled into one.
Digital Video Recorders and commercial-skipping
3 It was just a matter of time before they invented a computer that could record TV shows with a button click, suggest new shows you might like and offer nifty coupons from Best Buy. But watching programs too long after they air dilutes the ratings, and skipping commercials discourages advertisers. Who knew every time you used a TiVo you might help kill free TV?
Fox News Channel and the rise of argument culture
4 Back when a Clinton was in the White House, Fox News founder Roger Ailes realized a huge portion of cable news consumers were older, more conservative and might like news presented the way they wanted to see the world. These days, Fox News is the most popular cable news channel on the planet, fueled by a heady mix of pandering, alarmism, video savvy and sharp points of view.
The popularity of Hulu.com and YouTube.com.
5 The day kids realized it was more fun to watch a guy plunk Mentos into a Coke bottle on a homemade YouTube video than endure the latest lame network TV comedy (which they could watch with fewer commercials whenever they liked on the network TV-owned Web site Hulu), the media business shifted forever.
The death of the network TV anchorman
6 Once filled by towering journalists with resumes that included coverage of World War II and Vietnam, network TV news anchors have somehow shrunk in modern times with their audience. When their toughest gig has been three days in Iraq's Green Zone and their audience is dying faster than new fans arrive, the writing's on the wall.
Broadcast TV flounders in digital universe
7 Broadcasters want cable companies to pay them for transmitting content they're already giving out free on Hulu and cell phones. Good luck with that.
Quality TV becomes just another niche
8 Midway through the previous decade, TV's most successful prime-time shows were also among its most-watched: Seinfeld, ER, The Cosby Show. But during this decade, all that changed. TV's most-awarded show, AMC's Mad Men, draws fewer than 2 million viewers each night, turning high-quality TV into a rarefied niche accessible only by paying cable fees.
The rise of cable TV
9 Because cable channels make money two different ways — from advertisements and fees from cable TV providers — they can support shows with much smaller audiences. Which means they can take more chances and focus on more loyal fans, something the umpteenth Law & Order series and The Jay Leno Show have trouble competing with.
Local TV downsizes
10 Digital technology brings us news, the recession decimates ad income and resulting layoffs push smaller staffs to mostly focus on crime stories and quickie features. The aughts have been just as tough for local TV stations as newspapers, stuck in a spiral of cost-cutting and reduced ratings. Here's hoping the next decade gives broadcasters a way to reinvent themselves that doesn't involve a giveaway or a hot new traffic lady.
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See The Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.