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Q&A: Three TV critics talk about its life story

Here is an expanded Q&A with David Thomson, author of Television: A Biography; Alan Sepinwall, co-author (with Matt Zoller Seitz) of TV (The Book); and David Bianculli, author of The Platinum Age of Television:

David Thomson:

People debate whether TV destroys community or simply allows new ones to arise (families who watch together; folks who like documentary shows or zombie shows). To what extent do you see the social impact of TV as a good thing?

I think it can work any way, but the key to the question is how far TV has taken over and redefined our sense of community. It makes the reach of earlier media - the book, radio, movies - seem tame or nervous. TV is a service, like light and air, and every shift it makes in technology or narrative or celebrity affects us profoundly. It can be good. It can be bad. But that hardly matters. Our evaluation of it (in social or moral terms) is helpless compared with the sheer momentum.

If you posit 1950 as a starting point, about halfway into mass-produced TV's history, we started seeing new forms of storytelling, as in 'St. Elsewhere' and similar shows. And the audience not only showed it was smart enough to consume such TV - people also loved it. Has TV, so long denigrated as the lowbrow Boob Tube, actually also given rise to an era of very sophisticated storytelling art?

Yes. From say the late '80s, TV began to take over from movies at delivering our most challenging, moving, and provocative stories. No one in film now would think of disdaining TV in the way that was once common.

TV is everywhere, on my iPhone, on Netflix, on surveillance cameras. It's impossible to keep up with it all. What's next?

More variety, more fragmentation, more isolation in viewing, less community. BUT one day not so far away as we might think the screen will be put inside our heads. We will change channels by desiring it. The contact will be instant, immense and visceral or instinctive. It will excite us wildly but we will be a little less human or social.

Alan Sepinwall:

TV used to be called "ephemeral." To what extent, if any, has the digital revolution, rendering almost all existing recorded TV accessible, binge-watchable, and permanent, changed our (or your) way of considering TV as a medium, and the scripted show as a genre?

Having access to most of the best TV shows ever made available with the push of a button (and the right streaming subscription) has been huge for improving the medium's reputation. Now you don't have to just watch whatever is on, but can curate the experience and immerse yourself in these great series your friends won't stop talking about.

What struck me from reading your book is the profundity arising from TV shows. Again and again, your accounts of the great shows return to deeply resonating, deeply thoughtful currents in many, many of these shows. Is that just me, just you two guys – or the surprise we all should take away, that TV really has been this meaningful geyser of profound meditation on our lives?

We've always found TV to be an incredibly powerful medium. It just took the world a while to notice.

Finally … the rating system. I won't ask you to explain or defend. I'd like to know the process by which you decided to have one.

We wanted a way to rank the shows that wasn't just us endlessly rearranging refrigerator magnets with show titles on them until we found an order we liked. And while you could quibble with our methodology, when we finally ironed out the scoring system, the order felt more or less right to us. 

David Bianculli:

Your interview with Tommy Smothers prompted me to ask: 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' was among the first broadcast network shows to bring front and center the social issues of the time, in some cases all but forcing them (albeit via laughter) into mass consciousness. So ... as regards social change, has the Platinum Age of TV (the genres of shows treated in your book) been more mirror or more engine? To what extent has it merely reflected what's going on, and where and when has it helped foment those changes?

TV has always been part mirror, and part engine - driving some things, and reflecting others. ABC's Modern Family is a perfect Platinum Age example of both: reflecting a reality of gay family life that's out there, while attracting enough viewers to the show, and its humor, to help propel the acceptance of gay rights, especially maritally, overall.

It used to be said that the Beatles unwittingly destroyed high culture by outselling and ultimately out-prestiging it, and showing you could do that without training. As of 2016, the old '50s-era distinctions among high-, middle-, and lowbrow art are all but gone. I think the Platinum Age, especially since 1990, is a huge reason why. Your thoughts?

The Beatles essentially were self-taught geniuses, absorbing and adapting all the music they loved that came before them, from skiffle groups to Little Richard. Platinum Age TV auteurs did the same thing, by devouring and building upon the great TV they watched as impressionable teenagers. Among the television writers, producers and stars I interviewed for the book, The Twilight Zone ended up inspiring more of them, from whatever different eras, than any other program.