The golden age of TV: now

A month ago, a map went viral showing the (allegedly) most popular television shows set in each state. South Dakota got “Deadwood.” Washington got “Frasier.” Maine, “Murder She Wrote.” Take a look at it here:

The map was produced by Business Insider, and at their site you can find justifications for the rankings.

It’s the sort of project designed as much to provoke argument as it is to settle them. And what interests me more than the map itself is one of those arguments I got into on a friend’s Facebook wall.

After I pointed out that (with one exception) the map-makers had excluded reality shows, someone I didn’t know got his dander up:

Wow I don’t think there is much else on TV anymore that is not a reality show. Seams like they are on par to put real actors out of business because they can pay these hicks peanuts compared to accomplished actors. Seams like a case of too many channels. I say we cut back to like 10 channels and our IQ would go up 40 points.

Oh and to prove my point 75% of the shows listed in the pictures are pre-1990’s and don’t exist anymore. So its more nostalgia then actually whats the “most popular”. And now its about impossible to find shows set in any state other than California, Texas, or New York. Even though ironically most of them are produced and filmed in British Columbia.

This included one major factual claim — that 75 percent of the shows were “pre-1990’s,” and from a quick glance over the map, it didn’t seem to be correct. So I opened up a spreadsheet.

After an hour or so of hand-entering data about TV shows that I later discovered Business Insider had already gathered, I had my result — and it proved my intuition right. Many, or even most, of the shows were new:

Premiere Shows Percent
1950s 2 4%
1960s 4 8%
1970s 5 10%
1980s 10 20%
1990s 11 22%
2000s 13 26%
2010s 5 10%

In fact, more than half had premiered in the 1990s or later. More than a third had come in this millennium. There were more shows from the 2000s than from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined.

But the spreadsheet was more interesting than that. So even though my interlocutor fell silent at this point, I picked up his side of the discussion and imagined why the current television landscape might seem a vast wasteland. There’s one obvious answer: if you don’t have cable. Particularly, if you don’t have premium cable.

Because there is fantastic television being produced today, but a lot of it isn’t on ABC, NBC and CBS. To see great shows on the list like “Breaking Bad,” “Justified” and “Deadwood,” you needed to be watching AMC, FX or HBO. And if you aren’t — like I was growing up in a broadcast-only household — it might seem like TV is nothing more than laugh-track comedies and singing competitions.

Of course, cable is a relatively recent phenomenon compared to broadcast TV:


You can see the trend.

But my erstwhile opponent did have one good point. There are a LOT of reality shows on TV, particularly compared to yesteryear.

It’s just that there are also a lot of non-reality shows on TV. Because there are more shows on TV, period.

That’s been the biggest impact of the cable revolution. There are more players producing TV programming than there were in the days of three or four or five networks. Much of it is awful. Some of it is fantastic. The challenge is finding the wheat in the chaff — but then, that’s the fundamental challenge of modern life, a world sufficed with more options and information than any one person could possibly consume.

(Now, this is a flawed dataset. A better picture would come from a ranking of the best TV shows in history, not one that limits states like California and New York to just one show set there, while forces obscure choices onto the list for states like North Dakota and New Hampshire. But it’s still an instructive exercise.)

For those curious, you can view the full spreadsheet here. Below is a list of all the networks and the number of shows on the top 50.

Network Shows
NBC 13
CBS 11
Fox 2
Lifetime 2
Comedy Central 1
FX 1
History 1
Sci-Fi 1
Showtime 1