On the recent episode of Geekodrome where we talked about 1977, all of the television programs we discussed were able to be watched randomly. Anyone could have turned on the tv and seen any episode of any program without needing to know the background, which was often given at the beginning of any episode. Over the course of decades this has changed and it has become impossible to do with modern programming.
Police and medical dramas were obviously policemen and doctors (or in the case of Stugots’ favorite show Emergency!, paramedics) and you knew they would solve a big case over the course of an hour, occasionally with an appearance by a famous guest star. Even the shows that had a more complex backstory, like Knight Rider or A-Team, gave an overview at the top of the show to bring someone up to speed. It was a rare television program, like Twin Peaks, that was the exception. All that began to change with the advent of DVDs and DVRs. Viewers could now go back and see longer stories that roll out slowly over 13 or 26 episodes.
Of course, there were always soap operas, but the first program I can remember that told season long stories was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While there was a monster of the week (as was common in genre shows at the time), it was the first to interweave a season long story into the episodes with a final battle with a big bad. Characters began to have evolving relationships and complex histories that became incomprehensible to a casual viewer.
Buffy box sets were the way to catch up on her vampire slaying ways, but with time, DVRs and On Demand allowed for even more complex stories. Shows like Lost were introduced, where people not only had to watch an episode to understand what was going on, but people often watched each episode multiple times. While it may have been the extreme case, most dramas became serialized and the deep relationships became the norm. Tuning into a medical drama meant you may see a harrowing medical emergency of the week, but the characters would not be relatable and their relationships may be tough to discern in a single hour.
Even sitcoms are not exempt from this change. Picking up a sitcom from the 1970s or 80s, it’s easy to pick up who the main characters are, the wacky neighbors, etc. and each kept to archetypes that allowed for the viewer to jump into an episode of All In the Family or Cheers without trying to decipher a Gordian Knot. A couple decades later and trying to watch an episode of The Office without knowing the characters or the backstory means that the show isn’t as appealing to a casual viewer.
Reruns have always been an important part of television, but what will the future hold for them? The television landscape has changed, not only by the complexity of the programming, but the amount as well. My favorite thing to do growing up was to come home from school and watch Batman reruns, but the programming of today is not something that those who weren’t there for the first run will want to jump into.
Casual television is mostly gone, but we don’t know what the future holds for how we will continue to watch. The programs of today may not be consumed by future generations as they cannot access it easily, but with the volume of programming today, will they even care about any of the television of old?