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March 5, 2018 | by  | in Arts TV |
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How Cable Television Ushered in the Golden Age of Modern Television

Free from the constraints of ad revenue and network executives, cable television, through a subscription-based and commercial-free avenue, brought a new type of long-form storytelling, which elevated television to a position alongside film — no longer its tackier younger sibling. Unlike network television which generally earns its revenue from the commercials that feature in between and during shows, cable is available behind a paywall, and is only available to the customers paying for it. Such a format means that cable television and the shows it produces are not subject to the wider censorship and content requirements that the more publicly-viewed network shows are.

In the late 1990s, television networks began developing a formula for easily digestible, one-off reality shows, medical dramas, and police procedurals, where the success of a TV show was dependent on its ratings rather than its quality. The network industry was centred around widely accessible television that didn’t challenge, offend, or confuse the viewers but ensured high levels of viewership, both for the shows themselves and the commercials which were running simultaneously. While this was happening, the minds behind cable television were taking an altogether different approach to their content.

With cable television not constraining itself by adhering to network television’s views on censorship, viewers were treated with stories spanning an entire season or series, with darker, grittier characters, and conflict taking centre stage. The level of creative and narrative freedom given to showrunners provided more room for strong character development, complex plot progression, and high-level tension, in part accommodated by an absence of commercials. This content-focused approach brought a level of depth not yet seen in the realm of television. Underpinning the freedom given to creators and the stories they tell is the paid-for subscription and commercial-free format of cable television, which allows for more attention to be given to consumer demands and interests, and in turn, rewards audience loyalty. HBO and other cable networks saw the value in producing quality content that a certain number of people would be willing to pay for. From HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire, to AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and more recently, FX’s Mr Robot and Fargo, the focus put on unheroic protagonists, whose potentially questionable motives are able to be explored and explained, has ushered us into a golden era of modern television.

The Sopranos, debuting in 1999, set a benchmark for quality television, and ultimately deconstructed what a television show could be. Juxtaposing violent mob life with emotional family drama through the eyes of crime leader Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini in a career-defining role), the 6-season long show produced an epic series that neither network television nor film could match in either narrative or scope. The show provided social commentary on the US’s different cultures, generational gaps, and religious thought in a manner that elicited a strong human emotional response from its viewers. And despite such commentary, it was a show fully capable of offending and distressing viewers; a type of show that would never have suited the broad and accessible content dominating network television. Yet you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could turn it off, evidenced by its unprecedented acclaim and consistently high viewership numbers.  

The risk HBO took in producing this show paid off, obliterating the walls constructed by network television for the benefit of quality programmes. For cable shows, of which there a large number now, the only real benchmark is that the work is good enough, so the customers come back.

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