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Examining The Last Decade In Television


Our TV critic, Eric Deggans, has been reviewing a decade of television. A lot more programs are available than 10 years ago, and that is why Eric's review focuses on a moment in the past decade that TV viewers never saw.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Before 2020 arrives, consider this question - what was the most influential moment in television over the decade? Was it family man turned meth dealer Walter White coming clean to his wife in "Breaking Bad..."


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) All the things that I did, you need to understand...

ANNA GUNN: (As Skyler White) If I have to hear that you did this for the family...

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) I did it for me.

DEGGANS: ...Or the tragedy of a woman held as a sexual slave in "The Handmaid's Tale"?


ELISABETH MOSS: (As June Osborne) There's a window with white curtains, and the glass is shatterproof. But it isn't running away they're afraid of. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself given a cutting edge.

DEGGANS: These are among the best TV shows of the decade. But for Netflix's chief creative officer, Ted Sarandos, one big moment came off screen in 2011 when he decided to make the company's first deal for an original series. Sarandos would spend $100 million for two seasons of "House Of Cards."

TED SARANDOS: Because we'd never had produced or released an original anything on Netflix prior to that, we had to give them one good reason to say yes because there were 100 good reasons to say no to us. We would say yes to a two season order with no pilot. So basically they had total creative control, which was unheard of.

DEGGANS: This was a gamble. Many of Netflix's customers still rented DVDs by mail, but Sarandos remembered the words of company CEO Reed Hastings, who predicted years earlier all filmed entertainment would eventually come to people's homes online. When "House Of Cards" debuted in 2013, Netflix made another decision that changed the course of television. The company released every episode of its first season at once, inspired by the way people already watch TV on the service.

SARANDOS: Some people watch two episodes, some people watch three, some people even watch four at a time. But nobody watched one. So we said, let's just put them all up and see how people watch.

DEGGANS: Binge-watching - a term which used to describe viewing multiple episodes on DVDs - became a pop culture phenomenon in the age of streaming. And according to Sarandos, Netflix hated it - at least at first.

SARANDOS: We did not want that word. It had such negative connotations. You know, what typically follows a binge is purge. We thought the negative connotations of that were so bad, we were definitely not excited about the birth of the word binge.

DEGGANS: But binge-watching redefined TV. Writers didn't have to remind viewers what happened in the last episode. Viewers didn't have to wait to see a story end. The success of Netflix inspired rival platforms to make more shows. And by 2015, John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks, realized that close to 400 scripted TV series would be produced that year. So he coined a term - peak TV.

JOHN LANDGRAF: And I think one of the reasons it caught on is not only because it describes the state of television, but because it describes the state of everything in the media at the moment. We're reaching peak everything.

DEGGANS: It may sound quaint now as new streaming services from Apple, Disney and HBO Max bring even more shows to TV. But in 2015, the hashtag #PeakTV went viral. Landgraf admits that part of his prediction that the industry could collapse in a few years was wrong. But he also saw that more choices sometimes bring less satisfaction.

LANDGRAF: Because anytime you choose something, you're also unchoosing something else. You're giving something up. You know, you don't even know whether you're choosing the thing that you wanted most. We are having a moment in our society when we have an overabundance of many, many things, and it's not necessarily making us happier.

DEGGANS: Landgraf has diversified FX's slate with series like "Atlanta" and "Pose." Years ago, he passed on making "Breaking Bad" because they already had too many series with white male antiheroes. At Netflix, Sarandos is spending $15 billion on content this year with dozens of series created outside America, tailored for international audiences. Sarandos says streaming services, especially Netflix, have helped viewers get more control.

SARANDOS: It gave people the ability to talk about a show at a cocktail party and then go home and just push play and watch a show from the beginning. That really transformed the consumer relationship with scripted television.

DEGGANS: But Landgraf, whose FX Networks was purchased by Disney this year, worries that all that choice isolates people in their own media bubbles, reducing TV's ability to unite viewers around a shared pop culture.

LANDGRAF: We're sorting ourselves and re-sorting ourselves into rural and urban, left and right. It's driven by new technologies that never existed in history. And it's unclear to me exactly how we get back to any kind of common thread.

DEGGANS: As 2020 begins, that may be the biggest challenge for a new decade - finding common ground in a media world where expanding choices may increasingly isolate and frustrate us. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.