From Must-See TV to Peak TV: 20 Years of covering television

If you were a TV critic from 1956 to 1976, you would have witnessed some big changes in the business: the rise and fall of the Western as the dominant primetime genre, or the color TV boom, or CBS' shift from silly rural comedies to socially conscious ones like All in the Family and M*A*S*H. If you covered the beat from 1976 to 1996, you would have written about Hill Street Blues and its many imitators, the classic years of SNL, and the early days of original cable programming. Almost any 20-year span would give you a front row seat to enormous artistic and technological change.

As of this week, I've been professionally writing about television for exactly 20 years, and it's safe to say that the only two-decade period that featured a more radical transformation in how television was made and consumed would be back when the medium was first introduced into America's living rooms.

What's changed about TV from 1996 to 2016? It would take less time, frankly, to list the parts of the business that are more or less the same. The broadcast networks still exist, albeit with ratings that would horrify a time traveler from the days of Friends and Seinfeld. Sweeps are still kind of a thing. Everyone still does upfront advertising presentations in April and May, even though the move to year-round programming has made them a relic. The TCA press tour still happens twice a year, even though Twitter has all but destroyed its original purpose (to gather quotes for stories that can be parceled out over many months).

Put it this way: if the me of 1996 was handed an iPhone on which he could stream an entire season of Daredevil, he would find it only slightly less shocking than if shown evidence that transporter beams from Star Trek were now real.

So on this anniversary day, I thought it might be fun to look back on just how different the world of TV was two decades ago, and at some of the enormous changes I've witnessed on the beat. For those of you who lived through all of it as an adult, a lot of this will be hauntingly familiar. For those of you who've never known life without DVRs, On Demand, and cable anti-hero dramas, prepare to be dismayed by all these tales of a far simpler time in TV.

How We Watched

Imagine you're a TV viewer in 1996. You're looking for something to watch that night, or maybe trying to make sure you don't miss the next episode of your favorite show (an NBC Thursday series, most likely). There were no DVRs back then (TiVo and its early competitor Replay didn't get their product into stores until 1999), and few cable boxes came with the kind of programming guide that's commonplace now. Most likely, you would have to look in the TV listings of your local paper, whether the daily grid or the Sunday TV book(*), which were only useful to a point, since they didn't instantly tell you what channel number HBO or TNT was on your particular system, didn't necessarily list every channel you had, couldn't account for last-minute programming changes, etc.

(*) The Sunday TV book was a huge deal back in the day, with studies frequently putting it at or near the top of people's reasons to buy a Sunday paper in the first place. At the Ledger, Steve Hedgpeth was in charge of our shiny reinvented TV book, the Scanner, and the daily listings, and he spent a horrifying amount of each day fielding calls from readers who couldn't find a certain program that had been listed, who wanted to know if their favorite show – which had been pre-empted for a TV-movie or midseason replacement – had been canceled, or who wanted new channels added to Scanner. After a while, we had to institute a rule at the paper that Matt Zoller Seitz and I weren't allowed to write about shows airing on channels not featured in Scanner, just to spare Steve the many angry phone calls from people who had never heard of FX before. (FX got added very quickly when the time was right.)

If you decided to watch something that was on right then, you were stuck with the exact version being presented to you by the network in question. No pausing, no rewinding, no commercial-skipping. Everyone was still watching on bulky TV sets with 4:3 aspect ratios, because the HD conversion was still several years away. (When a few early adopters like ER began airing their episodes in a widescreen format to prepare for the HD future, Matt, Steve, and I fielded a lot of reader complaints about those black bars that were taking up so much space on people's screens.)

And if you wanted to see something that wasn't on at that particular moment? Good luck.

People were still dialing into the internet via their phone lines (if they knew what the internet was at all), so streaming video was out. If your cable system offered a pay-per-view or On Demand option, it existed only as a means to watch live sporting events and some movies. DVD players were still years away from mass adoption. And the market for TV shows on bulky VHS tapes was both limited and very expensive; I had to special-order the six-tape set of The Singing Detective, which set me back at least $100. When ongoing series were released on VHS at all, it was usually some kind of best-of set, featuring one or two episodes from each season at most.

The recordability of VHS tapes did allow for the kind of DIY programming and binges we take for granted now, but it was an enormous hassle to do it. In the '80s and '90s, it became pop culture shorthand to explain that someone was old, out-of-touch, and/or bad with technology by showing the blinking 12:00 on the clock of their VCR, since you had to program the time yourself whenever you plugged it in. But even people who could master that function often found setting the VCR to record things to be more trouble than it was worth. No matter the make or model, the recording settings always seemed to be counter-intuitive, and even if you did everything exactly right, your plans could be foiled by something as simple as someone else in your household changing the channel on the TV or cable box between when you set the recording and when the show aired. If you weren't very careful and lucky, your plan to go out and watch Friends later might result in you coming home to a tape of the first half of Diagnosis: Murder. Even the VCR-Plus codes, introduced late in that technology's lifespan as a way to idiotproof the recording process, didn't always work the way they were supposed to. You could be a power user if you really set your mind to it – as a teenager, I recorded every episode of Hill Street Blues as they aired in the middle of the night on WPIX-11 – but that level of obsession was rare, and network research at the time found that even the most passionate fans of shows watched, on average, only one out of every four episodes.

This is why serialization used to be so frowned upon, and why reruns were still so lucrative for the networks; as a late '90s NBC marketing campaign put it, “If you haven't seen it, it's new to you.” 

Where We Watched

A few years before I started on the beat, Bruce Springsteen released a song called “57 Channels (And Nothin' On).” This was an exaggeration, but only slightly. While there were many more channels available in '96 than when TV started, the only ones that really mattered were the Big Four broadcast networks (and even FOX, then just a decade old, was still considered the annoying kid brother by many) and PBS. The WB and UPN were still figuring out their identities at this point (Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn't launch until March of '97, giving direction to the WB, and to what would become the CW). HBO had offered a few interesting comedies (The Larry Sanders Show was in mid-run), but even Chris Albrecht (the man who would bring the channel Sex and the City, The Sopranos, et al) once admitted to me that “the original programming was an afterthought.” For the most part, cable channels still subsisted on movies, foreign imports, and repeats of network series.

This made it much easier to keep up with most of what was on, and it kept the great bulk of the audience concentrated on those big broadcast networks, and on certain shows in particular. When TV reporters today use the #EndTimes hashtag on Twitter every time the latest depressing ratings total comes out for a show that's considered successful by current standards, it's because they remember the days of Must-See TV, when ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX were all living large due to a lack of alternatives.

The splintering of the audience isn't apparent just at the top of the rankings, where the highest-rated series of the 95-96 season, ER, averaged 32 million viewers a week, compared to The Big Bang Theory and NCIS both averaging a shade over 20 million. (Sunday Night Football comes in at 21.3 million.) It's in the steep drop of what was considered an acceptable rating then versus now. The least-watched Big Four show that season was the David Alan Grier sitcom The Preston Episodes, which was canceled after eight weeks of averaging close to 6 million viewers. That's a bigger audience(*) than close to two dozen Big Four series that will be returning next season, including Grimm, Agents of SHIELD, The Simpsons, and Grier's current gig on The Carmichael Show (whose recent episodes have drawn about half of what The Preston Episodes did). Homicide: Life on the Street, which was considered a perennial ratings disappointment that NBC kept around solely for the prestige of it, averaged 12.4 million viewers in 95-96, which would put it just outside this year's top 10 in network viewership.

(*) Yes, the business wasn't really using total viewer figures to make renewal decisions even 20 years ago, and time-shifting, On Demand, and streaming viewing has made a mess of figuring out a show's audience today. But the total viewer numbers do as good a job as anything can at showing how many eyeballs were watching a show when it aired live (or close to it) then versus now.

The idea that an original basic cable drama like The Walking Dead would one day be the most popular series on TV (at least among the 18-49 demographic) would have gotten you laughed out of any broadcast network office back then. In 1996, Amazon was an online bookstore, Netflix was still a couple of years away from even being an online DVD rental service, and “Hulu” was just a word in Mandarin. Today, some of TV's best programming comes from services that a time traveler from 20 years ago would refuse to acknowledge as being television.

What We Watched

Great TV didn't suddenly spring into existence when The Sopranos debuted. The mid-'90s was actually a pretty terrific time for the medium: the tail end of what Robert Thompson dubbed (in a book of the same name) Television's Second Golden Age. But our definition of “Quality Television” was very different back in the day.

In comedy, multi-cam was king not only in ratings (which it still is, if you look at the numbers for Big Bang Theory versus even Modern Family) but in prestige. Frasier was in the midst of a long streak of Emmy wins for comedy series. Seinfeld was generating think pieces at a pace that would put the Girls blogosphere to shame. Everybody Loves Raymond debuted in obscurity that fall (paired on Fridays with Dave's World) and would in time become a huge hit and award winner. Even less-heralded sitcoms of the period like NewsRadio, Spin City, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and The Drew Carey Show would badly outclass most recent multi-cams. There were plenty of terrible ones, too (The Single Guy added a Newark-born castmember that fall, which meant I wrote a lot about The Single Guy for a while), but there were so many multi-cam shows, period, and so many available veterans from the classics of the previous 20 years, that there wasn't the generational skepticism about the form that exists today, both from the audience and within the business.

Single-cam comedy barely existed at all outside of cable shows like Larry Sanders. This was in between the brief dramedy boom of the late '80s (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Doogie Howser M.D.) and the moment in the early '00s when the success of Malcolm in the Middle led the networks to reconsider whether sitcoms could be hits without laughtracks. The only single-cam network comedy in the fall of '96 was ABC's adaptation of Clueless, and if it wasn't based on a hit movie, a network executive surely would have insisted it be shot in front of a studio audience. (This was the fate of Party Girl, a short-lived remake of an indie film with Parker Posey, now starring Christine Taylor.)

On the drama side of things, this period was home to some of the medium's best shows ever, but they only somewhat resembled what's considered prestige drama today. Again, heavy serialization was the enemy back then, so dramas like NYPD Blue, ER, and Homicide had to offer a mix of standalone procedural storytelling with ongoing character arcs: crimes solves and patients cured by the end of the hour, but personal problems that continued at least until the next sweeps period. The X-Files had its mythology arc, but that only appeared a handful of times a season, and usually wasn't mentioned at all during the Monster of the Week episodes. (When Fringe tried that model early in its run, its audience had no patience for that approach and demanded full serialization. Hell, when The X-Files itself returned in January, a lot of viewers were annoyed that the Monster episodes didn't touch on the latest conspiracy at all.)

Today, viewers generally go to cable/streaming drama for narrative and moral complexity, and to network drama for procedurals. The cream of early-mid '90s drama essentially combined the two forms in one, as best they could, but the show that would set the tone for the next two decades of network drama was something of an afterthought when I came onto the beat: Law & Order, which hadn't yet begat any of its spin-offs, let alone helped lead to the CSI shows, Dick Wolf's Chicago franchise and every other done-in-one crime drama that wishes it could spawn an empire (or even tell its stories as artfully as the Law & Order mothership did). At the time, L&O was a solid performer, rather than a business model to be studied and copied.

As I've written about in The Revolution Was Televised and elsewhere, the unbundling of the TV audience has for the most part been to the medium's good. Niche-y, genre-bending experiments like Louie and Transparent never would have been possible in the old system, and even more traditionally-constructed dramas like The Americans would have likely died a quick death in a system where the mass audience was all that mattered(*).

(*) I got this painful lesson out of the way very early: literally the first pilot I watched on the job as I got ready for my first press tour was EZ Streets, a dense, complicated, morally-ambiguous crime drama created by Paul Haggis, and starring Ken Olin, Joe Pantoliano, and Jason Gedrick. It was one of the best TV shows I had ever seen, and I was convinced I had stumbled onto this beat just in time to herald the arrival of the Next Big Thing. Instead, nobody watched it, and CBS essentially canceled it after two episodes had aired. But, hey, if you're going to get your heart broken, you might as well do it early so the next times won't hurt as bad.

This was also an era when standards of content were rapidly shifting. Between The Simpsons(*) and Married… With Children on FOX, NYPD Blue with its bare butts and bad language on ABC, and NBC's recent move of the raunchy Friends into the 8 p.m. hour – what had long been unofficially viewed as “the family hour,” home to only the most wholesome of programming – the dam was about to burst, letting more adult content appear across primetime. Still, many of those shows and controversies seem almost quaint compared to how explicit TV is now(**), even on the networks: compared to what Family Guy gets away with, peak Simpsons might as well have been Little House on the Prairie. The first press tour kerfuffle I witnessed was at the introductory panel for the WB's new family drama 7th Heaven, where several critics were up in arms over the pilot featuring a story where young Lucy Camden is anxious to get her first period. (This in turn sparked lunchtime tales of the 1990 press conference for the first Uncle Buck sitcom, with Kevin Meaney, where a child actor's use of the word “sucks” was a point of great fury.)

(*) My first Simpsons season on the beat was season 8 (which began with “You Only Move Twice”), which means I missed the first wave of “The Simpsons used to be better in the old days!” The show's continued existence – and continued ability to be excellent, albeit with less regularity than before – in 2016 wouldn't be the most surprising thing I could tell myself in 1996, but it'd be up there. 

(**) As someone who counts the all-“fuck” scene of The Wire among the greatest things TV has ever done, and who just published a rave review of a Veep episode called “C**tgate,” I'm not exactly averse to profanity on my TV. But I do think something was lost when TV's obscenity standards lowered – not because I find curse words and blunt sex talk offensive, but because they can be too easy. Part of the genius of an episode like Seinfeld's “The Contest” came from the show having to work around not being able to actually say the word “masturbate,” and while Larry David would eventually get to demonstrate the joy of creative cussing on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a lot of sitcoms of the last 20 years tend to use sex and bad language as the path of least resistance, where finding ways to allude to this material without saying it outright could lead to unexpected comic inspiration.

And as content standards relaxed, the idea of content the whole family watched together began to go extinct. (This was briefly the WB's programming model, but even they pivoted quickly once Buffy debuted.) Kids' TV was kind of a thing by then, with Saturday morning cartoons having expanded out to weekdays and a bit to cable, but the idea of children having demographically-targeted entertainment available to them 24/7 was years away. So younger viewers had to watch a lot of the same things their parents watched. But as the raunch in grown-up series increased, so did the number of options for kids to watch on their own, and soon everyone in the family would be watching on their own screen, on their own schedule.

In the world of TV news, the three network nightly newscasts were still king, CNN was considered a place to go only in times of war or crisis, and MSNBC and Fox News were still a few months away from launching. As with everything else in television, this was a time when everyone was still watching the same shows, hearing the same stories and points of view, and before we could construct a news lineup that only conformed to our pre-existing worldviews.

And reality TV? Well, it wasn't unheard of – The Real World premiered its fifth season (Miami) on the same day I filed my first-ever dispatch from press tour – but it was treated as a novelty, and/or held to the rigorous standards of documentary or journalism. (When it came out in the second season of Survivor that some of the footage of a challenge had actually been filmed during an earlier rehearsal, it made the Uncle Buck/”sucks” imbroglio look like a mild disagreement.) Newsmagazine shows were the cheap filler programming the networks used when their sitcoms and dramas failed, and the very idea of Survivor seemed so strange and dangerous that in the weeks leading up to its premiere, I asked CBS' head of PR, Chris Ender – who had gone out of his way to shroud the show in mystery, even trying to hide the identities of the contestants – what would happen if a contestant died on the island. (There was a long pause on this phone call before he answered, as I imagined Chris reaching for some migraine medicine and wondering if he mightn't have been better off just letting critics see an episode in advance so he wouldn't have to deal with our foolishness.) My Star-Ledger email archives have long since been purged, but I feel reasonably sure that I received my first “When is this reality TV garbage going to go away?” query during that first Survivor/Big Brother summer of 2000 (though it was probably, come to think of it, a handwritten letter), and I would keep getting a variation on that question when being interviewed, or making public appearances, or simply telling strangers what I did for a living, for at least a decade after that. Now, Jeff Probst and Khloe Kardashian are simply a fact of American life, but we needed time to get used to the idea.

How We Talked About What We Watched

Speaking of email versus snail mail, 1996 was a much simpler – and much less active – time in the world of TV discourse. The internet had been around in some form for a while – I wrote my first episodic reviews (about NYPD Blue) for the good readers of Usenet's and, before eventually setting up a website – but still wasn't widely used, or even known about. (I always think to the backwards Seinfeld episode, where in one of the flashbacks, Jerry's girlfriend tells him about email, and he replies, amazed, “What are you, a scientist?”) When the Ledger began publishing some of its content on the web a couple of years after I arrived, I once asked one of the editors in charge of the project if he could make sure to put a story I was particularly proud of online; as I walked away, I heard him sarcastically tell a colleague, “Hang on, I've got to drop everything so Sepinwall's five friends on the World Wide Web can read his latest column.”

A few years into my tenure in the Television Critics Association, which organizes press tour, someone proposed amending the membership rules to allow writers for online-only outlets to join, which set some gums flapping in the meeting, with one veteran critic declaring, “If they want to come, let them start their own press tour!” (Another critic pointed out that this would just result in all the networks going to that other press tour instead. In a way, that's what happened: thanks to the newspaper implosion and the web explosion, print media writers now represent a distinct minority at tour.)

Matt and I would get reader feedback, especially when we began soliciting it for a weekly mailbag column, but there wasn't nearly the sense of conversation there is today. Even though TV shows were ever-changing organisms, they were covered largely the same way as close-ended art like movies and books: you reviewed a series right before it premiered, and maybe again if it did an episode where somebody died or got married or gave birth, but that was about it in any given season. Recaps existed online – I had been inspired to do my NYPD Blue coverage by a rec.arts.startrek.current recapper named Tim Lynch, and Dawson's Wrap (a Dawson's Creek-focused site that would eventually become Television Without Pity) launched in 1998 – but were only for the nerdiest of TV nerds. Social media was similarly primitive and for power users only – some of my closest friends were made on a Homicide email list we called The Box – but for the majority, if you talked about TV, it was with the people in your real life, not your tiny virtual one, and if you didn't personally know someone who watched your favorite show, tough luck. (This was part of what led me to Usenet in the first place, since my friend Dan Gingiss was the only other person in college I knew who watched NYPD Blue, and he was a double major with limited time for gabbing about Sipowicz.)

I'm a procrastinator by nature, and one of my daily rituals was to spend my first hour or two in the newsroom calling around to TV critics in other parts of the country to talk about what we'd watched the night before. Between those conversations, and the enormous response I'd get from readers every time I wrote a Sopranos post-game story about an episode where someone major got whacked, I began to realize that there was a big appetite for people to talk about shows they had already seen, rather than to speculate about material that had yet to debut. In the fall of 2005, as an experiment, I launched my old blog, and in time, spoiler-filled episodic reviews became so commonplace that when I would publish the more traditional kind ahead of a new series' debut, I occasionally got mystified responses from younger readers asking why I would write about something they hadn't had a chance to watch.

Today, of course, we have commentary tracks and podcasts and ubiquitous post-mortem interviews, not to mention showrunners interacting with their fans on Twitter and Facebook, basking in their praise, enduring their complaints when things go bad (or when the fans' favorite couple doesn't get together fast enough), and occasionally asking them to pitch in on Save Our Show campaigns. (This has had its pluses and minuses, as it's led to pockets of ugly fan entitlement.) When I started doing this, nobody outside of the business knew the term “showrunner,” and only a handful of them (Norman Lear, Aaron Spelling, Stephen J. Cannell) even had wide name recognition. At one of my first press tours, I was able to grab Joss Whedon after a Buffy press conference to do an impromptu interview in the hotel lobby, no one noticing or caring; today, he's a rock star.

The business is so widely, obsessively covered that it was a miracle Louis C.K. was able to create and release Horace and Pete in such secrecy – a decision he's said he made in part because he missed those years where you didn't know every detail about a new show six months before it debuted. I can appreciate nostalgia for those days, if for no other reason than that the beat was easier to cover when there weren't 400+ original scripted series airing every year. But nearly everything about watching and writing about TV is so much better now than it was 20 years ago. The technology is better, giving us stunning imagery (imagine Lost or Breaking Bad shot for standard-def in the old aspect ratio) and easy access not only to the best of what's on now, but most of recorded TV history. The quality is much better on the drama side, and if comedy is lacking the kind of big-tent shows that were also brilliant like we had in the Must-See TV era, there are so many flavors available that if you can't find a new favorite sitcom, you're not trying hard enough. No one can keep up with everything – not even a TV critic – but if I could pull young intern me into the present and show him the abundance of choice in what to watch, how to watch, and how to write about it, he would turn into Homer Simpson making his first trip to the Land of Chocolate:

Though, remembering what I was like at 22 (and how little, in many ways, I've changed over the last two decades), I fear intern me would be too busy making gifs on Frinkiac to get any writing done, ending a promising career before it could even begin.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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