Time of change: As decade closes, it's clear TV is different now

Lynn Elber
Associated Press

Los Angeles — Game of Thrones” was both an unprecedented achievement and old-school role model in the TV decade that’s rolling its final credits.

Installments of the elaborately produced hit were doled out one at a time by an established outlet, premium cable channel HBO. That was standard TV operating procedure until, suddenly, it wasn’t. The new era arrived in 2013 when a full season’s worth of “House of Cards” popped up amid Netflix’s on-demand movies and old TV shows.

Emilia Clarke, left, and Kit Harington in the finale of “Game of Thrones.” The series was both an unprecedented achievement and old-school TV role model in the past decade.

The drama’s unexpected home appeared simply to be an option to the 500-channel universe born in the 1990s. But “House of Cards” foreshadowed a streaming gold rush and volume of programming dubbed Peak TV in 2015 – and with no drop in altitude in sight.

The result: Nothing is the same, whether it’s how much television we consume; how and where we do it; who gets to make it, and the level of respect given the creatively emboldened small screen. We don’t just watch TV, we binge it until we’re bleary-eyed if not sated. We still change channels with a remote control, but more often we’re logging in to watch shows on our phones or other devices and on our schedules, not network-dictated appointment TV. 

Consumers have embraced the change in their media world, said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture.

“This was the decade that streaming became for many, many people the dominant way in which they watch television,” said Thompson. It’s a rapid shift that bears little relation to the previous entertainment industry revolution, cable TV.

Only about a quarter of U.S. homes had cable in 1980 despite its availability since the mid-20th century. While growth finally exploded in the ‘80s, it wasn’t until the late ’90s and the arrival of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” that premium cable received critical praise and honors, Thompson said.

Clair Foy in "The Crown."

In contrast, it took less than a decade for leader Netflix to skyrocket from about 12 million U.S. subscribers at the decade’s start to 60 million this year and 158 million worldwide. It reportedly lavished $15 billion on programming for 2019 alone, and earned buzz with series including “The Crown,” “Stranger Things,” and “Orange is the New Black.”

Others in the fray include Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, although “streaming wars” became the aggressive phrase applied to the increasingly competitive marketplace. 

Apple TV Plus launched Nov. 1 with Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg among its first wave of producers , and was quickly followed by Disney Plus. The latter draws on a storehouse of Disney movies and TV shows, as well as powerhouse franchises like Marvel Entertainment and “Star Wars.” 

A bonus for viewers as they sort through the competing options: More programming doesn’t just mean more of the same. The decade has been marked by opportunities for diverse and candid voices.

Take Donald Glover’s trajectory. The future multi-hyphenate writer, musician, actor and director had a respectable run as a cast member on the network sitcom “Community.” Two years later, he was the creator and star of FX’s “Atlanta,” which drew raves for its innovative storytelling focused on African American characters.

Jill Soloway called on family experience to create the groundbreaking “Transparent,” about a trans woman and how her decision to be open has a ripple effect on her children and their circle. 

Even mainstream broadcasting expanded its field of vision, with ABC the first network in 20 years to air an Asian American family sitcom, “Fresh Off the Boat.” Nahnatchka Khan was its executive producer, one of the women who gained prominence behind the camera in a sector long dominated by men.

Uzo Aduba, left, and Samira Wiley in “Orange is the New Black.” In less than a decade, Netflix went from about 12 million U.S. subscribers at the decade’s start to 60 million this year.

African American women took the spotlight in creator-star Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” while Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black,” featured characters notable for their ethnic, sexual and class diversity. 

Some established female producers further cemented their success. Shonda Rhimes added “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” to her body of work, with the latter’s star, Viola Davis, becoming the first African American to win a best drama actress Emmy. 

Across all TV platforms in 2017-18, women accounted for a historic high of 31% of those working in key behind-the-scenes jobs including directors, writers and editors, according to research by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film.

While television better reflected the world at large, it was forced to look inward as well.

Revelations of sexual misconduct hit the TV industry with more lasting effect than any other sector of Hollywood.

Noah Schnapp, left, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin in a scene from “Stranger Things” from Netflix.

Two of media’s top powerbrokers were brought down in the #MeToo era. Les Moonves was ousted in 2018 as CBS CEO after an outside investigation of abuse claims, with Moonves denying any non-consensual sexual relations. Roger Ailes, who built Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel into both a lucrative operation and major force in American politics, was forced out in the wake of sexual harassment claims.

Matt Lauer (“Today”), Charlie Rose (“CBS This Morning”) and PBS host Tavis Smiley were wiped away from TV screens for alleged misbehavior of varying types and their denials notwithstanding.

Top-tier actors and a famed comedian lost their jobs, including Jeffrey Tambor of “Transparent,” Kevin Spacey of “House of Cards” and Louis C.K., whose TV projects included “Louie,” which he starred in and produced. 

CBS was criticized for renewing “Bull” despite actress Eliza Dushku’s claim that she was dropped for complaining that the show’s star, Michael Weatherly, made crude comments about her on set. 

Dushku received a reported $9.5 million settlement under its then-CEO – Les Moonves.