The reports of TV's death are greatly exaggerated
EVER since J. R. Ewing got gunned down on Dallas in 1980, one of television's favourite gambits has been the cliffhanger, where an individual episode or entire season would end on the cusp of a shocking loss or a devastating revelation. Increasingly, that's how the medium itself is being treated. The end of television is constantly being forecast, just another year of social change or a revolutionary new product line away. You can take your choice of potential smoking gun: apathy or Apple.
Some observers confuse the health of the television business with the quality of the shows it broadcasts. In the coming months, the once imperious Nine Network may become the property of a banking consortium and various predatory debtors, but it doesn't mean that its schedule is going to suddenly fill up with cheap reruns of Nicaraguan game shows and reality series in which viewers vote on the plastic surgery procedures contestants receive (although you wouldn't put it past the ratings-challenged Ten Network).
Worry over the future format of television or what we'll watch it on obscures not just the creative strength of the small screen, but the way it has increasingly become entwined in our lives. Television has always been a shared experience, but now it's the fuel that powers social media interaction. It's the foundation of updates and tweets, recaps and memes. Television is not always great - sometimes it's deliberately bad - but it's something we instinctively discuss and part of the vernacular.
Whether it's The Voice or Howzat! Kerry Packer's War (two shows, incidentally, that both screened on the supposedly hobbled Nine Network), Mad Men or Dexter, television cuts across social boundaries - Gina Rinehart is rumoured not to get The Simpsons but nearly everyone else does. Joking that ''winter is coming'' tells you that someone is a Game of Thrones fan, a reference to Li'l Sebastian opens up a shared discussion of the sitcom Parks and Recreation. Likewise, if a person despises The Shire you know they're sane.
Television hasn't replaced the movies - they have separate strengths - but it has empowered the group that was at the bottom of cinema's totem pole: writers. Disillusioned movie writers become fulfilled creators and producers in television. The best television has a strong, distinctive voice, which in turn draws actors hungry for roles they can make their own. Steve Buscemi has been in numerous films, but he's never had a part as complex and multi-faceted as ''Nucky'' Thompson, the corrupt politician atop the 1920s crime drama Boardwalk Empire.
Television is showing greater creativity. Everyone knows about the brilliance of The Sopranos or The Wire (You don't? Shhh - there are five series and they're all on DVD), but beyond that there's a wealth of quality to explore. Always wanted to watch a show about a meek chemistry teacher who becomes a methamphetamine manufacturer? You can now, it's called Breaking Bad.
While television drama increasingly gives us people we haven't seen before, such as Bryan Cranston's Walter White from Breaking Bad and Claire Danes' dedicated but troubled CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Homeland, there's also been a renaissance in the sitcom with the success of Seinfeld paving the way for a new wave of 30-minute humour.
There's the classically structured Big Bang Theory, with Jim Parsons' masterfully played geek Sheldon, the black political humour of The Thick of It and Veep, and a slew of hilariously oddball comedies including 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and, most recently, Louie. The latter, alternately savage and tender, is the creation of America's leading stand-up comedian, Louis C.K., who through television can now control his original creation.
Whether it's illegal downloading or the continuing employment of Charlie Sheen, television is always going to have a threat hanging over it and naysayers ready to write it off. But perhaps this is actually just the first phase, and there's more to come. Australia is certainly still catching up, having just rediscovered the potential of the mini-series as a way of addressing our past.
Stop worrying about the size and shape of the screen and just enjoy the shows. Television is good for you.
■Craig Mathieson is a Melbourne critic and writer.