Three Golden Ages We’re In. And Some We’re Not.

The world’s so big and complicated these days I imagine there’s always some kind of golden age going on in some corner of it, geographical, cultural, commercial, whatever.

It occurred to me that there’re arguably three golden ages going on in bits of the cultural/media world that I pay attention to. I have caveats and pessimisms for this post,too, but let’s do the happy stuff first.

TV drama. I seriously doubt there’s ever been more scripted TV of decent or better quality available for our viewing pleasure. We have relatively modest TV pipes running into the Ruckley residence – Netflix and (only the Brits’ll know what this means) Freeview – but they still churn out more stuff than it’s possible to stay on top of, given the fairly limited time that gets spent on watching the box. But the choice is there.

TV drama reflects, like so many other bits of the cultural landscape, the invasion of the ‘mainstream’ by geek-accented product and I couldn’t be happier about that. And of course with Netflix, the multiplication of broadcast channels and the advent of the DVR there’s an ocean of both old and new material to merrily drown yourself in. I was about to namedrop specific TV shows here, but to be honest there’s no point. The list could go on almost indefinitely. That’s a total transformation of what the TV world was like just a few years ago. And the reponse to that blossoming of availability has been the production of more good stuff than ever before.

Comics. Comics actually have a specifically defined Golden Age, so this isn’t The Golden Age, but it’s surely a golden age. There’s a greater variety of comics and graphic novels more widely available – digitally or on paper – than there has been in a long time. Probably ever. Online bookshops make them accessible in collected form to almost anyone. The graphic novel section is, by all accounts, one of the bits of bricks-and-mortar bookshops that’s actually thriving. They’re a big deal in libraries.

Unless you’ve been reading comics for a while, there’s something you might not be aware of, though. For all that certain types of comics (superheroes, notably) used to sell way more twenty or thirty or forty years ago, I can absolutely assure you of one thing: waaaay more objectively well-crafted and smart and technically accomplished comics are being produced now than was the case back then. The average quality of art and writing has improved a lot. The sheer volume and diversity of comics and titles and graphic novels being published has been accompanied by an uptick not only in the obvious measure – choice – but also in quality of craft and in ambition.

Podcasts. I talk about podcasts often enough here, so I won’t belabour this one. But come on: this has to be a golden age of podcasting, doesn’t it? There are uncounted thousands of the things, in every imaginable genre, covering every imaginable topic, taking every imaginable form. I spend far more time consuming podcasts than I do any other medium and I can’t do more than scrape the surface of the possibilities.

On one level podcasts are nothing more than radio on demand, but my ears are constantly filled with stuff that would never get on radio in a million years, for commercial reasons or because of silly geographic restrictions or whatever. Whoever you are, there are quality podcasts about almost exactly your interests, and accessing them is childishly simple. That’s pretty amazing.

Which is the peak of my merriment and optimism.

A couple of golden ages I’m pretty sure we’re not in. Movies and novels. It’s a commonplace to moan about the current state of Hollywood movies, so I won’t go overboard. I enjoy a spectacular blockbuster as much as the next person, but … well, I can’t summon up any enthusiasm for trying to claim the golden age of the franchise blockbuster as a particularly worthwhile kind of golden age.

Talking about novels, I’m on much shakier ground. I don’t read many these days, so I’m barely qualified to comment I suppose, but it doesn’t feel like a golden age. In many ways it feels just like business as usual, with at best an average distribution of quality product. I don’t detect a glut of innovation, boundary-expansion, inarguable genius. That’s OK. It’s just not what you’d call a golden age.

All the media – every single one – I’ve mentioned above are in the grip of ongoing technological and distributional revolutions. Those revolutions have, I think, caused or at the very least facilitated golden ages in TV and podcasting (comics to a lesser extent, but they’re part of the mix there too). But those same revolutions have emphatically not triggered golden ages in music, movies or prose fiction. If anything, I’d say they’ve had the opposite effect. Funny how things turn out.

Which brings me to my final point: how things might turn out. I reckon two of my three golden ages are heading for a fall. TV and comics. It might take years, but because of the revolutions in distribution and technology, and because of the ‘buzz’ surrounding these media, there’s an inevitable consequence: oversupply.

Once you reach a certain mass of available content, you can add as much new high quality content as you like and people just won’t have the time or inclination to consume it. So producers overextend. Retrenchment sets in. The golden ages wither and fade. I’m far from the first to suggest a tight, maybe imminent, time limit on TV’s golden age. In the case of comics, there might even be a crash – it’s a much smaller and more fragile market and it’s done that before. Probably not, though. Probably just a decline, a re-setting of the baseline. Fingers crossed.

Podcasts, though. Their golden age has legs, I reckon. Obviously, I’m biased, being an addict, but think about it. They’re new, and their audience still has lots of room to grow. They’re the only one of these media that can be easily consumed while you’re doing something else. Digital audio players in cars are only just really becoming 100% standard. And they have one other huge advantage over most other media: they’re free. We have a winner!

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