The Golden Age of Cable Programming

Lately, I have been reading a number of media writers who have labeled our current period as the “Golden Age of Television.” While I can certainly understand the sentiment, textbooks already refer to the Golden Age of Television as the period from about 1948 until 1960. A brief review of other “Golden Ages” in media leaves me reluctant to award any time period with that label. However, if we must take that approach, I think it is much more accurate to call the present time the “Golden Age of Cable Programming.” There have been several Golden Ages and each was identified by outstanding content and innovative technology.

The first Golden Age of electronic media was the “Golden Age of Radio,” which started about 1928 and ended in the early 1950s. The first radio networks connected America through NBC, CBS, ABC and the Mutual Broadcasting System, which helped forge our national resolve as we entered World War II. Radio developed the genres for scripted programming that would later define early television—drama, comedy, westerns, mysteries, games shows, news, sports, music and variety shows. Radio programming told a story that we could only envision in our imagination. Radio technology was simple, but it changed our lives in profound ways.

Television, of course, would overcome radio as the preferred story-telling device in the 1950s. The first television programs reflected the tastes of the majority of viewers, which was in and around the New York area. Elected officials, as well as the FCC, hoped television would enrich the lives of its citizens through “enlightened” programming. Indeed, there were a number of award-winning, one-hour, live dramas that indicated television could fulfill this higher calling. An assortment of Broadway plays, Shakespearean theater, classic ballet, music from Carnegie Hall and Arturo Toscanini filled the screen; but is this what people really wanted to see? Broadcast television needed to appeal to the widest possible audience. As a result, television rapidly spread across the country, which seemed to push programming into what some called “the lowest common denominator.”

As we moved through the 1960s and ‘70s, television changed. It was no longer about quality programming; it was all about the numbers. It seemed Americans wanted to escape the social upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s. Consequently, networks responded with “mindless television,” which became the norm. As consumers compared what they were watching in the 1960s and 1970s to the 1950s, many yearned for a higher quality of entertainment. Even the FCC Commissioner called television a “vast wasteland.” This resounding lament prompted scholars to dub the earlier decade of the 1950s as the “Golden Age of Television.”

Cable programming eventually presented alternatives to broadcast television in the 1970s and 1980s. The promise of cable programming centered on the concept of diversity—quality programming that would serve the preferences of individuals. CNN, The History Channel and The Food Channel all developed programming to serve niche interests. In the original drama category, HBO’s groundbreaking series “The Sopranos” opened the door for what is now deemed some of the best content ever produced. However, content alone does not define a new age of television. As with the previous “Golden Ages,” it is important to look at the advancements in technology. The current technology is more than television; it is the integration of television and broadband.

The Golden Age of Cable Programming can best be defined as the period which started about 2007 and continues today. While the starting date is somewhat arbitrary, this time period includes the series “Mad Men” (AMC Networks), which redefined basic cable. The technologies of today—Video -On-Demand, TV Everywhere, the Internet and social media—all contributed to the success of this award-winning show. Cable programming today exceeds what we once knew as cable television. The model used by cable networks allows for a shorter season, which has attracted some of the best writers, producers, directors and actors. The quality has never been higher and the technology has never been better. Welcome to the Golden Age of Cable Programming.

(Larry Satkowiak is president and CEO of The Cable Center, the nonprofit educational arm of the cable industry. The Center preserves cable’s enduring contributions to society, strengthens relationships between cable and academia and unites the industry around the advancement of exceptional customer service. www.cablecenter.org)

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