How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

There is a joke that started a month or two ago about how HBO subscriptions were going to cease once Game of Thrones concluded. The implication is that despite a long history of high-quality TV shows – Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Flight of the Concords, Banshee*, and Strikeback** – the station will suddenly have nothing to offer audiences.

This argument reminded me of a PBS Ideas Channel video I shared on how technology is changing TV shows.

It raises an interesting point about how there appear to be more complex narratives in TV shows now. And in light of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, audiences are expecting more from networks that they doubt can be provided.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows has a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which in turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge-watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

* Banshee is criminally underappreciated.

** I stand by including this on the list. Show me another TV show that managed to do more in one episode than most entire action movies with 10x the budget.

Advertisements

The decline of cinema

theater management

There is only really one thing I miss about living in the city and that is going to the cinema. Of course, I’d miss that even more if there were movies worth shelling out this month’s mortgage repayments to see. The idea of paying big bucks to sit in a seat that has probably been used for sex by strangers, eating snacks that have a 2000% markup, after forgetting your earplugs and going partially deaf, which is a blessing after the pre-movie ads, is just not that appealing. Now Australian cinemas have decided they aren’t charging movie goers enough money and have decided to blame an easy target to justify their cash grab.

Cinema executives have blamed piracy on the recent price rises of ticket prices in Australia. Because of course it is piracy that is to blame, and not the marginalising of the customer base with exorbitant pricing regimes. Nor could it possibly be that people have more alternate entertainment options, including waiting a few months to watch the latest “blockbuster” in their own home cinema. Nor could it be the rubbish that so many movie studios are turning out.

Let’s dissect this nonsense like the original reports in the media should have done. There are many factors at play in the decline of cinema. The first real problem is that there hasn’t really been a change in the proportion of the population that go to the cinema in 40 years, but the number of times per year they go has been steadily declining since the 90’s.

ATTENDANCE
(% BEEN TO THE CINEMA IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS)

FREQUENCY
(AVERAGE NO. VISITS PER YEAR)

audiences_cin_attend_01

audiences_cin_attend_02

So rather than keeping audiences entertained regularly, audiences are clearly becoming more occasional customers. Underneath that general trend are some interesting changes in the demographics of cinema attendance. It is no secret that Hollywood movies are made for teenagers. Teens are a huge chunk of the cinema audience. But, the biggest change in the repeat attendees is in the teen market, which has been in steady general decline since the 70’s. Which part of the market is going to be most impacted by price rises? Go on: guess!

ATTENDANCE RATE
(% BEEN TO THE CINEMA IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS)

FREQUENCY
(AVERAGE NO. VISITS PER YEAR)

audiences_cinxage_rate

audiences_cinxage_freq

Another way to look at this is in the proportion of the population going to cinemas in the age demographics. Below you can see the 14-17 and 18-24 age groups are overrepresented as cinema goers, this starts to even out in the 25-34 group (also known as the settling down and going out less demographic), is at parity in the 35-49 group (also known as the parenthood has stolen my social life demographic), and people over 50 clearly don’t like all the loud noises.

AGE PROFILE OF CINEMA-GOERS COMPARED TO THE AUSTRALIAN POPULATION
OVER THE AGE OF 14, 2012

audiences_cin_genderprofile

So while the proportion of the population that have been going to the cinema each year has been pretty steady across the entire population, it is the number of times people go that is making the difference, especially in that much coveted teen “I want to see explosions and car chases” market. (Interesting aside: when you look at the age group breakdowns you do see that the over 25 audience since the 70’s have generally increased in their likelihood to attend the cinema, but this has been static for most demographic groups since the mid 90’s.) To put some hard numbers on that difference in the number of times a teen goes to the cinema each year, in 1974 the 14-24 demographic averaged 16.4 visits to the cinema, in 2012 that had dropped to 6.6 visits.

Obviously there are a lot of changes in the marketplace that have occurred over this time. TV has expanded, cable TV is a thing now, home rental or ownership of movies is a thing (VHS succeeded by DVD, now being superseded by Streaming, which will probably be superseded by actors coming to your house to perform on demand), computer games have grown in leaps and bounds, the internet, all vying for our attention and wallets. Just look at the change in households with various alternatives to cinema (NB: the game consoles data doesn’t tell the full gaming story, see this for more about that market):

Graph: Proportion of households with computer, Internet, mobile phone, games console and DVD player. The following table provides the data.

I alluded to this above, but one big change has been the home cinema. Some people will remember a time when some cinema screens were actually not much bigger than the ones installed in many homes now. Sound systems have improved greatly over the crappy little speaker that was the drive-in experience. Now we have high quality TVs and projection units that rival anything you can get in a cinema complex, and these come with a pause function, easy access to food that doesn’t kill your wallet nor beat your heart with belly flab, and sound settings lower than jackhammer. Then you have all the other possible entertainment options available, suddenly the list of movies (not) to see just isn’t as appealing.

The one thing cinemas still have going for them is windowing. For the first few months after opening, there is no other (legal) way to watch the film, you have to watch it in the cinema or wait for the DVD release. Although it seems clear people are more willing to wait, let the dust settle after opening weekend, and figure out what is worth watching, whether that be at the cinema, on DVD, when it makes it to TV, or at all. And now I’m going to contradict myself and say that piracy proves people aren’t willing to wait for those other options, preferring simultaneous releases. Both arguments still point out that people just aren’t as interested in paying big(ger) bucks to see movies in the cinema. Of course movie studios and distributors don’t like that idea, since windowing is great for their bottom line, especially opening weekend.

Now the reason for the price rise could be something to do with this chart, showing that 21% of the market is in the highest income households. Cinemas are obviously betting that their price elasticity is low and will take the price increase in their stride. What this ignores is the age demographic data above, which shows a sizeable chunk of the audience may be from affluent households, but that doesn’t mean their teenage bank account is bulging with lots of cash.

Equivalised gross household income quintiles No. cinema-goers (‘000) Share of cinema-goers (%) Attendance rate (%)
Lowest quintile 1,010.6 9.7% 47.2%
Second quintile 1,305.6 12.5% 50.8%
Third quintile 1,879.1 18.0% 66.6%
Fourth quintile 2,106.4 20.2% 75.3%
Highest quintile 2,199.2 21.1% 80.0%
Unknown 1,930.5 18.5% 65.8%
Total 10,431.4 100% 65.2%

So we see that cinema audiences are becoming more occasional consumers, the trip to the movies is a special event, not a regular event. Teens are a big chunk of the cinema market and they aren’t the repeat customers they used to be. This is what happens when you price customers out of the market, you bite the hand that feeds. You also have them turn to other entertainment mediums. Blaming piracy for what is demonstrably a long term trend is a pretty big reach. I’d also argue that piracy is a reaction to consumer demand for lower pricing and simultaneous releasing, so that audiences can consume the movies in the way they want to, not the way they are being forced to, at a price that is commensurate with the utility received (e.g. people pay as much or more for a DVD – less if you consider it a couple or family purchase). If cinemas have anyone to blame it is themselves and their suppliers (distributors and studios). Using piracy to justify a price increase is clearly unfounded.

Of course, what needs to be mentioned is that films are essentially a loss leader for cinemas so that they can make money selling snacks and beverages. This ticket price increase is probably driven through the supply chain rather than by the cinemas themselves. But this also shows how cinemas have to adapt in order to survive. Going out to a movie is an experience. People are more willing to pay for experiences rather than stuff (DVDs). So if cinemas can get serious about screening experience at a fair price, they might get the audience back, or at least stop the decline.

Sources: http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/research/statistics/audiences.aspx

http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4901.0Main+Features1Apr%202009?OpenDocument

http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/6530.0Main+Features12003-04%20(Reissue)?OpenDocument

How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

This latest video from the Ideas Channel raises an interesting point about how there appears to be more complex narratives in TV shows now.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving a demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows have a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which is turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.