Is TV timeless in the age of Netflix?

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With limitless streaming and hundreds of channels, will Breaking Bad really still be your favourite show in 20 years’ time?

The year is 2040. Imagine that your favourite television show has been permanently wiped from the face of the planet, never to be recovered. Imagine if Breaking Bad has vanished without a trace, and is now reduced to a topic on internet forums, where people get together to see if they can trace down any surviving material, rummaging through dusty, obsolete hard drives found in run-down old attics. Imagine that only four episodes of Gossip Girl have survived, and season nine of Friends has been lost. If nothing else, you would either have a sense of the preciousness of any surviving material, or you would no longer care, with time and thousands of new television shows having dulled your memory and your fondness for your once favourite television shows.

The BBC’s wiping policy in the 60s was unforgiving, dismissing television as something for the moment, to be enjoyed only until the next great thing came along

In our modern world (back to 2014 now) of excessive choice, box sets, media franchises, and hundreds of television channels, we are gluttons. We want for nothing and we crave everything. We gobble up 200 episodes of The Simpsons before Family Guy comes along. After we’ve downed 200 episodes of Family Guy, we await the next big thing, before necking it until we decide it no longer does anything for us. We stream dozens of box sets online that satisfy our insatiable thirst for entertainment, whilst executives lose sleep trying to come up with the next big thing so that we don’t revolt through boredom. Television is part of the throwaway society; television shows are transient. As one reaches its end, another comes along to replace it. Television has become like instant coffee, and we binge on it. As an audience, we are merciless.

The kind of impossible nightmare described above was a reality in 60s Britain. Back then, the BBC had a wiping policy, which meant that many television shows were either completely or partially destroyed. This meant that early episodes of Doctor Who are now lost, along with episodes of the popular sitcom Steptoe and Son, the soap opera Z-Cars and the ground-breaking comedy Hancock’s Half Hour. It didn’t matter how good a television show was – the wiping policy was unforgiving, dismissing television art as something for the moment, to be enjoyed only until the next great thing came along.

hancock's half hour

That sort of thing could never happen again. But in terms of our attitude, are we much different now? Do we not subscribe to trends, fads, and gimmicks that destroy our love affair with our once favourite television shows? Would we really care if Breaking Bad had completely been destroyed by 2040 if we were consuming something else? We live for the moment, but we also watch for the moment. In five years’ time, when HBO’s next top-rated drama has come along, we may have forgotten all about Breaking Bad, just like we have forgotten all about Jack Bauer. If you say 24 is still your favourite television show in 2014, you’re given a dirty look, and you’re told that you’re dated and that The Walking Dead is where it’s all at now. We want something new to talk about at work, as opposed to resurrecting old shows and discussing what made them great.

Unlike art, television shows don’t have longevity. No matter how timeless their subject matter, they age. People lose interest

The sad fact is is that television shows – and even films – do not age well for mainstream audiences. No matter how great Charlie Chaplin’s films were (and still are), they are stigmatised because of their age. Black and white films have no place for some people simply because they’re black and white. Is this what will become of Fringe, Heroes and The Walking Dead as aspect ratios evolve? “I don’t watch Fringe because I don’t watch 1080 x 1920 aspect ratios, dude.” If you tell someone in 2040 that The Walking Dead is your favourite television show, will you not be scowled at and told that you’re just like Old Father Time? Unlike art, television shows do not have longevity. No matter how timeless their subject matter, their dialogue, and their jokes, they do not age well. People lose interest.

seinfeld

Some television shows have more longevity with mainstream audiences than others. Friends seems to have so far stood the test of time, although Seinfeld has been left with more of a cult following than anything else. Because we gobble up 250 episodes of Friends, sift through 900 television channels, and subscribe to Netflix and all its wonders, it is hard to say that, as a collective, we love rarity and vintage stuff when it comes to television. Yet because only 37 episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour have survived, it makes them somehow more precious, more endearing than 230 episodes of Frasier. It does make them feel like art. The less we have of something, the more inclined we are to not take it for granted. The more inclined we are to treasure it.

The more we have of something, the less we appreciate it. But as consumers, we want more. We’d have taken 500 Friends episodes

In a world of such excessive consumerism, it is easy to lose sight of any beauty in television. It is easy to lose sight of hidden gems among the clutter of box sets. Gems such as the short-lived Phoenix Nights and Monkey Dust become forgotten about, and whilst we’re at it, who talks about Little Britain these days? The more we have of something, the less we appreciate it. But as consumers, we want more. If possible, we would have taken 500 episodes of Friends, and we’d even take 2,000 channels. Magic can be lost in a world of such excessiveness as we become greedy, wanting more of this and more of that.  We have to wonder whether our consumerist nature makes the longevity of television shows fragile. We have to question whether our gluttony means television will never be timeless. It will always remain ‘for the moment.’ It will never be art because it can never be allowed to stand the test of time.

 

Featured image: BBC

Inset images: BBC; NBC

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