'Another Great Year For TV': David Bianculli On The Best (And Worst) Of 2015

Dec 24, 2015
Originally published on December 24, 2015 2:36 pm

When it came to new programming, broadcast TV didn't impress critic David Bianculli much this year. But if you add in cable and streaming services, then the story changes.

All told, cable and streaming made it "another great year for TV," Bianculli tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. The year was so good, in fact, Bianculli says he could have made a Top 20 or even a Top 30 list, but in keeping with tradition, he has narrowed it down to 10 — OK, fine, 11 — picks:

1. Better Call Saul (AMC)
"I didn't expect it to be that good."

2. Fargo (FX)
"In its second season, it rebooted from the first, and I loved everything about the program."

3. Justified (FX)
"Good finale. Excellent final year."

4. The Good Wife (CBS)
"The only show from broadcast TV on my Top 10."

5. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)
"He went out very strong, not just in the last day, but in the last year."

6. Mad Men (AMC)
"I think it ended beautifully."

7. The Walking Dead (AMC)
"It's a genre show, but it's a really well done one."

8. Louie (FX)
"Those really aren't TV shows so much as little mini movies and [Louis C.K. is] one of the few TV auteurs that we have through TV history."

9. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)
"About what would have happened if the Nazis and the Japanese had won World War II and taken over the United States and it's this alternative history stuff that's beautifully realized — great production values and very creepy. ... Once you've stopped watching [it stays] with you with images for weeks and months — that's, to me, a really good show."

10./11. Tie between Episodes (Showtime) and Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
"I think [Episodes] gets overlooked every year and it makes me laugh out loud more than just about anything else that I watch."

As for the brand new stuff? Bianculli liked Mr. Robot (USA) and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (Comedy Central) but advises viewers to steer clear of Sex Box (WE).


Interview Highlights

On changes in late night television

I think [Stephen Colbert's] transition was seamless. People wanted to know what he would be like without the faux character of the arch-conservative and he was fine. He sings well, he plays, he's enthusiastic. He's not as much of a fanboy as say, Jimmy Fallon, but all of those seem to work. I think he's found a place and he's going to just grow and he's doing fine. I haven't been as caught up with Trevor Noah [on The Daily Show] yet, I like some of his new correspondents, but I don't feel like he has the gravitas ... I like the outrage of his predecessor, and I also like the outrage of John Oliver [Last Week Tonight] over on HBO.

On how broadcast and cable TV are adjusting to the changing TV landscape with streaming

I think that cable is doing a much better job both in what they're scheduling and in how they're presenting it. Broadcast TV right now seems lost. ... What they did this year, it seems to me, was to double-down on trying to reach the broadest audience, you know, the whole idea of broadcasting, and I don't think that's the way to succeed. The shows that they brought out, there wasn't a really great program or even a very good program in the entire fall season batch. And I think that what they've got to do is go for very specific audiences and shows and get a few million people at a time to really like something and build that consensus. That's what cable is doing well, and it's the way streaming got on the map in the first place.

On the Netflix model

All that Netflix wants is for people to keep subscribing to Netflix. So if you have one show that will keep you happy — it's the same thing as the HBO/Showtime model — if people don't churn, if people don't walk away, then you're making money off them every single month, and you have 10 different shows that reach 10 percent of the audience, then you're not going to have any churn.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we have our annual review of the year in movies and TV. A little later, our film critic David Edelstein will talk with us about his best of the year list. First, our TV critic David Bianculli has his 10-best list and a look at some of the new developments this year that continue to change what we watch and how we watch it. Hi, David.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Hi.

GROSS: So how does this past year rate in terms of quality TV and choices in TV?

BIANCULLI: Lots of great TV. As a longtime TV critic, I'm probably the only person left who still makes a distinction about broadcast TV versus other forms. And now there are plenty of other forms. But so broadcast TV didn't impress me at all this year in terms of new programming. But overall, you add cable, you add streaming, you add all these new things - another great year for TV.

GROSS: So let's hear your top 10 list. Let's start with number 10 and dramatically work our way up to number one.

BIANCULLI: OK, and let me do the one preface - people are not going to hear some of their favorite shows on this. There really could be a top 20 or top 30. It's really that good. But I've narrowed it down. So - except I've had a tie for 10 just so I can get 11 in because I didn't want to leave "Episodes" off, the Showtime comedy with Matt LeBlanc. I think that gets overlooked every year and it makes me laugh out loud more than just about anything else that I watch. And another show that's tied for 10th but it got lots of attention was "Inside Amy Schumer" on Comedy Central.

GROSS: This was her year between her movie "Trainwreck" and her fabulous TV series.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's unbelievable. And her TV series has been around for a while. This was its third season. But it came out of the box this year. She did an entire spoof of "12 Angry Men," which was, you know, an old golden age live TV thing where it was a deadlocked jury dealing with a murder trial. And this time, she had a bunch of actors - and shot the whole episode in black and white - arguing about whether or not Amy Schumer deserved to have a TV show.

GROSS: OK, let's hear that.

BIANCULLI: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE AMY SCHUMER")

JEFF GOLDBLUM: (As Juror #1) OK, so it's got to be a 12 to nothing vote. Either way, that's the law. So gentlemen, raise your hands please if you think that Amy Schumer is not hot enough to be on television? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 - that's 11 votes for Amy Schumer, not hot enough for television. Did anybody vote in the other way?

DI PAOLO: (As Juror #2) Are you kidding me?

JOHN HAWKES: (As Juror #3) I think she might be hot enough.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Juror #4) Boy, oh, boy, there's always one.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Juror #5) Golly, that is unexpected.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Juror #5) When's lunch?

GROSS: So that was a clip from the Amy Schumer - "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" And that's a great encapsulization (ph) of how she really turned her show into, on many episodes, a kind of, like, feminist comedy show.

BIANCULLI: Right, there was a lot going on there. And it also worked if - and I don't think many people saw the original. I teach the original so I see it twice a year. And, point by point, you know, the types of evidence that they draw, the way that the different characters are drawn and react, it's a really excellent parody. But it's also making a strong, you know, political points about sexism.

GROSS: And wasn't "12 Angry Men" a movie, too?

BIANCULLI: It was a movie, it was a Broadway show, but it began, I will say, as a live television broadcast. That was where it started.

GROSS: OK. So "Inside Amy Schumer" was tied for number 10. What else is on your top-10 TV list?

BIANCULLI: OK, working up. Number nine, from Amazon, so this is one of the new streaming services that's getting into the business, "Man In The High Castle" from Frank Spotnitz. And that's taking the Philip K. Dick story from back in the '60s about what would've happened if the Nazis and the Japanese had won World War II and taken over the United States. And it's this alternative history stuff that's beautifully realized, great production values and very creepy. I mean, for a show, once you've stopped watching it, to stay with you with images for weeks and months, that's, to me, a really good show. Number eight - "Louie" on FX. I just - Louis C.K. just amazes me.

GROSS: And me.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, with what he's able to do. Those really aren't TV shows so much as little mini movies. And he's one of the few TV auteurs that we have through TV history. I mean, he's basically responsible for everything. Number seven is "The Walking Dead" on AMC. It's a genre show but it's a really well done one. Number six, which is now gone, AMC, another show, "Mad Men." And I think it ended beautifully. And number five, another show we don't have anymore, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." He went out very strong, not just in the last day but in the last year and such a smart show and I miss that. Number four - "The Good Wife," on CBS and one of the only shows from broadcast television. As a matter of fact, the only show from broadcast TV on my top 10. Number three, "Justified," another show that went away, good finale, excellent final year. And number two, "Fargo," an FX show in its second season. It rebooted from the first. And I loved - I loved everything about the program. And then my number one program, which is a spinoff from "Breaking Bad" on AMC, "Better Call Saul," didn't expect it to be that good.

GROSS: You brought a clip with you from "Better Call Saul." Do you want to introduce it?

BIANCULLI: Sure. This is - well, better - Saul is a character - Saul Goodman - from "Breaking Bad." And he's kind of like this sleazy lawyer, and this is a prequel that shows us how the character Jimmy McGill eventually would turn into, you know, Saul Goodman. So here is a flashback where we're seeing Jimmy McGill meeting at a cafe with a couple of clients that he wants to pull in to try to make some money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, I'm just fuzzy as to why you think he needs a lawyer. I mean, Craig, the way you run your office is beyond reproach.

JEREMY SHAMOS: (As Craig Kettleman) Beyond reproach. I'm a stickler.

JULIE ANN EMERY: (As Betsy Kettleman) Yes, he's a stickler with the money. He's definitely a stickler. And he's certainly not guilty of some...

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) He's certainly not. He's innocent of any wrongdoing. That's abundantly clear to me. And frankly, I don't go looking for guilty people to represent. I mean, who needs that aggravation, right?

(LAUGHTER)

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Look, all I know is what I read in the paper. Typically, my money goes missing from the county treasury and the number here is $1.6 million.

EMERY: (As Betsy Kettleman) Well, that's an accounting...

SHAMOS: (As Craig Kettleman) That was an accounting discrepancy.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) It's a discrepancy, absolutely. But typically when that happens, the police look at the treasurer. And since that person is... (Laughter) I just think a little proactivity (ph) may be in order.

SHAMOS: (as Craig Kettleman) I just think I'd look guilty if I hired a lawyer.

EMERY: (As Betsy Kettleman) Yeah.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Actually, it's getting arrested that makes people look guilty, even the innocent ones. And innocent people get arrested every day, and they find themselves in a little room with a detective who acts like he's their best friend. Talk to me, he says. Help me clear this thing up. You don't need a lawyer. Only guilty people need lawyers. And boom, hey, that's when it all goes south. That's when you want someone in your corner, someone who will fight tooth and nail. Lawyers, we're like health insurance. You hope you never need it but man, oh, man, not having it? No (laughter).

GROSS: A great scene from "Better Call Saul," which is number one on our TV critic David Bianculli's top 10 list of the year. What are some of your favorite shows that started this year?

BIANCULLI: There were so many of them. And again, this is with the whole idea of so many places trying to get into the game and putting new things forward that this is the first time I've offered a 10 best new list. So number 10 on the list of shows that premiered in 2015 is "Mr. Robot" on USA, which sort of came out of nowhere and was a very clever show. Number nine, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," on the CW, a musical - number eight, "Master Of None" on Netflix with Aziz Ansari. Number seven was "Humans," which was another genre pick about androids that may be more than just androids. That was on AMC and very smart. And number six, one of the many talk show shifts this year was "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore" on Comedy Central. And it didn't take him long at all. I think he succeeded more quickly at establishing his own voice than anybody else who stepped into a new role. And I think sometimes even his opening moment - and he would tease the show to come - would get gasps from the audience because he was being so honest and so outrageous.

GROSS: You brought a clip with you of Larry Wilmore's show.

BIANCULLI: This as an exact example of that. This is the very first start of an - you know, the very first moment of an early show, and just listen to the audience reaction and his glee in saying it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW WITH LARRY WILMORE")

LARRY WILMORE: Tonightly, we're talking Cosby. We'll answer the question, did he do it? The answer will be yes.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

WILMORE: He says he's innocent. Protesters say he's guilty. There's a statute of limitations on the charges, but there's no statute of limitations on my opinion. And I'm telling you that [expletive] did it, so let's do this.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That's from early in Larry Wilmore's first season on Comedy Central. And the good news is, like, he is going to be the comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner...

BIANCULLI: I'm so excited by this, yeah.

GROSS: ...This year in April, yeah.

BIANCULLI: You know, you think of, like, when Stephen Colbert did it, it was such a perfect time for him, and he handled that so beautifully. I expect Larry Wilmore is going to do the same thing and be the first one in a few years to actually really bounce out from that.

GROSS: Let me just take a sidebar trip here for a moment. So that clip that we just heard from Larry Wilmore was about Cosby. And since, David, you teach a history of television class, which I'm sure has included "The Cosby Show," what's it like teaching that show now?

BIANCULLI: It's creepy. And as a matter of fact, I've made some changes. When I - I teach one course in TV of the '60s and '70s. And so in that one, I do show a clip from "I Spy," and it's very significant historically because it's the first African-American dramatic leading role, so I show that. I don't teach a TV in the '80s course, so I don't have to try to get them to laugh at "The Cosby Show" anymore. But I struggle with this because, you know, it's tarnished the legacy for me just - I'm setting aside the guilty or innocent and just talking about all the questions. It can't be shown the same way in a classroom right now. "The Cosby Show" is a funny comedy, so there's got to be a way to do that, but I'm wrestling with it right now.

GROSS: Yeah, good luck.

BIANCULLI: It's tricky.

GROSS: OK, let's get back to your list of the 10 best new shows of the year.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: You want to pick up where we left off?

BIANCULLI: Oh, sure, now that we've built up the suspense to an unbelievable degree, OK, number five, "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll," the new Denis Leary show on FX. I thought that was very clever. Number four, finally broadcast TV, "The Grinder" on FOX, I didn't expect this to be as good or as funny as it was. It's Rob Lowe as a TV actor playing a lawyer who loses his show and goes back to his home where his brother, played by Fred Savage, is a real lawyer. It's very good. It's very smart. It sounds...

GROSS: Very meta (laughter).

BIANCULLI: It doesn't sound - yeah, but it is - meta is much better. I was going to say it sounds very stupid, but yes, it sounds very meta, and it's clever, very well-acted. Number three is "The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst" on HBO. And then the last two we've already mentioned because they made the top 10 shows overall. "Man In The High Castle" on Amazon was number two, and "Better Call Saul" on AMC is number one.

GROSS: Well, there's more TV to talk about, including the worst of the year.

BIANCULLI: Oh, yeah, this'll be fun.

GROSS: So let's take a short break, and then we'll get to that. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, I'm with our TV critic David Bianculli, and we're talking about the best and worst TV of the year.

I want to hear what's on your worst list. This is always fun.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, this is my favorite part.

GROSS: And I usually - I usually - not to brag about my sensibility (laughter), I usually don't even know the shows that are on your worst list 'cause they're - I don't know -sometimes I've never even heard of them. What does that say?

BIANCULLI: I know. I know. Well, it says that you trust me because I could be making these up.

GROSS: Yes, right.

BIANCULLI: And, really, I would feel better about television if I were making some of these up - especially the top one. I'll mention numbers two through five very quickly just to get them out of the way. I don't think these take a lot of time. There's "Truth Be Told" on NBC, which was a sitcom - just reprehensible. I don't even want to say why I hated it so much except that it had to do with a very young actress being given lines that were suited for much more mature people. And that was supposed to be funny and it wasn't. So that's my second-worst of the year. Third-worst of the year on ABC was "Wicked City," which was a, you know, let's watch a serial killer in action kind of thing and just very misogynistic and mean-spirited. Number four was "Dr. Ken," an ABC comedy that wasn't funny - I mean, really was so anti-humor that it earned its place on the list. And number five was "The Leisure Class," which was the HBO movie that was the ultimate result of this series of - this latest series of "Project Greenlight," and it was just - just as insufferable as the director who made it. And I must say, Terry, I love doing these end-of-the-year wrap-ups. This is my favorite part is being able to bring to you the worst of the worst because I - this one is from the WE - W-E - network, and it's a show called "Sex Box."

GROSS: And what is it about?

BIANCULLI: Three - we'll be very kind and call them therapists or counselors or something - they are various supposedly qualified people, except no really serious qualified person would do this. But they sit there and a married couple comes out that's having some sort of problems, and they talk to them about it for a few minutes, and then they decide the way to help them is to have them just walk a few feet on stage and go into this little enclosure, a sex box, and have sex while they wait and while they time them and while the audience is sitting there. And then they come out...

GROSS: Is that so romantic.

BIANCULLI: I know. And then they come out full of endorphins and afterglow and get, you know, sort of de-briefed by these same people and ask questions about how they did and how it felt and what's next and - it's one of the worst things - not this year - it's one of the worst things I've ever seen.

GROSS: Well, you usually bring a clip of the worst TV show of the year. Do we get to hear some of "Sex Box?"

BIANCULLI: Yeah, yeah. You're not going to - you have to understand the "Sex Box" is opaque, so when they go in it you don't get to see them having sex. But I hope that the creepiness of this show comes off with whatever you hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEX BOX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) "Sex Box" contains discussions of a frank sexual nature. Viewer discretion is advised.

Tonight, three couples in crisis with nowhere else to turn...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) No, god.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) ...Will take part in the most radical therapy ever seen on television.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Host) Welcome to "Sex Box."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) Guided by three of the nation's leading sex and relationship experts, these couples are about to bare it all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As expert) After sex, the oxytocin's at its highest, so you're going to feel the most open and honest.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) Confessions will be made.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As expert) Brandon (ph), did you know that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Brandon) Yeah, but it's never really been said out loud.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) Secrets revealed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) So you think you sound too far outside the sex box?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) And lives changed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I just need you there with me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) I'm not going nowhere.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) All by having sex in this box in front of a live studio audience.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As expert) Why do you stay in this relationship?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, don't - don't - don't - I - yeah.

GROSS: Is that show still on the air?

BIANCULLI: No.

GROSS: OK, so what does that say? You have a reality competition show with couples actually having sex on the show but in an enclosed box, and that show fails. What does it say - maybe you can't bet on the bad taste of the American public?

BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's hopeful that it doesn't succeed, but it's so reprehensible to me that it exists at all.

GROSS: How do we know that they really had sex in that box? You know...

BIANCULLI: Terry, here you are...

GROSS: Just as a fact-checking - as a journalist, a fact-checking exercise.

BIANCULLI: I understand, you know. I'm stunned that you took it that - I mean, yeah. Wow, I never questioned that they did because if you see them - now, this is radio - they're just the sort of people that would.

GROSS: Well, hearing the open to that with, like, tonight - drumbeat - reminded me that the cable stations, maybe especially CNN, have kind of...

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) There's a - that's a nice - I can't wait for this segue.

GROSS: They have these, like, reality show competition openings for the debates.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: It's like, tonight, eight Republican candidates face off (imitating drumbeat).

BIANCULLI: Wow.

GROSS: You know, and it's just - and then there's this, like, little dramatic tease for each of the candidates. And it does really sound like it's going to be a reality show where only one is left standing at the end.

BIANCULLI: Right.

GROSS: Did you find that a little odd though that, you know, the, like, the debates for the next presidential candidates are being positioned in the opening as if they are reality show competitions?

BIANCULLI: Well, the front-runner, as we are speaking, in the Republican side came, you know, came to national consciousness...

GROSS: This is true.

BIANCULLI: ...In a reality show where this sort of a competition was exactly there.

GROSS: Why am I even surprised then?

BIANCULLI: It's home ground. It's home ground. But it is - you know, and he is - in the most recent debate - not to pick on Donald Trump, but I'll pick on Donald Trump in this respect - they did split screen. So when Jeb Bush was talking, you could see Donald Trump reacting. And it reminded me - and this is going - only older listeners are going to remember this - of when Chevy Chase on the first season of Saturday Night Live used to mouth, you know, and make fun of people as they were talking. And it was just - he was actually doing that sort of visual humor, which is not presidential. And yet it is reality show entertainment. And the debates are getting bigger numbers than they have in decades. And I think it's because even the people presenting them, the networks presenting them, are forcing them to go the reality show mode.

GROSS: I'm talking with our TV critic David Bianculli. After we take a short break we'll talk more about the year in television. And our film critic, David Edelstein, will talk with us about his 10-best list. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my conversation with David Bianculli about the year in television. David is FRESH AIR's TV critic and the founder of the website TV Worth Watching.

"Late Night" really changed this year. And there were, like, tearful goodbye shows and then new people coming on. Lettermen had a really interesting last night. And you've brought a clip from that.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, he did one - of course he has to do one final top 10. And what he did for the top 10 is he invited 10 different celebrities on to say the top things they would like to say to Dave. So one of the people in the top 10, for example, was Jerry Seinfeld. And then a couple more, as we listen to this clip, with Chris Rock and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN: Number five - Chris Rock.

(APPLAUSE)

CHRIS ROCK: I'm just glad your show is being given to another white guy.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

LETTERMAN: You know, I had nothing to do with that.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number four - Julia Louis-Dreyfus, ladies.

(APPLAUSE)

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

GROSS: So after David Letterman's retirement there was a gap of several months before Stephen Colbert moved in and created his own late-night show. So what do you think so far of Stephen Colbert as the host of "Late Night?"

BIANCULLI: I think his transition was seamless. You know, people wanted to know what he would be like without the full character of the archconservative. And he was fine. And he sings well. He plays. He's enthusiastic. He's not - he's not as much of a fan boy as, say, Jimmy Fallon, but, you know, all of those seem to work. I think he's found a place, and he's going to just grow, and he's doing fine. I haven't been as caught up with Trevor Noah yet. I like some of his new correspondents, but I don't feel like he has the gravitas on a comedy show - maybe the wrong word - but I like the outrage of, you know, of his predecessor. And I also like the outrage of John Oliver over on HBO.

GROSS: John Oliver seems to have maybe invented this new genre, which is investigative comedy.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, that's a great way of putting it - and in-depth investigative comedy. You know, when he would take a chunk of his show - almost half of his half-hour show - to a single topic and do it really well. And I've been sort of amazed even things - I'm a TV critic, I learned more about net neutrality by watching his program. And I learned more about FIFA, and he was way out ahead of that whole soccer scandal. And he just focuses on things in a very smart way. So, yes, he has found his own voice and his own way to do that. So I think he's been great. And I think Larry Wilmore has, also.

GROSS: So, as you've already mentioned, this was quite a year for Netflix and Amazon in terms of originating new programs. How are the networks - and by networks I mean broadcast and cable - reacting to what I'm sure they perceive as a threat from Netflix and Amazon?

BIANCULLI: I think that cable is doing a much better job both in what they're scheduling and in how they're presenting it. Broadcast TV right now seems lost to me. I don't expect that to last. What they did this year, it seems to me, was to double down on trying to reach the broadest audience - you know, the whole idea of broadcasting. And I don't think that's the way to succeed. The shows that they've - they brought out, there wasn't a really great program or even a very good program in the entire fall season batch. And I think that what they've got to do is go for very specific audiences and shows and get a few million people at a time to really like something and build that consensus. That's what cable is doing well. And it's the way streaming got on the map in the first place.

GROSS: What is the economic model for Netflix and Amazon in terms of revenue from the TV shows that they're producing?

BIANCULLI: I - Netflix won't tell you, but I finally got something from - I don't know if I should say from whom - but what - from an actor who stars in a Netflix series who is privy to the breakdown. And, you know, he said that when his series launched they'd worked it out in terms of the numbers, and they only needed to get like 200,000-some viewers in order to break even in terms of the investment, and they got multiple, multiple millions. So it's a different model because all that Netflix wants is for people to keep subscribing to Netflix. So if you have one show that will keep you happy - it's the same thing as the HBO-Showtime model. If people don't churn, if people don't walk away, then you're making money off them every single month. And you have 10 different shows that each reached 10 percent of the audience then you're not going to have any churn.

GROSS: So as you've been keeping up with so much new television, you've also been writing a book about the history of television?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: With, you know, the classic shows and your favorite shows and interviews with people who've created some of the shows that you're writing about. So as you're simultaneously immersed in the current and the very old, what are some of the biggest differences that you're seeing between then and now?

BIANCULLI: The biggest differences are the variety. But the similarities are what knocked me out. It's basically a history of quality TV and the evolution of it. And so I started talking to more and more people because I realized these people who make TV and are making what I consider the best TV are making it because they watched good TV when they were young and it inspired them. And sometimes it's really surprising stuff. Matt Groening of "The Simpsons," when I asked him about how, you know, in Springfield there's this whole town of supporting characters that may not show up every week but you know them when you see them. And I asked if he got that from "The Jack Benny Show," and he said, no, "Floyd The Barber." So for him it was "The Andy Griffith Show" that made him - and who would've thought that that was an inspiration for "The Simpsons?"

GROSS: Well, the sensibilities of those two shows are just about opposite.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) I know. I know. But it's fascinating to me that that's where these little things come from.

GROSS: Well, David, I wish you a happy and healthy New Year.

BIANCULLI: Oh, thanks. I love doing this. Thanks for having me back.

GROSS: I love it, too. Thank you for reviewing the year 2015 in television for us. And I look forward to what you have to say about the shows of 2016.

BIANCULLI: OK, I think it will be another good TV year.

GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He is the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching. And he teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Coming up after a short break, our film critic David Edelstein brings his 10-best list. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.