20 Years of TV: How Cable Opened Up the Television Landscape Chorus of New Voices

Editor’s Note: This is part four of a series of five articles exploring the past 20 years of television and its effect on the current “Golden Age.” It’s presented in partnership with Sundance Channel and their new original series “Rectify.”

Funny, cable television didn’t look like a media juggernaut when it started out. First commercially available in the U.S. in the early ’70s, regulatory complications, cost and infrastructure slowed its cultural impact. It also faced the now-antique notion of “Must-See TV” — the idea that you’d settle into one channel for an evening’s entertainment, and that channel was either NBC or one of the other two big networks.

But then in 1981 came a cable channel with a marketing campaign designed to inspire the public to storm the barricades: “I want my MTV!” became a rallying cry meant to goad cable providers into carriage — and thanks to the then-newfound power of music videos, it worked. A niche youth market feeling underserved by mainstream broadcast programming flocked to this new outlet.

MTV consolidated its power in 1992 with “The Real World,” which calculatedly combined the then-burgeoning trend of reality TV with youth culture’s obsession with “authenticity.” In contrast to the near-Brechtian artifice of Fox hit “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “The Real World” purported to show the unvarnished lives of actual young people.

In those early years, the show hewed closely to that intent. Its landmark 1994 San Francisco season became a major talking point with the focus on cast member Pedro Zamora’s battle against HIV/AIDS. MTV’s subsequent forays into unscripted programming would rarely see the same social impact, but the 21st century’s reality TV boom century helped create the genre’s language.

Meanwhile, HBO blazed trails for artistically ambitious dramas with “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” leading the way for shows of similar scope on other networks, like FX’s “The Shield” and AMC’s “Mad Men.” Comedies like “The Daily Show,” launched with Craig Kilborn in 1996, and “South Park,” launched in 1997, offered edgier laughs than network sitcoms and late-night shows. And years before the internet permanently altered news reporting, CNN’s 24-hour news cycle shook it up something fierce.

The arrest and subsequent trial of OJ Simpson dominated popular culture from June 1994 until Simpson’s acquittal in October 1995, in large part because cable news could talk about it, almost exclusively, all day. This, more than the Iraq war coverage, would become the dominant model in television news.

By the middle of the decade, a rival all-day channel, Fox News, was established, ostensibly to provide a political point of view many conservatives felt was not given fair voice elsewhere in the media. Then, because CNN was perceived as too centrist by some liberals, came MSNBC.

The proliferation of news channels with political points of view reflected the larger evolution of TV itself from a monolith into a multiplicity. The more access to cable television spread, the more specific niches formed.

With so many options, the market share any one show or even network can claim has greatly diminished. We’re now at a point where many previously underserved audiences are being addressed, where the Spanish-language network Univision has overtaken NBC in the ratings, and cable programs grab higher ratings than network mainstays. The idea of a major section of the population tuning in to the same night of shows is almost impossible to imagine, when there are so many intriguing options to choose from.

Indiewire has partnered with Sundance Channel and their new original series “Rectify” from the producers of “Breaking Bad” (series premiere Monday April 22nd at 9pm.) This startling drama follows Daniel Holden, who is released after 19 years of complete isolation on death row. As he adapts to life outside, anger is reignited in the small town to which he returns. Daniel Holden may be free, but the battle for his life is far from over.

Learn more about “Rectify” here. http://www.sundancechannel.com/series/rectify

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