are television shows better than they used to be?

On this episode of blogging heads, the claim is made that the past decade had the greatest TV, and Matt Yglesias argues that this is due to the growth of DVD sales and DVR equipment. The relative ease with which people can record their favorite shows, according to this theory, allows writers and execs to pursue more  story driven formats. The example offered is The Wire.

It’s hard to get good data on this theory, but even crude measure cast doubt on this claim. First, DVR penetration was roughly 10% in 2005, and the wire began in 2002, and never really attained an extremely high viewership at any point in its run. So, at the very least it doesn’t seem like DVR proliferation allowed TV execs to experiment with a different show format; it seems HBO was just doing what it always does, using its pay base to create good TV. Rather than technology, it seems that the artistic vision of the writer, David Simon, played a large part in  making The Wire so great.


Also, it’s not clear that the use of DVRs necessarily means people will watch episodes they would have otherwise missed, some people just use DVR’s as a convenience to watch the show later in the night or without the commercials.

Finally, a more general point, which is that the rise of DVRs will likely mean worse TV in the future. True, people can watch complicated shows, but there will be no incentive to write such shows, because advertisement space for primetime (or whenever) will be worth much less. Of course, HBO will be immune to these sorts of cost pressures, but again, HBO was always immune to these cost pressures; their model was around before and  it will  likely stay around.


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