Episodes: Friday mailbag (March 31)


Just pretend that I inserted a little song about getting email, sung in the voice of Strong Bad, right here. Then proceed to read the rest of this newsletter!

Billy asks:

I loved those Primers you did for the AV Club a couple years ago. On your Tumblr, you said you had an article scheduled for 90's Dramas, and I was always curious what that would've looked like. Are there any underrated shows you were burning to write about, any trends you feel like people miss when discussing 90's Dramas? Essentially, what is it that made you think, "This Primer on 90's Dramas is going to be a great article"?


I am answering this question almost entirely because it gives me a chance to reach out to the very small audience of my mostly dormant Tumblr (which has largely been replaced by this newsletter) to tell them that it has moved to the address linked to above, because apparently when your Tumblr is mostly dormant and a Greek weightlifter wants to use your old address, they can just take it! This all seems shady to me, but I don't run a major blogging platform.

But I loved those Primers, too, even though they were horrible to edit, I'm sure. (I brought one up in a meeting at Vox the other day, and Genevieve Koski, Vox's deputy culture editor and formerly an editor at both the AVC and the Dissolve, muttered, "I remember those" in a darkly murderous tone.) As a rough primer to the various movements in the history of American TV, I'm still really proud of them.

The reason for '90s drama is pretty simple: We knew people would read it, but it also wasn't '90s sitcoms, which people were more versed in. The basic idea was that it would start with Twin Peaks as the launch of the next era of the Hill Street Blues revolution, then end with The Sopranos blowing everything up. And along the way, we would check in on the obvious high points (The X-Files), the forgotten shows (Party of Five), and subgenres, like the entire output of The WB. The '80s sitcoms piece was dramatically more read than the '70s sitcoms and '80s drama pieces, so it stood to reason that getting even closer to the present might have an even more significant effect.

I had also pitched a piece on '60s dramas (more interesting than you'd think!), '60s gimmick sitcoms, and the original "Golden Age" of TV (which I recall I wanted to try writing with Noel Murray), but the primers were just so time-intensive that none of them ever got on the schedule.

The '90s dramas one, though, was scheduled for the end of the year 2014 -- and then I went off to Vox. So now you know!

Aidan asks a question about the Buffy anniversary, which I've gotten a LOT of questions about:

There was a shocking amount of Buffy CONTENT [the week of the anniversary], which is much a part of the culture website article industrial complex as anything I guess, but it still struck me how universally positive it was, compared to, say, the recent Gilmore Girls nostalgia tidal wave which seemed more measured. Maybe this is because Buffy is not being resurrected (lol), which critics seem generally lukewarm on. Were you surprised by the reaction? Also do you feel like Angel has been completely forgotten? And finally, given the relative failures of Whedon's non-Buffyverse TV projects do you think it's likely we'll see some sort of revival?

There are a few reasons Buffy stood out where Gilmore Girls didn't.

The first is that Buffy legitimately changed the whole TV industry, where Gilmore represents more of an evolutionary dead end. It's the last stop on the "quirky small town show" highway, which used to be heavily populated but was largely empty by the time Gilmore left the air. It's easy to note Buffy's descendants all around us. Gilmore feels more like a show out of time.

The second is that Buffy ended better than Gilmore did (though now that the miniseries was generally well received, maybe Gilmore's reputation will grow, too). It's easier to wholly embrace a show with a mostly satisfying climax, as opposed to one that ended without its creator around.

The third reason is that Buffy is a big part of why a lot of TV critics (including this one) are critics to begin with. It was written about and dissected fervently online, whereas Gilmore was always seen as pleasant comfort food. I think Buffy's strong emphasis on standalone episodes helped it in this regard.

I'm sure that to some degree the fact that a Buffy resurrection isn't imminent (though I'm sure one could happen if Whedon really wanted it to, and if Netflix or Hulu were keen enough to see it happen) ended up positively impacting coverage. But not by as much as you might suspect. Buffy really is, at least in the opinion of most TV critics, a far more historically significant TV show than Gilmore, which makes it easier to overlook its flaws and toast its successes on happy occasions like its birthday.

Also: There was a weird amount of "what about Angel?!" angst from a lot of people, which struck me as slightly strange. It's not that show's 20th anniversary, for one thing, and when it comes to "changing television," it doesn't really have too much on Buffy (or, arguably, Firefly). I would wait until 2019 for that show to get its due.

D writes:

The other day RocketJump posted a pretty nice roundup on how international TV licensing works. But we also know that some shows, especially genre shows, have large dedicated fanbases around the world and they're not exactly waiting the ~3 months it takes for their local station to air their favorite show; they find other ways. Is that licensing model staying for the foreseeable future, regardless of technology? And are the losses due to international TV show pirating negligible for production companies?


The question here isn't really "Will international rights eventually stop being a thing, and will day and date releases around the world become common?" The question here is "What incentive structure will various countries have to release their programs worldwide?" And the answer to both questions is murky (but also driven by the same things).

There are cases where a clear incentive to go day-and-date exists. Just in the US, we've seen this with Sherlock and Doctor Who, which debut within 12 hours of the UK, the only delay so they can fit in US primetime, instead of playing in the afternoon. The fanbases of those shows are savvy enough to torrent stuff, and it's in the best interests of PBS and BBC America to minimize that. But Downton Abbey was never day and date because that audience was much less likely to torrent. (It was also exponentially bigger to begin with.) So there's probably an audience, usually for genre fare, for which there exists a real threat of piracy cutting into the bottom line. Let's pad out average viewership numbers and say it's around 2 million.

Here's the thing, though: You'll notice that I'm talking about these incentives almost entirely in terms of the US. When it comes to other countries, it doesn't especially matter to most US production companies what happens once the show heads over there. The money's already in their pockets. And, frankly, in the vast majority of countries, piracy is a small enough concern that it's almost not worth it -- US programming is a cheap way to slather over holes in the schedule. Yes, I suppose, there exist scenarios where piracy so hurt a show's viewership that it canceled its contract with the US rights holder, but the chain of command there is so convoluted that it's hard to see the US really cracking down, except via gigantic laws that attempt to hit back at piracy by bludgeoning away at it. Usually, it's just easier to find another buyer.

I think the Rocket Jump article is right that this is a now problem, and not an always problem. The future is probably something like Netflix, which releases its original series day and date all over the world for the most part (though it remains to be seen if Netflix can have real market penetration in many countries -- it's very much in doubt). Or it's something like what HBO is increasingly doing, with international co-productions. I think we will get to a global entertainment world, though there will be a lot of awkward stumbling along the way.

What few people realize is that almost all of our entertainment law is a century or more old, and that gets in the way of effectively dealing with a new digital reality. If US policymakers were better versed in either the digital sphere or new modes of entertainment distribution, that would probably change. But US policymakers, by and large, just aren't. So we sit in a weird morass, that seems more of the 1910s than the 2010s. And we'll probably be there for a while.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.