Remember what you watched in the 80s and 90s? Sitcoms ruled. You watched The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Full House and the like. The very idea that a one-hour serial drama could dominate television was unheard of in 1985.
Today, Lost, Heroes, The Sopranos and 24 rule the Nielsens. The night the last Seinfeld and Friends episode ran was the nail in the coffin. Nowadays, sitcoms are a tough sell. My favorite sitcom right now, How I Met Your Mother, borrows heavily from the serial drama conventions. Late in its run, Friends finally hooked a bit of that into its storylines. Seinfeld’s series finale was all about previous episodes.
So how did this happen?
Two things: The X-Files and 24 DVD sets sold like crazy and TiVo.
The first time I saw whole seasons of television shows on DVD was when The X-Files went that route. It was a modest success. Networks and people took notice. Then the first season of hit the shelves and it sold like it was the greatest thing ever. Plus the ratings of season two of 24 skyrocketed.
The concept of watching a show religiously to understand what’s going on was the lynchpin of 24 and later Lost and Heroes. Also, the idea that viewers would simply wait for the DVDs to watch entire seasons of shows and “catch up” for next season started becoming the norm.
The other major development was the advent of digital video recorders spearheaded by TiVo. These recorders allow users to program a “season pass” to watch entire seasons of any particular show. Users could now record five weeks of Lost and watch them back to back on a lazy Sunday afternoon and not be glued to the TV screen every Wednesday.
Of the crop of new shows this television season, over half of them were serialized soaps, dramas, or thrillers. Add in the amazing production values of a Battlestar Galactica, Heroes or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and television is looking more like mini-movies.
Networks finally realized that the viewing audience can follow a show from week to week, season to season without becoming lost (no pun intended). Thankfully, the networks are producing more complex and quality shows.
Without Season DVD box sets and TiVo, this would never have happened.