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The idea struck me in an odd place: a Los Angeles hotel ballroom, packed with producers, executives and talent from some of the biggest TV shows in the industry. I was there to hand out an award, as part of the TV Honors ceremony presented by the African American Film Critics Association.
Looking out into the audience, I saw talented Black and brown artists from an impressive roster of shows: Swagger on Apple TV+. Bel-Air on Peacock. Insecure, A Black Lady Sketch Show and Winning Time from HBO/HBO Max. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds from Paramount+. Ozark from Netflix.
My mind flashed to what the industry was like when I first started covering TV, in the late 1990s. Back then, a new fall season could debut featuring 26 new series on four broadcast networks with no non-white characters in any major role. (Then-NAACP president Kweisi Mfume threatened to sue the networks over that one.)
Or when I argued at a press conference with the star and producers of a 1998 TV sitcom called the Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer – a comedy for the long-gone UPN network centered on a Black, British indentured servant working off gambling debts in Abraham Lincoln’s White House. It played like a version of Benson set during the Civil War.
Yeah. They made a comedy about a Black man working as a servant during slavery.
In many ways, the people in that room accepting awards were the fulfillment of a dream I had more than 25 years ago: That television would be enriched by allowing space for a wider spectrum of shows — especially featuring cultures and characters who were not white.
But this streaming age — and the diversity it can bring — is in serious crisis. And it may take help from you, the audience, to save it.
Missing out by focusing on the negative
This is the conversation which has been missing from current talk about TV’s future. So much attention is focused on loss and negatives: Series unceremoniously erased from streaming services for tax write-offs. Escalating costs and crackdowns on password sharing. Bundling of channels and platforms like the bad old days of cable TV. And a glut of programming so large, it’s tough to know what’s worth watching anymore.
And the strikes. Thanks to a deteriorating economic model, guilds representing writers and actors have revolted, contending they haven’t been compensated properly by a system crafted to build profits for media conglomerates at their expense. Those companies say most online platforms haven’t produced profits at all.
So after a promising infancy, streaming – basically, the future of television – is stuck in a nasty adolescence that threatens the future of a huge chunk of American pop culture.
Some folks have blamed the industry itself for these problems, rather than the knuckleheads running the business. But rather than curse the darkness, fans of great TV must act to help preserve what works, to build a more stable, empowering entertainment ecosystem.
Because one of the great lessons from all of this chaos, is that consumers can and do have a say in all this. We have more power than we realize.
The perils of getting what you want
Some angst here springs from an old saying: Be careful what you wish for.
Like so much disruption fueled by online technology, streaming’s slow dismantling of the conventional TV business is rooted in giving consumers what they want.
I call it “on demand attitude”: the consumers’ expectation that media will come to them, rather than the other way around. Ten years after Netflix debuted its first prestige TV-style original series, there are millions of viewers who have never known an entertainment world where they couldn’t access shows on command from a phone in their pocket.
But the very things which seemed liberating when the streaming wars kicked off, now draw complaints from consumers and some media critics. “Peak TV is in retreat and in its place is a new era of discontent: Call it pique TV,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in an article headlined “The Lost Promise of Streaming.” “TV’s streaming model is broken,” declared Vulture in an ominous report.
Some of the criticisms even contradict each other. It’s obvious we now have too much television for the audience to process, with 599 series available last year, according to data from FX networks. But when streaming services cancel series or take under-watched shows completely off their platforms for tax benefits, they’re criticized for deep-sixing the work of dedicated artists.
Still, with all the angst and hand wringing, I couldn’t have imagined a TV universe where excellent but risky creative gambles like Netflix’s road rage dramedy Beef, Prime Video’s surreal serial killer drama Swarm or FX’s transcendent restaurant-set dark comedy The Bear would get the resources to exist without the current streaming system.
So, what next?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Let’s support fair wages for those who make TV. Recent polls already show an overwhelming majority of Americans support striking writers and actors, so let’s keep that sentiment going. Sure, there are still big stars who make big money. But the strikes by SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America have made it plain: Average workers in the industry need to make more. If viewers want high quality shows, they’ll have to support that process, even if the strikes seriously limit what kind of TV we can enjoy for awhile, with our badly understocked upcoming Fall TV season as an example.
2. Accept that some sacrifice is coming. With nearly 600 series available to viewers last year, it’s obvious there’s too much television for the audience to process. Painful as it may be, fans must accept some shows are going away, including erasing them from streaming services completely. Also, the price of streaming is going to go up to help pay for it all … so let’s be careful about fan campaigns and anger over any of this, even when it affects some beloved shows.
3. Stop expecting one place to give you everything. Streaming is splintering into a wider range of products, including cheaper subscriptions with ads, some services bundled together like old school cable TV and strategies which combine cable and online availability. It may make sorting through all the options more confusing, but that’s a natural outcome of giving the audience more control.
4. Let’s see the same vigilance and high profile discussion about diversity issues that emerged a few years ago, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Back then, social media was filled with incisive demands for equity and inclusion, leading to the cancelation of some shows, like Cops. These days, media companies seem poised for backsliding; several high-profile executives in charge of diversity and inclusion have recently left or been laid off at companies like Netflix and Disney, while Cops has found a new home on Fox Nation important series like Reservation Dogs are ending.
This is something that we – the fans and audience for modern TV cannot allow. Here’s where the email campaigns, social media posts, platform boycotts and in person protests can really make a difference.
The future of the medium – and America – lies in widening our ideas of whose stories are important and making those stories accessible, which is something streaming TV has often achieved. Whether or not that endures and grows, may be up to the audience as much as anything.
It may be the only way to ensure that the room I stood in last year, filled with amazing artists of color, was a fruitful stepping stone to a positive media future, and not a fleeting image of promises betrayed and goals never reached.