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.

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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.

TV shows airing in order

almost human

Recently I wrote about the TV shows that have been keeping me entertained, or at least giving my eyeballs some much-needed exercise. One of the TV shows I’d failed to get into was a little sci-fi on Fox called Almost Human. It appears that the reason I’d had trouble appreciating this new show is that Fox is up to its old tricks.

That’s right, Fox is airing the episodes of Almost Human out of order. And before you ask, I did check to see if Joss Whedon was in any way involved in the show: apparently not. So Fox can’t use the “we have to dick Joss’ show around” excuse, like they did with Firefly, Dollhouse, etc.

Obviously I’m not a highly paid TV executive, so my opinion on this topic is really inconsequential. Unless, of course, viewers of TV shows – that reason TV shows are made, aside from selling ad-space – are regarded as important in any way. Sure, I don’t have a degree in TV programming, but I would have thought airing a TV show in order would be the sensible thing to do. I’m not sure if the degree at MITV, the TV university located next to MIT, can be done online yet, but I would like to see their syllabus to get some idea of the inner workings of TV networks.

I know when I write a story I always like to start with the fifth chapter, then come back to the second chapter after I’ve written six or so chapters. I especially like to do this in a story which has a lot of new stuff in it, like sci-fi, and where there is any sort of story arc. This way you can really do your best to alienate readers and confuse them.

Not being privy to the inner workings of TV networks, it is hard to say exactly why they would do this, or how often they do this. With some TV shows you just wouldn’t notice. Take a formulaic story capsule like CSI Wherever. There isn’t usually an episode or season spanning story line; dead bodies show up, someone puts on glasses after making a pun, someone wears a lab coat near some magic ‘science’ boxes, they get the bad guy to confess during a flashback. So you would never know if they were aired out-of-order – which also raises the idea of them actually having an order to begin with. This is the sort of show you could just chop and change around to suit whatever excuse is used for butchering a show. But you can’t do this to a serialised TV show.

This isn’t just about annoying and confusing viewers. This isn’t about the disdain the TV executives are showing toward the show’s fanbase, you know, those people they need to sell stuff to. This is about a lack of respect for the creators of the show, especially the writers. Someone has gone to the trouble of crafting a story, an episodic story that needs to build upon previous instalments in order to continue to attract fans. Almost Human has enough of a “stand-alone” nature to the show to not be damaged too much by the lack of continuity (WTF is ‘the wall’??) but plenty of shows have been damaged or destroyed by these sorts of airing decisions.

Bring back Firefly!

Update: It appears that Fox has cancelled Almost Human, despite renewing The Following which had similar ratings. This shouldn’t be surprising since the network has essentially been trying to cancel the show since they first aired it. Fox didn’t make the show, so there is some chance a network like SyFy might pick it up.

Other articles on this:

http://seriable.com/almost-human-episodes-airing-order/

http://sciencefiction.com/2013/12/13/almost-human-airs-order-sign-cancellation/