How The Idiot Box Got Smart

As recently as 20 years ago, television was such a “vast wasteland” that Bruce Springsteen could accurately sing about “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” A decade after that, his guitarist, Steven Van Zandt, was on a television show that Norman Mailer called “the closest thing to the Great American Novel in today’s culture.” And shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy have complex plots, conflicted characters, and more human intelligence than almost any movie in theaters.

What happened to television in the last decade is like what happened to pop music in the sixties: Auteurs took what was generally disposable culture and turned it into art. In both cases, a new medium helped them realize these possibilities. In the sixties, the LP allowed recording artists to stretch out beyond the confines of the seven-inch single. More recently, cable made it practical – which is to say, profitable – to produce sophisticated serialized dramas for a relatively small audience.

Could it be that we get what we pay for? In an article for The Wall Street Journal based on my book, I show how the same rising cable bills we love to complain about turned the “idiot box” into a medium for some of the smartest popular culture made today.

Needless to say, you won’t see anything like this on YouTube.



ALSO: I am running a contest on my Twitter account, @RobertBLevine_ . The best explanation of why there’s only one artist on the Creative Commons Board of Directors wins a free, signed book. (Second prize: Two books!) Feel free to post or Tweet answers.



10 thoughts on “How The Idiot Box Got Smart

  1. Actually, I would pay good money for a fast and convenient service that would allow me to download episodes (or seasons) of my favourite tv series for a reasonable fee. For that I do expect them to be delivered in high quality open formats of course, so I don’t have to buy the show 10 times for every different device I own.

    I doubt YouTube is the answer, unless they start offering a high quality service that plays directly on the tv. I also doubt YouTube would generate the needed revenue needed to make good quality television as it stands right now.

    Posted by Pieter Hulshoff | October 21, 2011, 8:45 am
    • Ah, the ballad of the open source advocate: “I would pay good money if . . . .”

      UltraViolet will deliver much of this functionality – this fall in the U.S., and I presume later in Europe. Of course, they can only deliver that functionality if – wait for it! – people pay.

      Posted by roblevine1 | October 21, 2011, 9:27 am
      • I’m not sure what me using and writing OSS has to do with it to be honest. I think I own over 500 original dvds and blu-rays of movies and series, and thrown away over 350 original VHS tapes (worn out) that I’ve bought over the years, despite – wait for it! – downloading being legal in the Netherlands at the moment. I have no problems paying for legal content. I’m sure to check out UltraViolet when it becomes available, and see if it’s interesting or not. As Jamal said: “I’ll take poor assumptions for $800, Alex.”.

        Posted by Pieter Hulshoff | October 21, 2011, 9:37 am
  2. Personally, I will only buy a DVD if it is delivered to my home by the director, who must then speak with me regarding his artistic decisions and change the film’s ending if it is not to my liking. And I do not want to spend more than $20 for this.

    Posted by roblevine1 | October 21, 2011, 10:43 am
  3. To each his own; I prefer to watch movies on the big-screen or on a big-screen tv; I’d hate to have all those people come over to my house. 🙂

    Seriously though: is it too much to ask for movies to be made available in a format that doesn’t require you to buy a whole new set of equipment just to watch them? If so, I guess I’ll just wait until the dvd or blu-ray becomes available on Amazon.

    Posted by Pieter Hulshoff | October 21, 2011, 12:16 pm
    • Is it too much to ask to wait until it becomes available on Amazon?

      Everyone wants everything now, cheap, and fully compatible – myself included. My only disagreement with you is that the TPMs that block this are legally problematic. (They are annoying; but that’s not illegal.) And there’s plenty to watch that IS open – YouTube, Creative Commons, etc. That’s competition. Right now, the majority of people seem to tolerate TPMs in order to get the entertainment they really want. In the U.S., remember, more people pay for cable TV than broadband Internet access, which is usually less expensive.

      Posted by roblevine1 | October 21, 2011, 12:25 pm
  4. Whether I’m willing to wait for it to become available on Amazon is not the issue here; I think that’s clear from the amount of movies and series that I already own. The question here is: will UltraViolet become a service that I’m willing to use or not? Either it will, and I’ll be buying from there or it won’t, and I’ll wait, and buy it from Amazon when it becomes available on dvd/blu-ray. Put too many restrictions on UltraViolet, like the movie industry’s done many a time already in the (recent) past, and no-one will use it.

    Why does everyone accept the TPMs on dvds and blu-rays? Because so far it hasn’t bothered them much. Dvds and blu-rays play in practically every compatible dvd and blu-ray player; they’re industry wide standards. You own the disks or you can rent them, so there’s no risk of media suddenly not working for you anymore. Compare that to the previous online music and video services that suddenly stopped working when the DRM servers were pulled down or that require you to buy whole new sets of non-standard equipment, and you can imagine that people have less trouble with TPMs on dvds and blu-rays than they do with online offerings that use storage servers for the media or the keys. People’d hate for their movie to stop playing if the internet has a nervous breakdown (which is not all that uncommon) or if the company decides to close down their service.

    Do TPMs on dvds and blu-rays bother me? Absolutely, but I’m not your average user either. As such, I doubt the industry will take notice of my protests to that regard. 🙂 Blu-ray still has the potential of bothering a lot of people. If they start revoking blu-ray player keys, people may find that newly bought blu-ray disks will not play on their blu-ray players. I don’t think that will go over very well.

    Posted by Pieter Hulshoff | October 21, 2011, 12:58 pm

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