When ER goes off the air April 2, we will say goodbye to more than the medical staffers who have lived, loved and been tragically killed off for sweeps over the years. We will also say goodbye to the era of broadcast TV it represented: the era of big shows, big audiences and big money.
In 1994, when ER debuted, NBC, CBS and ABC ruled TV. The fourth network, Fox, had no top-20 shows. Cable was flourishing but was hardly a threat. Only a handful of dorks (like me) were using "graphical user interfaces" like Netscape to look at something called the World Wide Web. (See pictures of ER's long goodbye.)
Fifteen years later, the networks are, as the TV docs say, crashing. In the 1994-95 season, 43% of U.S. households, on average, watched the Big Four at a given moment in prime time. Now it's 27%.
With more viewers drifting to cable and going online, the formerly mass networks are losing money and cultural clout. Next fall NBC will give Jay Leno five hours of prime time a week because he's cheaper than producing Medium. Programmers and cultural critics are warning of the end of the mass-media era, when shows from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld joined tens of millions of Americans in a common experience.
I say they're right. And I say hooray.
The decline of the networks is of course a bad thing. For the networks. But for me as a critic and you as a viewer, the important question is, Are there better shows on TV or not? The answer is and has been for years yes. More important, the answer is yes for precisely the same reasons that the big broadcast networks are fading. (There's also more bad TV on the air because there's more of everything. Unless it bothers you that other people are watching bad TV, this is also not your problem.)
The most obvious reason the small-TV era has made television better is the rise of cable. Even as Fox finds new hours on the clock to air American Idol, brilliant comedies and (especially) dramas on cable are flourishing Breaking Bad, United States of Tara, In Treatment, Rescue Me and The Colbert Report, just for starters.
These shows are wonderful and ambitious not just because they can get away with sex and swearing (though it helps). They are able to aim high, and thrive, precisely because the economics of cable allow them to succeed with smaller audiences that want to be challenged. FX's Emmy-winning thriller Damages never would have made it on broadcast because of its byzantine twists and turns; it would have to be simplified, Law & Order -ized. Ditto HBO's and Showtime's hits: an audience intensely interested enough to pay to watch TV will reward risk, not caution.
As networks cut costs, they're less likely to make the next West Wing (or Knight Rider). But smaller shows survive that once wouldn't have lasted a season. Take NBC's finely detailed small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which draws as few as 4 million viewers a week. It was able to air a third season this year because NBC signed a cost-sharing deal with DirecTV one of the very satellite providers that have helped atomize the audience.