The ‘New’ Golden Age of Television

Written by Jessica Hanlon.

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It takes a brave man to get up in front of a room of TV executives and tell them, “It’s the creatives, stupid!” Well, no one can tell Kevin Spacey he isn’t brave. At the Edinburgh TV Festival last week, Kevin Spacey used his honour as the James McTaggert Guest Speaker – the first actor to ever be bestowed such an honour – to encourage the television executives in attendance to embrace creativity, not only in content, but in form and presentation. In his speech, Spacey spoke of TV’s entry into a “third golden age” citing shows such as Mad Men, Oz, The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Rescue Me, Six Feet Under, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire and of course his own new series House of Cards as examples of shows that highlighted the creatives as king of television. These shows and this belief in the creatives is, according to Spacey, what has led the medium of television to emerge into its own in recent years and seen it eclipse film in terms of character driven drama.

Such success however, is not without warning. Spacey made it clear; to give the creatives the freedom they need to create these shows and expand TV even further, broadcasters had to be “willing to take risks, experiment, be prepared to fail by aiming higher rather than playing it safe … We need to surprise, break boundaries, and take viewers to new places.” Fear to do so, he asserted, could leave networks and programmers behind. Creativity also needed to be considered in the way TV was shown to audiences. It is no longer enough to air a show on one network at a certain time every week. Rather, he argued, TV executives need to adapt to the shifting sands of technology and the ways that viewers want to binge on their favourite shows; on the Internet, Apple TV and DVD box sets.

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Spacey paid homage to House of Cards network Netflix, and said that the internet video-streaming service, which makes entire series available to watch in one sitting, had shown one thing: “The audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House of Cards – then we should let them binge.” He made the model simple, learn from the mistakes of the music industry; give the audience what they want, when they want it, in the way the audience wants at an affordable price and people will pay for it. He acknowledged that piracy is and still will be an issue for television executives to deal with in the future, but at least by adapting to the changes in technology and audience needs, piracy could be restricted.

He then went on to criticise the US TV network obsession with pilots and the pilot season, commenting that it forced writers to reduce their story in a 45 minute plea for audiences to like their established characters and “arbitrary cliff hangers”, and prove that what you want to do will work. He again praised Netflix for not backing the pilot model and believing in House of Cards without seeing a pilot; “Netflix was the only network that said, ‘We believe in you. We’ve run our data and it tells us that our audience would watch this series.” He furthered his criticism of the pilot model by arguing that not only was a pilot taxing artistically, but was also financially. By his calculations, 113 pilots were made last year, 35 of which were chosen to go to air and 13 of those renewed. For comparison, this year, 146 pilots were shot and 56 were turned into series. “The cost of these pilots was somewhere between $300 million and $400 million each year,” he said. Comparatively, his own House of Cards two 13-episode season $100 million deal speaks for itself.

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He concluded by contrasting this approach with cable channels HBO and AMC, which gave critically acclaimed shows such as The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad the space and time to build an audience and develop creatively over several seasons. Spacey held Breaking Bad up as an example of cementing the ‘Netflix effect’.  “What Breaking Bad’s rather late-in-life explosion in audience teaches us is that these shows need to be treated as assets to be nurtured, protected from the quick network trigger that can bail on a show before it has the chance to find its feet,” he said. “After all, The Sopranos audience took four seasons to reach its apex, Seinfeld took a nearly five-year route to big time ratings — its first four seasons didn’t even get it into the Nielson top 30.” He claims that like Netflix, broadcasters should give television shows the time they need to be appreciated as art.

As the artistic director of the Old Vic theatre, an Academy Award winner, Golden Globe and Emmy award nominee, Spacey clearly knows his stuff. His speech, which was punctuated with references to cult classics such as Hill Street Blues and his own experiences with television legend and personal icon Jack Lemmon, is a thoughtful and provoking piece on the changing nature of television as a medium of entertainment. In light of the upcoming 65th Annual Primetime Emmy awards, where Netflix have made history by being the first broadcaster nominated for original online only web television, his musings are certainly accurate, if not foreshadowing of a change which seems here to stay.

Here is Kevin Spacey’s full James McTaggert Memorial Lecture Speech.

– J.H.

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