Last week, I found time to attend an Academy of Television Arts and Sciences event which had television critics Robert Bianco of USA Today, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, Brian Lowry of Variety, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Roush of TV Guide on a panel moderated by Variety editor Cynthia Littleton, giving the audience a critic’s preview of the Fall TV Season. Even though the discussion did eventually get around to what new shows they liked, what new shows they felt would crash and burn and what new shows will become cult darlings, the initial question and somewhat underlying theme of the evening was about the changes within the business of television, which was changing the storytelling of television and its relationship with the audience. In essence, changing technology was providing the audience with the means to easily see what they wanted to watch when they wanted to watch, creating a desire to see complicated storytelling within a closed format leading to a resolution. I see this evolution as the novelization of television.
When television began broadcasting to the public, the public had to adjust their viewing time to the networks’ schedules. Viewers were enticed to return to watch new episodes as an endless series of short tales with favorite characters until the characters or stories became too familiar. Except in a few instances, the series would be cancelled without a final resolution or sendoff to the characters. It was the business of television. Ninety minute movies, stretched out to two hours by added commercial breaks, was the longest form of individual storytelling available within the broadcast schedule. Then, networks discovered that viewers were willing to see more complicated storytelling within a limited number of episodes over a shorter period of time. This was a golden age for miniseries, led by Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. However, the economics of schedule television could not support an over-abundance of miniseries and the format faded. However, cable television, VHS tape recorders and the digital revolution of DVDs, DVRs and smartphones were all evolutionary steps that would move audiences away from scheduled television, which brings us to what Robert Bianco, Tim Goodman, Brian Lowry, Mary McNamara and Matt Roush were observing now.
Per the critics, the defining series for the current evolution of how today’s audiences consume television was Netflix’s House of Cards which released all 13 episodes to its subscribers at the same time. This allowed the Netflix audience to become like the reader who stays up all night to finish a good book. The audience was able to binge view the entire series and walk away satisfied at reaching the somewhat season-ending resolution. However, one of the critics related that he was hearing from friends who were DVR’ing full seasons of other current cable series, which have been running a single complex storyline within a shorter span of ten to twelve episodes, and then binge-viewing them in one day to get that same feeling of reading an exciting book in one sitting. For viewers of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, each episode was like a chapter in the overall tale that needed to be viewed as a whole.
In addition, the critics noted that producers were gaining more control in creatively demanding a final season within a short span of years in order to give a complex premise a final satisfying resolution to loyal viewers. (Some credit was given to ABC’s Lost for this, although one critic claimed it was a desperation stand by the producers against the network for a series that had passed its prime.) Even for viewers willing to view the chapters weekly, the ability to follow a set of inter-connected characters through a period of conflict to its end and then move on to another satisfying story within a reasonable few months was much more preferable to being dragged along a nearly endless flow of cliff-hangers.
Finally, technology in the form of computer tablets and smartphones has freed the television viewer from the home. The audience can binge view the story while riding the bus, enjoying a coffee in the local café or getting that suntan at the beach, right next to the person reading an exciting novel. Soon, the viewer like the reader will have total control – when, where and how – over scheduling the enjoyment of a good complex story with fascinating characters. For now, the critics are trying to decide how to review shows going forth – one episode at a time or a full season in whole like a book. The evolution continues.