It’s an amazing time for television.
With tons of networks, cable and streaming services providing countless hours of entertainment, there is a slew of top-notch programming from a menagerie of voices and perspectives.
But how did we get here?
David Bianculli, a longtime television critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and both the New York Daily News and the New York Post, explores this question in his new book, “The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific.” The tome is an exhaustive and fascinating exploration of the medium, looking at 18 genres and featuring profiles of 25 TV luminaries, including Mel Brooks, Matt Groening and Amy Schumer.
amNewYork spoke with Bianculli, who currently edits and writes for the website TVWorthWatching.com, about the book.
How long have you been working on this?
Well, in terms of being a TV critic and gathering this stuff — most of my life. But the interviews were done over a period of about a year and [it took] about that long to put it all together.
There are so many genres of shows. What was your process? How did you whittle this down?
I didn’t whittle it all down. If I were given the opportunity to do a sequel, I could easily think of another couple of dozen of people to talk to that would be equal or close to the people in the book. And then another dozen or so genres. I even listed some of them in the conclusion so that people wouldn’t think I forgot about this [or that]. No, there’s just so much TV that I wanted to just do this as something representative rather than comprehensive. The book is big enough as it is. I did an audiobook version [laughs]. I recorded an audio book version and almost killed myself. Jeez!
It must have cut into your TV watching.
[Laughs] Well, that’s very funny. Yes. But I don’t even know if I answered your question. In terms of doing it genre-by-genre, even that turned out to be difficult. You think, “OK, sitcoms. That’s a genre.” But it isn’t just one genre. It’s like two or three or maybe four if you’re going to do it right, and even then you’re zipping through a lot of TV history. I tried to cover what I could and show as many connections as I could. But it’s a big subject.
What does this run of TV say about us as a people?
Well, it says that we have an appetite for good television, which is kind of exciting. When you compare one medium to another there are times like in the early ’70s when film was just doing the best work and now I think really you can argue — and I try to — that television is doing the best work. There’s enough appetite from enough people that they’re supporting lots of different quality programs from more sources than ever before. So that’s encouraging. But as a TV critic, it’s almost mind-numbing trying to deal with it.
Do you think there’s too much TV? Are we missing something from the days of four networks and we all watched “M*A*S*H” together?
That’s a great question. We are missing something significant from that. And I have been mourning that for 20 years. Slowly but surely, I’ve seen that erode — the idea that television is a shared communal, national experience we were all watching at the same time. ... There was a time when, for entertainment, you had three or four choices and everybody sort of was fluent in the same stuff. And I miss that. There are plenty of great shows that I’ve seen that people have heard of, but never sampled. The good news is technology allows them to catch up on them later. They can do their homework and find them in streaming sites and on DVD. The bad news is: Who has time to do that?
When you were interviewing Matt Groening, he was challenging you with shows. When people talk to you, are you ever stumped?
No, with classic shows I’m pretty solid. TV history, I’m fairly good. I’m more likely to be stumped by international obscure stuff or, certainly these days, any time anybody talks to me about any sort of bad reality television and expects me to keep up. It’s like, I’m sorry. I could barely pull a Kardashian from a Honey Boo out of a lineup.
Can you talk about what role NYC plays in the history of TV?
In the beginning, New York is where TV came from. It was experimental in the ’40s during the war when the need for those materials kept TV from going out commercially. There were still experiments going on. The people at RCA, for example, would make little programs and send them out for just the engineers at RCA, who had the only TV sets in existence, just to see if it could go five blocks or 10 blocks in Manhattan. Eventually, live TV originated mostly from New York City and it wasn’t until “I Love Lucy” in 1951 that the migration to Hollywood really happened to television. There were some earlier West Coast studios. CBS started a facility. In 1950 you had “Amos ’n’ Andy” and Jack Benny and George Burns coming from there. It started with television. And when you think of golden-age live TV, anthology dramas — those mostly emanated from New York City.
What is NYC’s place in TV now?
Well, it’s never disappeared since then. You had shows like “Naked City,” which made a point of shooting on location just as “Law & Order” did more recently, or you had shows that — even though they originated from California — came and did shooting in New York enough to look like a New York show, like “NYPD Blue.” But programs, things like “Sex and the City,” the city is as important to that shows as sex is. So New York plays a big part there. The same thing with “Girls.”
If there were a genre in the book of New York shows, what are the top five you’d put in there?
I hesitate to do this because without a lot of preparation and research I’m going to miss [a show]. ... I think “Naked City” has to be in there and “NYPD Blue” has to be in there, even though it wasn’t shot in New York. Probably for its longevity, as well as its location stuff, “Law & Order,” and then I would round it probably right now with “Sex and the City” and with “Girls.” But then you miss things as obscure and as much fun as “Car 54, Where Are You?”
All right “Seinfeld” ... and this is exactly why I don’t like doing those off the top of my head. “Seinfeld” has to be one of the top five. You’re absolutely right. So crap! And that’s why when I write books and I write newspaper articles and I write things online, I research first just to make sure. I didn’t write this book off the top of my head and then think, “Oh, wait ‘The Fugitive.’” I didn’t do that. But I had arguments with myself that sometimes went until the last minute. In the crime genre, I demoted “Homicide” at the last minute and promoted “The Shield.” And I’m still arguing with myself about that. I could go either way.