Television is better now than it was in 1993, when The X-Files premiered to an audience that was still bewildered by its lead-in (and canceled-too-soon) show, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Those are two great series, and the Big Four networks were overflowing with even more quality programming, like Roseanne, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, The Simpsons, The Critic, and most importantly, Saved by the Bell: The College Years. That’s a stronger lineup than anything network television can offer today, but it leaves out FX, Comedy Central, IFC, HBO, Showtime, AMC, Netflix, and all the other cable networks and streaming services that have helped usher in the Golden Age of TV. And let good shows with minuscule viewership stick around.
Because 20 years ago, they didn’t survive. Brisco County only made it one season before Fox said no more; The Critic was greeted with a resounding “it stinks” from network executives; and Saved by the Bell: The College Years was kicked out of school after 19 episodes. Now, shows are given more time to find an audience, which has helped the perennially low-rated, but critically admired Jane the Virgin, You’re the Worst, and Halt and Catch Fire thrive.
A part of that has to do with the accessibility options that are now available to cord-cutters. But there’s another reason: The slow-but-steady embrace of non-traditional ways of measuring a show’s viewership. Just this week, the New York Times reported that Nielsen “would partner with Facebook and Twitter to include social-media mentions of specific television programs in their viewership measurements.” This is good news for series like Bob’s Burgers or The Americans; they’re big and beloved online, but if you asked the average CBS viewer to describe Fargo, they’d respond, “The wood chipper movie?”
It’s an overdue acknowledgment that Internet culture matters, that “Liking” a little-watched show like Playing House, or tweeting your support for Review through hashtags, matters. And it can largely be traced back to The X-Files.
The Internet was obviously around when The X-Files was in its heyday, but it didn’t have the same overwhelming presence that it does today, for better or worse. Those who “surfed the net,” before that became an ironically dismissive term, were seen as nerds who lived in their moms’ basements — y’know, the same insult bloggers still hear daily. You weren’t on the Internet because there was nothing else to do; you were there because you wanted to be (or because you wanted to watch porn… some things never change). And a not-insignificant chunk of people were there to talk about The X-Files.
Not just talk about it, actually, but break an episode apart and put it back together. It was a co-dependent relationship. Jerry’s Mac was a mere set decoration on Seinfeld, but The X-Files was tackling sentient operating systems seven episodes into season one. This embrace of technology wasn’t something you saw depicted on the average episode of Home Improvement, and X-Philes, as fans of the show called themselves, quickly spread the word. The Times concluded, “This may have been the first show to find its audience growth tied to the growth of the Internet,” but that’s not exactly correct.
It might be the other way around.
The X-Files was preoccupied with the idea of “the truth,” that it’s worth questioning everyone and everything, including (especially?) the distrustful government. You could say the same thing about the Internet, with its millions of conspiracy theories, another topic The X-Files regularly covered. The Lone Gunmen spoke to every future-Edward Snowden admirer. Paranoia is a powerful tool, and few have handled it better than Chris Carter.