On the future of television

Last summer, I caught the trailer for a show that was coming that fall on NBC.  It was a show called “Awake,” about a man whose reality fragments into two after a car accident that kills his wife and son (depending on which reality you believe; one dies in each).  It looked interesting.  I never watched it that fall.  I waited until I saw it come available to stream online on Netflix this spring, something which happened after the show was cancelled.  I can see why it wasn’t ultimately successful, although the premise is very interesting; however, that’s not what this post is about.  This is about how television is changing before our eyes.

Less than five years ago, we watched shows on a weekly basis.  We circled dates on our calendars, made sure dinner was consumed by a certain time, and organized our social activities in such a way that we could be home for that specific hour or two on that specific night for the television season to see our favorite shows or those newcomers we got interested in.  That’s no longer the case.  With the rise of accessibility of DVR technology, anyone can record a show and watch it later, as my wife and I do with Game of Thrones and Doctor Who.  Alternatively, you can wait for a show to become streaming on your online service of choice – be it the subscription service of Netflix or the pay-per-show model of Amazon.  For me and my wife – casual viewers – there’s simply no reason to make an effort to stay home and watch a show anymore.  We know it’ll be there later.

This changes not just how often we watch television, but more importantly how we consume it; instead of watching one episode per week, viewers who are more likely to stream also seem to be more likely to watch lump sums of episodes at once.  I would argue that this is a result of how television has changed over the last decade; if you read Alan Sepinwall’s book “The Revolution was Televised,” he details how we moved from the join-in-at-any-episode sitcom of the ’90s to the serialized plot arcs of the ’00s.  A show like Lost is the perfect example of a trend-setter in that regard; Lost was, and still is, one of the most ambitiously continuous narratives network TV has seen, regardless of what a person thinks of how said narrative closed out.  Lost also was a show that happened at the right time; fan interaction online became a large part of the Lost experience if you watched it at the time.  Over time, now, though, Lost has also become a show tailor-made to stream, due to the fluidity of the episodes into each other.  I should note that I was a Lost streamer, and not someone who watched it weekly as it happened (to be fair, it would have driven me nuts).  24 was another key show to push this idea, but 24 made no illusions of being a friendly show to pick up at any time.

We now have shows being developed especially for streaming – Netflix, most notably, has opened its own development studio, first debuting the cynical political drama House of Cards and then the supernatural thriller Hemlock Grove before throwing the icing on the cake with the fourth season of Arrested Development (I have not started watching it yet, but I have watched the other two).  Both House of Cards and Hemlock Grove and adequate shows; they certainly push the envelope more than something on network TV, but as far as the basic idea goes, neither show is particularly unlike things you can find elsewhere.  What makes them different is that they were made specifically to be streamed, to be devoured rapidly, and it shows in how they were written.  Minutes spent on reminding you what happened months ago in Episode 2 while you’re on Episode 14 are gone; you watched Episode 2 yesterday, probably.  The other notable thing I read after House of Cards came out was that a show like that is very friendly to a production crew and actors – because everything is released at once, filming is done rapidly.  I read – and I lack the source on this, but the article I saw about it was on Grantland – that a regular 1-hour network show can have a production cycle of 6-8 months; House Cards’ was 2 months.  That’s a big deal.

Arrested Development might prove the great litmus test for the early era of streaming content; Arrested Development was, after all, something of a failure on network television almost a decade ago.  But in the time since then, the DVD/streaming era rediscovered the show (much as the DVD generation discovered Office Space about ten years ago), and Arrested Development has more or less become regarded as one of the best sitcoms of recent history (which it is).  Arrested Development straddled the line between mass consumption and weekly episodes; the show is full of requisite flashbacks, often done with a strongly humorous flair, while maintaining a certain continuity of episodes that made it, oh, a little difficult (but not impossible) to jump right in.  I’ll be interested to see how the writing of the 4th season may or may not be different from the first three.

Amazon, likewise, is starting their own streaming content, although they’re taking a different approach – they’re launching pilot episodes to view online through their Amazon Prime program, and they will produce full series of the pilots that are best received.  Let’s break that down quick – that means that viewer response will dictate which pilots are produced.  Let that soak in and realize that there’s never been that kind of viewer-production relationship before; the closest we’ve come in the past has been fan momentum to get another season of a show (a la La Femme Nikita).  In this case, Amazon is embracing that concept and encouraging a social networking movement – they’ve said they won’t just go off of views, but also off of likes and how much an episode is shared.  Power to the people!

But as we come into this, I have to wonder with a little trepidation whether or not it’s for the best; while I enjoy the higher production values of television and the move towards streaming content a la Netflix, is this really that different from the way the BBC has produced shows over the past decade?  Calling 13 1-hour episodes all released at once a “season” isn’t that far off from the BBC producing a 6 or 8-hour miniseries that runs over 2-4 weeks, and then doing it again a year later (something they do to great effect; see Luther or Sherlock).  The big kudos I give to the BBC is knowing when to call it quits and let a show be what it is.  Arrested Development is endeared to its audience precisely because there’s not enough of it; on the other hand, the legacy of the American version of the Office is dinged because it limped off into the sunset long after most fans got tired of it.  Likewise, BBC miniseries like Sherlock are treasured because they don’t go on long enough to wear out their brilliance.  I’ll be interested to see if Netflix takes note; both House of Cards and Hemlock Grove are set to continue into additional seasons, although either show could end where it is and be fine.  If the streaming era leads to a higher quality product, great.  But as with any sort of easily accessible media, the temptation to unleash a deluge of programming will be there to tempt us.  We already get season upon season of weekly shows after the candle has burned brightest (see the Office); it’ll be interesting to see how that is treated on the streaming front.

And as far as Amazon goes, I simply have to ask – do we really want the unwashed masses of social media deciding which shows to produce and which to not?  I don’t know…

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