2016: The Year of TV Bubbles

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L-R: Westworld, The Ranch, Atlanta. Photo: HBO, Netflix, FX

If I tell you that we’re all living in our own self-chosen media bubbles, and that this is a trend that’s become more distinct with each passing year, you may well roll your eyes. You probably should — at this point, it’s one of the most worn truisms of media coverage. We live in social-media bubbles, we only hear what we’re already willing to believe, and we exist in a media paradigm that reinforces those beliefs, entirely aside from whether they’re true. In fact, that we live in bubbles is one of the few things that conservatives and liberals seem to agree on. Just this week, you can find Nick Kristof’s New York Times op-ed on the higher-education version of this narrative, which posits a now-familiar theory — if only [insert liberal institution here] showed us more [Republicans/Trump voters/rural white people], we’d have been less surprised. More prepared. More unified as a nation.

It’s a story that’s usually about social media and fake news. But it’s also a narrative that applies to our broader TV diet. It’s not just that we only read news that already agrees with us, and that we design our own social-media experiences and collegiate educations to reflect our values. It’s that this insularity can now extend to our entire TV experience, so that the values we seek out on the news and the types of people we curate into our social feeds are also the ones who show up as characters and plotlines in our fiction.

This bubble-based understanding of Peak TV comes from two crisscrossing trends — the explosion of new programming, much of it from niche outlets that can support smaller, more devoted audiences, and the simultaneous decline in ratings for major network scripted TV. While there’s more and more television available to cater specifically to our personal preferences, there’s less television designed for audience breadth and broadcast on widely accessible platforms.

The bubble-fication of TV viewing feels likely to get more extreme with time — as outlets like Netflix grow in prominence and popularity, it becomes more and more likely that if a platform’s algorithm thinks you won’t like a show, you’ll never even know it exists. Your Netflix homepage is less a gateway to programming than it is a mirror, reflecting back at you what Netflix has learned about what you want to see (and what you don’t). If you’re more of a Luke Cage fan, chances are good that you may never see a promo for The Ranch. If you’re more into The Ranch, it’s likely you’ll have no idea that an international show like Atelier (or Club de Cuervos or the very interesting Hibana: Spark) exists. Of course, this was also the summer Netflix realized that everyone wanted to watch Stranger Things, so there are some exceptions to the rule.

By and large, though, the sense that we are all walling ourselves into ever-tinier TV gardens is about what we choose to watch, and what shows we even know exist. But beyond that, the cultural narratives about the TV of 2016 have made it clear that TV viewers can be insulated even from other fans of the exact same show. Recently, the already small, self-selected group of people who watched the Westworld finale collected themselves into two demonstrably distinct groups: those who watched the show casually, and those who’d immersed themselves in the intense Westworld theories culture. Like much larger audiences for TV events such as presidential debates, the Westworld-finale viewer came away from that series with opinions that were as much a reflection of the viewer’s perspective going in as they were about the episode itself.

2016 was a year when what felt like a slow, background niche-fication of our TV habits suddenly exploded into political relevance and became part of a bigger cultural story about deep national rifts. The Good Wife ended, thus ending one of the most recognizable thematically and narratively ambitious, successful network dramas. It’s also a year that saw the explosion of inventive, highly individual, often remarkable half-hour comedies like Atlanta and Better Things and One Mississippi, shows that live on cable channels and streaming platforms and aren’t likely to have the same reach or breadth of audience that The Good Wife did (or ER or Friends or Dallas or The Cosby Show). This is true in spite of the fact that the Atlanta premiere did better than any cable comedy for the past three years; its numbers still indicate far fewer viewers than there are for The Big Bang Theory.

And as with the arguments about colleges and news media outlets and social platforms being too insular, the niche-fication of TV fiction is a pointedly political argument. The series that are still being made with big-tent, old-school network paradigms in mind, like NBC’s new hit series This Is Us, tend to take stabs at progressivism that are notably underwhelming. Meanwhile, a show like The Walking Dead, as big a tent as cable programming ever gets now, lost a chunk of its audience this year after its politics of violence seemed to alienate a significant group of its loyal viewers.

At the same time, in a country where 75 percent of white people have no nonwhite friends, it’s probably useful to note that for many Americans, the characters played by people of color on the still-popular Grey’s Anatomy are the most they ever see or hear from nonwhite voices. It’s similarly important to note that it’s easier and easier to self-select a slate of scripted TV programming where nonwhite voices are either hollow stereotypes or entirely absent. TV bubbles in 2016 mean that I can come away from my TV with a vision of America that looks like the one on Jane the Virgin (economically, racially, and linguistically diverse). Someone else can come away from her TV with an understanding of America that looks a lot more like Blue Bloods, a classic of the procedural vein where an ADA who leaks information about abuse of power in “local high-crime neighborhoods” is first called a “whistle-blower” before another character corrects — “you mean, a rat.”

If only there were TV that appealed to everyone, scripted TV that was somehow about universal human experiences and our shared values that managed to be immensely popular, critically acclaimed, and a cultural touchstone for liberals and conservatives alike. We could have a collective cultural language, we could go back to the days when everyone watched Cheers and everybody knew everyone’s name. Maybe if there were fewer TV bubbles, if TV reflected universality rather than biased specificity, we wouldn’t feel so alienated from each other. Make TV great again!

Except here’s the problem with that, and with the argument about bubble culture more generally — like any claim for any return to greatness, it erases the reality of voices and narratives that just weren’t represented in the past. The inherent conundrum about the fragmentation of media, and specifically scripted TV, is that on the one side, it lets viewers watch only that which they already want to see, and which reinforces their world perspective. But on the other side, TV fragmentation is precisely the thing that’s allowed series like Transparent and Insecure and Jessica Jones to exist. TV “bubbles” also means “TV that’s targeted toward audiences who’ve been severely underrepresented.” (Something that’s also true of The Ranch and Mom, shows about families teetering beyond the edge of middle class and into either rural or urban poverty.) This is not to say that the current TV slate is now a perfect model of diversity (check out Mo Ryan’s work on the paucity of women behind the camera, for instance), or that all small, targeted projects are good. Netflix brought us Orange Is the New Black, and it also brought us Real Rob. But has gotten better. At least a little.

I don’t know that there’s any good answer to this fundamental tension at the heart of TV’s tendency toward niches. I don’t know what a show that’s truly inclusive to multiple viewpoints and lived experiences looks like that could also be immensely popular — Jane the Virgin is as close as any I’ve seen, and ratings-wise, it’s hardly the next Big Bang Theory. But as we talk about what it means to be more representative on television, and as ABC and other networks move toward more programming for “heartland” perspectives, and as Trump’s glossy, celebrity-focused, “how does it play on TV” vision of American slowly leaches into all of NBC and beyond, it’s good to remember that bubble vision works in more than one direction. We may all be building ourselves into our own personalized media niches, but there are also more niches, and more people who finally have a niche, than there have been before.

It’s also a reminder that all TV, and all fiction, is political, even (especially) the pre-bubble properties that seem to defy the bubble logic we’re all focused on right now. Law & Order: SVU is a show about gratuitous violence, and it’s also a show about believing rape victims. Cheers was a show about white classism; Little House on the Prairie was about the myth of the American self. The bubbles we saw exploding into prominence in 2016 are not newly politicizing TV fiction — they’re just dramatizing and often dismantling what was always there.

So question your TV bubble, and worry about the future where all of our entertainment (and news) is made especially for us. But also remember who’s finally seeing TV made for them, and wonder who else is still lacking a TV bubble to call their own.

2016: The Year of TV Bubbles