The 2010s started with broadcast and pay-TV ruling the world. They ended with streaming and downloads, and still broadcast and still pay-TV, and probably 100 other things we won’t even realize are important for another ten years. The world of television changed massively in ten years. Let’s take a look at how.
On January 1, 2010
In 2010, all of the top reality television shows —Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Big Brother, The Amazing Race — had already debuted. But, TV was still pretty conventional. In fact, 2010 seemed like peak reality TV. American Idol was the top rated show, and four of the top ten shows were reality TV (or unscripted TV as we really ought to say, acknowledging that these shows are nothing near to reality.)
In 2010, we learned how good production values could be, because we’d been watching Mad Men. We learned how to collaborate to learn fan theories over the internet, because we’d been watching Lost. (Although Lost was in its final season, it had yet to destroy itself with its patently terrible last episode.)
But, in 2010 the world was filled with what we could call conventional television. All thirty of the top-rated shows were on broadcast TV. Absolutely no new shows were binge-watchable. In fact that term hadn’t even been invented.
It was actually impossible to watch a full hour of television on your phone, because your phone couldn’t store it and there wasn’t an effective way to stream it.
And, while we sometimes watched reruns or movies on TV, we spent most of our time in the evening all looking at the same screen and all watching the same stuff.
Ten years later
You might look at the way things are today and think not much has changed. The Nielsen people will tell you that all of the top 30 primetime programs are on broadcast TV. Reality TV has gotten less common, with only one reality show in the top 10 of the 18-19 season.
To really understand the decade, though, you have to look at the numbers. The top-rated show in 2010 had an average rating of 13.7. This means 13.7% of the people watched it. The top rated show of 2019 (thus far) has an average rating of 10.9. Only 10.9% of people watched it. That’s down by about 25%.
If you look at the top 10 shows, 2010’s have a combined rating of 102.4. This number doesn’t mean much by itself because these shows didn’t all air at the same time. But, compare it to 2019’s top 10 rating of 94.9. Now it gets meaningful. People didn’t stop watching one show on TV. They stopped watching primetime network TV. And you know why.
The rise of streaming and “quality TV”
Of course we all know that the way we watch TV has changed. More of us stream, more of us bingewatch, and more of us watch what we want, when we want. Fewer of us worry about being in front of the TV during primetime.
In the 2010s, we not only streamed old shows, we streamed originals. And, the quality of those originals was objectively better. The writing on Orange is the New Black, the production value of Game of Thrones, the sheer cinematic quality of Homecoming. Think about how none of these shows existed in 2010 and how each redefined our expectations of what television could be and what it could show us.
Still, I think one television show really defines what the 2010s were in terms of television. In its way it could be the best show that has been made up to this point, but that’s a matter of some contention.
I’m talking about Breaking Bad.
The story of Breaking Bad is the story of TV in the 2010s.
Breaking Bad premiered on AMC in 2008. The network was still known for showing mostly old movies, although it had its first success with Mad Men. It was an odd idea: a science teacher, blindsided by healthcare costs, makes drugs with a former student and sells them. The first season was actually pretty funny.
Like many shows, Breaking Bad was affected by the writers’ strike of 2007. It meant the show’s first season was very short by 2008 standards: seven episodes.
People didn’t really find this show in the ’00s, and it owes almost all its success to that most 2010s of trends: streaming.
While critics loved Breaking Bad, its complex stories and odd style didn’t encourage people to come into the show in the middle. With most 2000s shows you could dive into season 2 or 3 and still get the basic gist. Not Breaking Bad. But then, you didn’t need to. I, like most people, found the show on Netflix and got caught up. The seasons were short and dense, making them perfect for bingewatching.
By the final season, which was really two mini-seasons in one, everyone had clued in. The show had its own “aftershow,” another concept that didn’t exist in the ’00s. It was a certified phenomenon. I told the story when it happened, in a blog post which you can still read.
Breaking Bad couldn’t have happened without Netflix, without social media, and without bingewatching. It couldn’t have happened a decade earlier.
I’ve gotta mention Game of Thrones
While Breaking Bad is a tidy little package of all the trends of the ’00s, it wasn’t the dominant show. HBO’s Game of Thrones premiered in 2011 as a low-budget medieval fantasy drama. By its end in 2019 it was the pop culture phenomenon of the decade. It made stars of every one of its major players and it turned our expectations of television upside down.
Game of Thrones introduced you to major character after major character and then killed most of them. You didn’t do that in the 2000s. It rarely if ever explained what was going on or who the characters were. It was practically impossible to really understand without some sort of web page open explaining it all.
Game of Thrones’ final season cost more than most movies and was so hotly anticipated that its premieres would crash local internet service providers. Each episode premiered with a lot of bonus content as if it was a movie in and of itself.
Like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been possible in the ’00s. It was too dense, too weird, too violent, too sexy, and too deep for anything but HBO and the world of streaming. Interestingly, after early seasons which were both bloodsoaked and excessively clothing-averse, later seasons would turn to plot and character in order to move things forward. The show became, in many ways, more conventional in its presentation as it went on.
Anywhere, anything, anytime
This brings us to the cusp of 2020. Today you can watch literally anything you can think of, regardless of how obscure your taste. You can watch it on an 84″ screen or a 4.8″ one, your choice. Watch at the earliest possible moment or years later. Watch every episode one after another, or one a week. You have choices today.
TV show producers have choices today they didn’t have either. They can stay on broadcast TV, meaning a bigger reach but some restrictions on what they can show. A show can be sold to a network, a pay TV company or a streaming one. They can produce seasons as short as they want, or a “full episode order” as it used to be called.
In the ’20s, it’s going to be all about choice. And friends, that’s a good thing.