I HAVE A confession to make. It's 2019, and I don't know what television is anymore.
Oh, sure, I know what a television--the physical object, the thing you order from Amazon after checking it out at Best Buy--is. I am even reasonably comfortable with the notion of shows or series, those half-hour and one-hour productions that come in sequential, chapter-like installments, much like they did 30 or 40 years ago when a handful of broadcast networks ruled the airwaves and pay cable channels such as HBO and Cinemax were still niche services for well-off movie nuts and people too embarrassed to rent softcore porn at video stores. (Remember those?)
But television! As a concept? As a means of cultural connection, a system for mass entertainment? A way of organizing the world, or at least the weekday hours after dinner and before bedtime? I have no idea what that is. It's too vague, too sprawling, too unwieldy, too individualized and demographic-specific. Yes, there are still broadcast stations, and if you stick an antenna on your window, you can still tune into them over the air. It's like connecting to some ancient cellular network that only has four apps, all of which are basically the same. But when was the last time you watched something that way? Even street people and survivalists have 5G now.
These days, television--whatever it is--is on your phone, on your PlayStation, on YouTube, on your laptop, and even, sometimes, on your actual television, the big thing you bought from Amazon. TV is increasingly indistinct from the world of big-budget Hollywood feature films and also from big tech, which now makes shows, the things you watch, in order to sell phones, watches, diapers, plush toys, and lunch boxes. On occasion, TV even seems to be melding with video games and vice versa. You can consume as much of it as you want, from virtually any place you can imagine, on anything that has a screen. TV is everything now, and everywhere, an amorphous cultural and commercial blob backed by billions in tech and media spending. Its cultural dominance is unchecked by anything except your own time, and it is increasingly tailored to your unique interests and obsessions.
Yes, I'm talking about Netflix, the streaming video goliath that introduced us to binge-watching, and Stranger Things, and binge-watching Stranger Things. But I'm also talking about the elephant stampede of high-profile streaming video services set to launch in coming months--which include Apple TV+, Disney+, Peacock, HBO Max, and something called Quibi-as well as existing services, from the recognizable (Amazon Prime Video, Hulu) to under-the-radar offerings from the likes of Vudu, Crackle, Facebook Watch, and Vizio's WatchFree. Television, to use a reference that somehow made the leap from the days of broadcast dominance to the social media present, has not just jumped the shark. It is the shark. It is chewing up everything in its path. And the streaming era has only just begun.
ALL YOUR FRIENDS
IN THE OLDEN days, before the internet, before smartphones, when a television (the object) was something you had to buy at a store, it was easy enough to understand what TV was: three networks broadcasting shows--scripted dramas about police and lawyers, laugh-track comedies about dopey dads and housewife moms, deadly earnest news programming, and only slightly less earnest comedy talk--that felt more or less the same. Television producers pandered, not necessarily to the lowest common denominator but to the widest. Airtime was limited, so their goal was to produce material that would serve everyone, or as close as they could get. Television defined the American median. It was something we could all talk about together.
There was a comforting sense of homogeneity to the TV of this era. It didn't ask too much of you, and it was always there when you needed it, a friendly and familiar presence. It wasn't designed to be great; it was designed to be consistently fine.
The apotheosis of this style of television was the long-running, insanely popular 1990s sitcom Friends, a show that lit-eralized the idea of what television was in its title. Friends was a show about a bunch of attractive and mildly glamorous but essentially ordinary white people hanging out and talking about their lives. It was a show you could watch and engage with but also one that you could just have on as background noise, with the characters' idealized, fictional...