The shows are separated by 40 years of technological advances — a progression from the over-the-air broadcast era in which Mr. Lear made it big, to the cable age of MTV and CNN and HBO, to, finally, the modern era of streaming services like Netflix. Each new technology allowed a leap forward in choice, flexibility and quality; the “Golden Age of TV” offers so much choice that some critics wonder if it’s become overwhelming…Across the entertainment business, from music to movies to video games, technology has flooded us with a profusion of cultural choice.
...we’re returning to the cultural era that predated radio and TV, an era in which entertainment was fragmented and bespoke…It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time… for a brief while, from the 1950s to the late 1980s, broadcast television served cultural, social and political roles far greater than the banality of its content would suggest. Because it featured little choice, TV offered something else: the raw material for a shared culture.
As the broadcast era changed into one of cable and then streaming, TV was transformed from a wasteland into a bubbling sea of creativity. But it has become a sea in which everyone swims in smaller schools...Only around 12 percent of television households, or about 14 million to 15 million people, regularly tuned into “NCIS” and “The Big Bang Theory,” the two most popular network shows of the 2015-16 season…Netflix’s biggest original drama last year, “Stranger Things,” was seen by about 14 million adults in the month after it first aired…during much of the 1980s, a broadcast show that attracted 14 million to 16 million viewers would have been in danger of cancellation.
A spokesman for Netflix pointed out that even if audiences were smaller than in the past, its shows still had impact. “Making a Murderer” set off a re-examination of a widely criticized murder trial, for instance, while “Orange Is the New Black” was one of the first shows to feature a transgender actor, Laverne Cox….But I suspect the impacts, like the viewership, tend to be restricted along the same social and cultural echo chambers into which we’ve split ourselves in the first place. Those effects do not approach the vast ways that TV once remade the culture.