The Golden Age of television offers dramas, reality series and cake shows

With reruns and new episodes of at least five different cake shows — Ace of Cakes, Wedding Cake Wars, Cupcake Wars, Cake Boss, and Ultimate Cake Off — available for your everyday consumption, it feels like television has hit a new low.

More and more Netflix queues and DVRs are filling up with the likes of Mad Men, The Wire and Homeland while the Oscars are struggling to generate significant buzz.  In fact, many consider the present a golden age of television as a medium.

Not that the medium doesn’t have issues.

“I don’t need a show about cakes,” former television executive James Andrew Miller said last week at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s discussion, “Is This the Golden Age of Television?”

“It’s so derivative,” Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss said, seeming to agree with Miller’s most definitive statement of the night. “But 45 minutes later, I’m sitting there watching them spread frosting on the cupcakes.”

The back-and-forth was reflective of the four-person panel moderated by KCRW radio host and Daily Beast columnist Kim Masters, which struggled to assess a television landscape where cable television dramas can match the production value and acting of any Hollywood movie, but are often outdrawn on a weekly basis by shows such as the Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives of Orange County.

Occidental College professor and historian Thaddeus Russell and Homeland producer and writer Meredith Stiehm rounded out the panel at MOCA’s Ahmanson Theatre, but could no more come to a conclusion than Weiss and Miller could.

Russell stresses the changing landscape of both televisions demographics and distribution methods, saying that the present truly is a golden age for the medium if the viewer “valued diversity and choice.”

And Stiehm, who worked on shows such as Beverly Hills, 90210, NYPD Blue and Cold Case prior to producing and writing for the critically acclaimed Homeland, notes the increased choice today’s television programming offers to the viewer, especially on cable networks.

“It’s harder on the networks [today],” Stiehm said. “Networks have gotten more conservative. [Cable has] lots of new places to go.”

Weiss recognizes the opportunity that television — especially cable television — provides its producers, noting television’s ability to draw out characters in a “leisurely way” and not have to bring character development to a close in the constraints of a two-hour movie.

“Television is an opportunity as a writer to make something interesting,” Weiss said.

Miller, on the other hand, isn’t quite as convinced that today’s shows are reflective of a true paradigm shift toward television. He describes the period between 1971 and ’81 as a “quantum leap” that exceeded today’s product.

“Television is just not as compelling as it used to be,” Miller said. “Every single night was an event. I don’t see [the present] as a game changer.”

It certainly is difficult for every night to be an event in the current landscape, Russell later pointed out, as the average household now receives 118 channels as compared to the just seven it received in 1971, Miller’s perceived “quantum leap” start year.

The panelists ran into the question of whether the discussion they were having, or perhaps the exaltation of some of these highbrow shows, left out the average viewer and whether these viewers truly saw television as the gold standard of entertainment.

The recent explosion of attention paid to PBS’s Downton Abbey provided some easy fodder in the area.

“If you think all television should be PBS, you are in the .01 percent,” Russell said. “You are Mitt Romney.”

Stiehm recounted her time on the tail end of 90210 and during NYPD Blue’s heyday and stated that writing for the medium is difficult whether you’re writing “good” or “bad” television.

“Television does not demand quality,” Stiehm said, quoting NYPD Blue creator David Milch, “but it doesn’t preclude it, either.”