Golden Age of TV or Gilded Age?

The New York Times had a fascinating post-Emmy-Awards article in Tuesday's paper in which the writer Alessandra Stanley eloquently ponders whether we are witnessing a "Gilded Age of Television." We've heard the phrase "Golden Age" bandied about, as some critics and the general public argue that we are living through a time of TV excellence that may have started with HBO's The Sopranos.  While the debate rages about whether or not the shows we're seeing are indeed better than the best of the past (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Roots, Jesus of Nazareth, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, etc.), Stanley shifts the discourse to a more profound issue -- are only the elite enjoying today's exceptional programming? With most of the award-winning series airing on pay services, are too many people shut out from watching the best of the best? Is it unfair that only those who can afford to pay the subscription fees for premium channels and streaming services can enjoy Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, and all the rest?

At first I thought, wait a minute, the film industry is a paid admission system, and it's managed to attract the masses. Hollywood could take chances on the big screen that broadcast television couldn't, and it was a model that cable and satellite TV have followed well, adding more edgy content, pushing plotpoints to the edge, enabling them to explore more complex characters and storylines behind the otherwise gratuitous sex and violence. The public could pick and choose what it wanted to see in movie theaters, while traditional TV depended on passive audiences with a limited amount of options, glued to their sets, watching formulaic, cookie-cutter scenarios. Even though arthouse cinema existed, movies were always thought of as escapist fare for millions, even during its own "Golden Ages." Now TV, unbound from the shackles of network censors and broadcast timidity, can tell stories with depth, can show character arcs for the ages, can produce series that are like the finest literary novels, taking the electronic medium to new heights. If such shows contain nudity, gruesome images, vulgar words, shocking situations, the public is choosing with their own wallets to watch. Broadcast standards are not being infringed, no one is sending unwanted smut and junk into viewers homes unwanted. In fact, those who can afford it are paying to see such content.

The comparison with film is flawed, however, since most of these television services are bundled.  There is no a la cart option in cable television -- subscribers are forced to pay for packages of channels, whether they want all of them or not, in order for them to view the handful or slightly more of channels they truly want.  Even services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc. have overhanging subscription fees (even if they are cheaper than most cable bills). I've argued before that there really is no such thing anymore as free TV.  With movies, the masses pick and choose which films to go see. With TV, audiences pay a big price to see everything they want, and even then there is so much content, it's almost impossible to view it all.

Are things better now than they were when networks were making fortunes from selling advertisers the eyeballs of multiple millions of captive viewers? Is it bad that only a handful of millions have the financial means to legally watch True Detective, Fargo, Orphan Black, and many other shows that those in the know rave about as the height of storytelling in the history of TV (or even other entertainment media)?

Public Television was created to counter commercial interests in broadcasting. People can still view Downton Abbey for free on PBS, if the other shows on ABC, NBC, CBS, the CW, and FOX don't meet their highbrow standards. Those who want to see House of Cards, Veep, Mad Men, The Americans, or The Walking Dead for free are out of luck, however.