The 8 Most Important Things to Happen to TV in the Past 5 Years

As I've mentioned previously, I teach an undergraduate class at NYU on TV Management. This week, our mid-term assignment is due -- a 10-20 page paper in which each student must propose and defend their choice for the single most important thing to happen to TV in the past five years.

Five years may seem like a relatively short period of history to explore; but when it comes to TV, five years is a lifetime -- a generation. In just the past five years, we've seen the emergence of true streaming television, the arrival of the iPad and ascendancy of Snooki. TV is like the weather in Florida -- wait a minute and it will change.

The students are not limited to any area or aspect of television. Their topic can be a technology, a trend or even a person. In the past, I've gotten a wide array of responses -- from the general to the specific and everything in between. The 'thing' they choose is less important than the argument they make and the research they offer to support their thesis. The rule is "Choose anything -- but prove it." The best paper I've gotten so far was on -- get this -- how Glee was indeed the most important thing to happen to TV in the past half decade. The author did not focus on the acting, the writing or even how the show championed the alienated or outcast, rather he highlighted the unorthodox way the show was launched -- a single episode at the end of one season, after the Finale of American Idol; followed by ubiquitous distribution online over the summer -- and how it created an enormous consumer market for a musical songbook long thought dead. In choosing Glee, the student focused not on its artistic merit, but on the business behind the series. While I did not agree that it was the most important thing to happen to TV in the past five years, I could not argue with the premise. He got an A+.

So, following the spirit of that A+ paper, I have assembled my list of the 8 Most Important Things to Happen to TV in the Past 5 Years. (Don't worry, the class has already handed in their papers, so they cannot crib my answers.) Why 8? Because that's how many I came up with. You may not agree with my choices -- this being the interwebs, I assume you will not. So I highly encourage you to list your top five in the comments below. You can grade me, and then I can grade you.


8. Louis CK: Yes, Louis CK. In just the past two years, this middle-age schlub of a comic has upended a number of long-held tenets of TV's conventional wisdom -- and not only because he masturbated on screen. Let's start with Louie, his unrelentingly funny show on FX. The show is ground-breaking on many levels.

First, it explodes the sit-com format to a greater degree than any show since Seinfeld -- the act structure changes from show to show, the acts often have nothing to do with each other; and it's funny in a real world way that most shows just... aren't. Second, he takes the role of auteur to a whole other level. He writes every episode, alone. He is the show's only director. He edits every show himself (on his laptop). He is also the music supervisor. He gets no notes from the network. By all reports, he does all of this at a lower budget than any other scripted show on TV. Oh, and the show kicks ass. Every studio and network should take notice.

And then there's the fact that he single-handedly blew up the TV Comedy Special as we know it. This past December, CK paid for and produced his own comedy special at the Beacon Theater. He then announced in a "note to the Planet Earth" that he was going to put his latest special up on his site for download. For $5. "No DRM, no regional restrictions, no crap. You can download this file, play it as much as you like, burn it to a DVD, whatever." He sold it at a "ridiculously low" price and then said "don't torrent it... please." Crazy, right? Crazier still, it worked. He brought in more than a million dollars in two weeks, gave a big piece of the proceeds to charity, another chunk to his staff and kept the rest for himself. To date he's close to 400,000 paid downloads. And in the process, he's changed the entire economic model of comedy specials and albums -- mostly by creating an economic model for stand-up comedy specials and albums. Jim Gaffigan has since announced that he's emulating the plan, as should every stand up on earth. Not since Richard Pryor: Wanted has comedy been changed so much by one recording.

7. Red Zone TV: Seriously, if there is a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, I have not found it. For many of us, Red Zone has forever changed the way we watch sports. For the rest of you, you either haven't seen it yet, don't like football or aren't American.

6. Mad Men: I will admit; I was skeptical that a show about an ad agency was going to stick. But AMC went for it, and that courage has paid enormous dividends. Only time will actually tell, but Mad Men may have done more to change television than any show since The Sopranos. It's not just the writing, or the impeccable style, or the four Emmys in a row -- it's all of these things. The elements in Mad Men aren't what make it revolutionary; it's the show's long-lasting residual effects on the medium itself. Mad Men has recalibrated the power paradigm of the TV ecosystem. Sure, HBO made great programming before Don Draper started swilling scotch, but HBO is 'premium' cable -- they have different economics. Conventional wisdom said "No basic cable channel could do that." And then AMC did. Now, every channel needs, wants and seeks "their Mad Men." Now it is an accepted reality that basic cable can create the highest quality shows on TV and win an Emmy, or four. And now the programming floodgates are open wide, with quality TV appearing on premium and basic cable at a break neck pace -- heck, even Netflix is getting in on the act. Mad Men proved that great programming takes a fair amount of cajones, but that it is not limited to Broadcast or Premium. And for that, TV will never be the same.

5. Twitter: Surprisingly, despite the DVR and the Netflix and the Hulu, there is a return to -- get this -- live viewing. A big part of this trend is the 'event program' such as The Oscars, the Super Bowl and The Grammy's, but it's true as well of series like Walking Dead -- record numbers versus the Grammys -- and Jersey Shore and others. The reason? There seems to be a direct link between a show's social graph and its live viewing. In fact, the data show that a 9 percent increase in 'online buzz' translates roughly into a 1 percent increase in ratings.

When I was young, my friends and I would have viewing parties of our favorite shows -- Moonlighting, Thirty Something, Seinfeld. Well, those viewing parties are happening again, only now they're happening worldwide, live, on Twitter. Whether it's Saturday Night Live, Two And A Half Men or The Voice, there's a Twitter feed during the show where the world watches as one and offers a collective live commentary.

Seriously, the next time you watch Real Housewives, Portlandia, The Walking Dead or any show, open up a Twitter stream with that show's name. It's unreal. From the catty (can you believe what she's wearing?) to the sublime (I LOVE THIS SHOW) to the openly robotic (repetition of lines from shows as they are coming out of the characters' mouths), the Twitter feed of a show is a couch and a water cooler merged into one. For those of us that cannot stand to be the last in the know, catching up later just does not measure up. Twitter may have helped start uprisings in Arab countries, but in America it's causing a revolution in TV viewing that is reinventing the very concept of event programming. Not quite the same thing as overthrowing a despotic regime -- but to advertisers and programmers, returning young viewers to live viewing is almost as big a deal. Thank you Tweeps.

4. Streaming TV: It would be hard to argue against the impact of streamed TV content. Each month, 165 million Americans stream 22 Billion videos. Netflix has nearly 22 million streaming subscribers, making it second only to Comcast. Hulu has 40 million users for their free service and more than one and a half million subscribers to Hulu Plus. Amazon is quietly getting into the business in a big way, announcing a huge deal with Viacom just last month. What's more, the gaming consoles have become big enablers of the streaming habit. XBox owners having increased streaming video via the device by 44 percent in the past year; Playstation users have increased video use by 67 percent and Wii owners spend one-third of their time on their devices streaming video -- up 60 percent from a year ago.

Interestingly, the average online video user streams five hours per month, as compared to the five hours per day watched by the average TV viewer. Online streaming has not nearly taken over the traditional role of TV. But it currently reaches one-third of all TV viewers on a weekly basis, and plays a role in how every network considers every single show. With Cable companies rolling out TV Everywhere over the next couple of years, believe it or not, the impact of TV Streaming is just starting. The next time I make this list, it's safe to say this will be higher on the list.

3. C3: In a great 2005 New York Times Magazine article, Jon Gertner wrote "Change the way you count and you can change where the advertising dollars go. Change the way you measure America's culture consumption, in other words, and you change America's culture business. And maybe even the culture itself." Amen, Brother. In 2007, America's TV networks and Ad Agencies engaged in a battle -- a battle for how we count who watches TV. While Cable fragmented audiences by genre, demographic and taste, DVRs (see #1) and On Demand did something more precarious -- they fragmented audiences by time. By 2007, Tivo and its kin were in only 20 percent of homes, but both advertisers and networks predicted a sea change in how people watched -- "if I can hit pause, I can also hit fast forward!" Advertisers only wanted to pay for people who actually watched their ads (go figure). Networks said "fine," but wanted credit for viewers up to a week after air date. After a protracted negotiation, they settled on C3 -- allowing networks to take credit for viewers who watched commercials up to three days after the initial airing. For some shows this is a boon (According to Nielsen, Real Housewives sees a 127 percent increase from Live to C3; Portlandia increases 129 percent; Beavis and Butthead increases 67 percent); for others, not so much (the Nielsen average for all TV, is a drop of 2 percent).

More recently, the advent of online TV Streaming (see #4), the increased availability of shows via On Demand, and the promise of TV Everywhere, make C3 an even more important invention than originally intended. C3 is number three, but the increasing importance of the multi-platform TV experience makes it #3 with a bullet -- while ensuring that the debate over C3, C7 and C30 is far from over. Change the way you count, and you change the culture itself.

2. HD : Yes, HD was introduced long before 2007. But in the past 5 years, High Definition has gone from being a luxury to being the norm. Penetration of HD TV crossed the 65 percent mark in 2010, reached into 70 million homes last year, and will likely cross the 75 percent mark in 2012. This has two major consequences: First, the increased theatricality of television has helped make TV the dominant media in the world. It has allowed for and demanded far more elaborate storytelling (Game of Thrones in SD? Please.) and helped TV eclipse film as the best moving images in the world. Second, it has completely moved the TV neighborhood -- who of us with HD starts their TV search in the Standard Def neighborhood? No one. In many cases the channel line-up has simply migrated from SD to HD.

For several networks, however, the rejiggering of the landscape has changed the natural order of things -- creating new beachfront property for some and new ghettos for others. Those who jumped into HD early have secured prime real estate, while those late to HD find themselves scrambling for a seat at the table. In the past five years, HD became the universal standard, and TV is a far better art-form for it.

1. DVR Usage The DVR was invented earlier than 5 years ago, but its evolution and impact over the past half decade has matured the device into the ultimate game changer. Unlike VHS, which left many consumers with a blinking '12:00' in their entertainment units, DVRs were easy to use and allowed for a delayed start to live viewing. Where VHS was a sometimes thing, DVR is an every night machine. Tivo had a great product for sure, but when cable companies started embedding DVRs into set-top boxes and allowed for dual feed recording, the technology reshaped TV perhaps more significantly than anything since the advent of the color set. And wireless whole-home DVRs have delivered many of us to the promised land. DVR penetration is still below 50 percent of TV homes (42 percent at last count), yet the time-shift effect on TV shows is beyond enormous. Broadcast network shows see a nearly 25 percent lift in viewership of premiere episodes, while many cable series see viewership double in the three days after premiere.

In fact, many nights the number one show at 10 p.m. is 'DVR'. But perhaps the most important consequence of the DVR invasion has been allowing for the discovery of new, smaller shows. If not for the time shift, certain shows would be lost in the night to night competition (just look at Sunday night alone!). The DVR allows audiences to watch their old favorites and still set time aside for new stuff they want to try. The NY Times wrote just this week about how time-shifting has even recalibrated the rankings of TV's most popular shows. (With most consumers calling their DVR a 'life changing device,' it make one wonder why half the country still has not gotten on board -- in Finland, for example, DVR penetration is at 70 percent!) If and when Cable companies roll out a box-free DVR service in coming years, be prepared to have your mind blown.

Disagree with the list? Think I missed something? What's your #1? Let me know!