How Watching Television Became a Chore

A young woman I know broke it off with a young man after three dates but declared that it was a pretty successful relationship anyway. “He showed me a couple of great Amazon Prime series,” she told me. “And he turned me on to Derry Girls.”

Derry Girls, for the record, is a British comedy set in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and it’s hilarious. But there are more than 600 scripted television series currently on the constellation of streaming services competing for your credit card number, so if you don’t go on a dedicated search for that specific title, you’ll probably miss it. And that’s one reason there’s a new category of first-date small talk: What are you watching? is the new What’s your sign?

Watching TV has never been so baffling. You don’t just walk in the house and flop down in front of the TV and start flipping around anymore. Watching television in 2024 requires what psychologists and self-help gurus call intentionality. You have to know what you’re looking for and exactly where to find it, which means the entire process usually starts with a Google search. We’re all familiar with today’s Television Catechism. It goes: What was that show we wanted to see, again? Followed by: Which one of the thingy’s is it on? And ends in an exasperated: Do we even get that one?

If you’re at my house, the Anglo-Saxon vulgarism for sexual intercourse is inserted before the words “show,” “see,” “on,” “get,” and “one” in the above.

It’s also possible you will find yourself re-inputting a forgotten password, which will inspire more profanity.

And then there’s the quiet anxiety all of this programming evokes. “I’m way behind on my TV stuff,” a friend of mine told me recently. “I need to catch up on The Crown and I’m working my way through The Gilded Age. I tried to add Better Call Saul to my list because I haven’t seen any of it and I feel bad about it, but I don’t want to keep adding shows to watch and then failing at keeping up with them.”

Working my way through. Way behind. Feel bad. Need to catch up. Failing. These are the phrases people use now for watching TV, an activity that used to require basically zero mental or physical effort. Watching television shows is now showing up on “To Do” lists, like tax returns and colonoscopies.

How we got from idly flipping around the dial to binge-watching The White Lotus is the subject of Peter Biskind’s riveting and juicy book, Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV. Biskind is the author of several books about the entertainment business—his Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains a definitive history of Hollywood in the 1960s and ’70s—and this one is just as much fun. It’s sweeping and gossipy and analytic all at once, and speaking as someone who was present for a few of the arguments and crises he describes, it’s dead-on accurate.

Biskind tells the intersecting stories of how HBO’s success as a premium subscription service inspired Netflix and others to create subscription services of their own, how the #MeToo movement overturned entrenched management at several studios and revolutionized the sexualized and often brutal workplace culture in Hollywood, and how the creative giants of the era were unleashed and allowed to deliver some amazing work to the viewers. The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Shield, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Americans, Breaking Bad—we all have our favorites, and Pandora’s Box is chockablock with details on all of them and more.

One of the axioms we repeat in Hollywood is that no one really wants to know how the entertainment business actually works. The audience, we tell ourselves, is utterly uninterested in, say, the tortured path it took to get Kevin Costner’s smash television series Yellowstone to the screen. Biskind, on the other hand, somehow turns the sausage-making into fascinating boardroom drama. The awkward, ice-cold relationship between former HBO president Richard Plepler and John Stankey, the executive tasked with supervising Warner Bros. after its acquisition by AT&T, wouldn’t necessarily be interesting except we know how it ends: with AT&T running at top speed away from the whole mess, Discovery Channel and David Zaslav stepping in to take it off their hands, and us, staring at our TV wondering what Max is, and if we have it, and if that show we were told about is on it.

The subtitle of Biskind’s terrific book is “How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV,” but let’s get real: guts and guile are nice to have, of course, but it’s greed that makes show business hum. The glittering promise of gold, in the form of hundreds of millions of subscribers dutifully shelling out monthly fees for the mere option of watching a show on a streaming service was just too alluring not to chase.

Show business spent nearly a century as a week-to-week street fight: Movies competed with each other for the weekend box office; television shows went head-to-head during prime time. You never knew where the next big hit was going to come from, which meant that a Beverly Hills hairdresser or the guy who parked your car at Chasen’s could be the next big thing. Show business was unpredictable and wildly remunerative, which is why it attracted the type of mentally unbalanced people—writers, actors, directors, producers—who thrive in that kind of hotbox. The men who built Hollywood—and they were nearly all men—were like wildcatters in the oil business, drilling wherever their experience and instincts told them to, waiting for a gusher to deliver the next Star Wars or Friends. There were a lot more misses than hits, and the D-listers outnumbered the A-listers by a million to one. It was a tough way to make a living.

But imagine a world where the audience pays us anyway, show business thought to itself when streaming was invented, and when they check their credit card bills at the end of the month—and, c’mon, who really does that?—they don’t even think about canceling the service because they think they might want to see a show someone told them about and they feel obligated to finish watching a show they started and also, apparently, Derry Girls is funny and isn’t this the one that shows that? What a glorious improvement over the old model, in which you had to convince people to drag their butts to the theater before you made a dime, or switch the channel to another network in large enough numbers to impress the marketing folks at Chrysler or Frito-Lay or Geico Insurance. Old Hollywood was hard, terrifying work. Streaming Hollywood seemed like a dream come true.

When you combine the promise of streaming television with nearly two decades of zero-interest-rate money coming from Wall Street, what you have is the gas that drives the engine that hums through Pandora’s Box. It’s a gripping and tumultuous saga in which executives give green lights to a lot of shows—some great; some not so much—while the financial markets give green lights to all sorts of streaming ventures—some great, like Netflix; some utterly pointless, like Paramount+—and the audience gives green lights to paying monthly fees for Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple+, Netflix, Max, MGM+, Paramount+, Starz, Disney+, AMC+, and a bunch of others neither one of us can remember.

All green lights turn red, eventually. The breathless optimism which led the entertainment business to pay any price for talent, spend vast sums building streaming services, and produce series costing hundreds of millions of dollars began to ebb in 2022, when Netflix announced its first decline in subscriptions—not a slowing, but a decline. What followed was a seven-month labor work stoppage, a chillier reception on Wall Street, and the general sense that there was a limit to how many services the audience would pay for, and that show business, as usual, had gone way past it. There have been massive layoffs at Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery, production cutbacks at every major studio, and merger and selloff rumors everywhere. Of the 10 or so streaming services that now confuse the viewer, maybe 4 or 5 will be around in a year. Amazon and Netflix have even introduced ad-supported tiers to their subscription offerings, and every major streamer is expected to do the same, which means Hollywood is returning to its old business model. The nightly street fights for ratings are back.

Pandora’s Box hints at the trouble to come, but it’s mostly the story of colorful, charming, slightly unsavory people spending lots of money, many of whom, by the time you buy and read the book, will have been fired. Which is why as much as I enjoyed Biskind’s fast-paced chronicle of the entertainment business during the recent go-go, flush-with-money decades, it all feels like a lengthy overture to the real story, which is what happens now that money is tight and the entire business is contracting. If you think “guts, guile, and greed” upended TV during the fat years, just wait until the sequel, Pandora’s Box II: Revenge of the Shareholders. It’ll be even gutsier, greedier, and with more guile—in other words, it might end up being a pretty good television series. If, that is, you can find it.

Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV
by Peter Biskind
William Morrow, 400 pp., $32.50

Rob Long is an author, screenwriter, and executive producer.

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