Welcome to TV's second "Golden Age"

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) on "Breaking Bad." AMC

(CBS News) TV's first Golden Age played out decades ago on old-fashioned console sets topped by rabbit ears. In the view of many critics, television's second Golden Age is NOW. Our Cover Story is reported by Lee Cowan:


As much as we may have loved those seven castaways, chances are none of us rushed home to watch the season finale of "Gilligan's Island," or "Fantasy Island," for that matter.

They were the weeds growing in a "vast wasteland" -- a withering criticism leveled at TV back in 1961 by then-FCC chairman Newton Minow.

But if the TV landscape was considered "vast" back then, think just how vast it is today. There are channels we've never heard of -- channels we don't even know we have -- channels that "stream" instead of "air."

And yet, far from becoming a vaster wasteland, some say the "boob tube" has never been better.

"It's opened up a lot of opportunity, creatively, and people are pushing the envelope in ways that they hadn't before," said actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of HBO's "Veep."

She isn't alone in her praise. Even "All in the Family" 's Rob Reiner says, never before has TV offered such a wealth of nutrients for couch potatoes everywhere.

"I think right now, television is having its second Golden Age," Reiner told Cowan. "I mean, back in the '50s, that was the first time, the birth of television. And right now, there are things happening on television that are far beyond anything that you see even in movies."

Our DVRs are swollen to capacity trying to keep up with it all.

Television isn't just a guilty pleasure anymore -- it's almost a social requirement.

"It's really become, I think, the dominant cultural medium of our time, in terms discussion, in terms of inspiration, in terms of excitement," said Andy Greenwald (who, to be fair, HAS to watch television -- he's a TV critic, for the sports and pop culture website Grantland.com).

But Greenwald says the explosion in TV choices that gave us all this quantity -- has also given writers the creative elbow room to provide quality.

"One of the reasons why TV got so good in the last 10 years is because people got sick of their projects not being made in Hollywood," he said. "So we saw this flood of actors and writers and ideas just gushing into TV."

Charlie Cox, left, and Steve Buscemi in a scene from "Boardwalk Empire."
Macall B. Polay/HBO

"Was it just that people had to figure out how to fill . . . all this blank space?" asked Cowan.

"I think that's really true, that people had to figure out how to fill it," Greenwald replied. "In order to get attention, they took risks. And they pushed TV past the boundaries that we've become so used to for the past 30 or 40 years."

Case in point, he says, is tonight's much-anticipated finale of AMC's "Breaking Bad."

Its anti-hero, Walter White, would never have made his meth on TV 15 years ago.

But that's the point; TV has grown up, says three-time Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston.

"You couldn't put on 'Magnum P.I' and expect that to succeed in this day and age," Cranston said.

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