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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Subverting a story and falling on your face

When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.

It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.

So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?

How should I know? I don’t watch the show.

What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.

At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.

Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.

Non-fans? Meh.

Rex Jameson’s musings on GoTs.

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Being prophetic is really easy when you make a “kids these days” argument.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is Neil Postman’s ode to the “good old days” before television when entertainment wasn’t ruining everything. TV bad, reading good!

I decided to read this book after it once again started to be referenced as prophetic in the modern age. The first time someone mentioned this book to me I couldn’t help but feel the argument was likely to lack substance – you can amuse and inform at the same time.* What I found in this book was a supposition that isn’t without merit – slogans and sound bites can be influential whilst lacking any substance – but is argued in a cherry-picked and biased manner.

One example is how Postman claims that political campaigns used to be written long-form to influence voters, whereas now (meaning then in 1985, but many say it is highly relevant today) we get political messages in sound bites and 30-second adverts. This argument underpins his work and is at best convenient revisionism, at worst it is naive drivel. To suggest that there is no modern day long form political articles (and interviews, etc) is rubbish, just like the idea that the historical long-form articles he alludes to were well read by the masses is rubbish.

Another example is Postman claiming that media organisations aren’t trying to (in general) maliciously misinform their audience. We know that this isn’t the case. Even at the time this was written there were several satires addressing how “news” is deliberately framed for ratings (e.g. Network, Brave New World, the latter he references in the book). Either he has a different interpretation of malicious misinformation or he just thinks the media are incompetent.***

Now, his idea that we should be trying to educate kids to be able to navigate this new media landscape – instilling critical thinking, understanding of logic, rational thought, basic knowledge so that we are less likely to be fooled – is laudable. I completely agree. I’d also agree that there is a desperate need for this in people of all ages when we have an attention economy in place that is less interested in informing you than making sure your eyeballs stay glued for the next advert. I think this is why Postman’s book has resonated with people, the arguments aren’t without merit. But they are also deeply flawed and problematic.

I can’t really recommend this flawed book, but it isn’t without merit.

Interview with Postman:

Attention Wars:

* This modern review from an education professional sums up this point:
“Instead of striking a balance between the use and over-use of media in education, Postman has completely shut down the debate in the belief that there is no good way to use visual media like the television and film in education. If you take his thesis to its logical conclusion, the number of technological tools in the classroom would be reduced to the overhead projector, the ScanTron grading machine, the copier and the laser pointer, and the field of educational technology would be greatly reduced in the process.”**

** Read this review particularly carefully. The author cites a number of problematic sources for claims made, such as Ben Shapiro, David Barton, Glenn Beck, Jonathan Strong (of The Daily Caller). All are known to deliberately misrepresent their sources (e.g. see my review of Ben Shapiro’s book covering this issue).

***Hmmm, could be something to that argument. As I regularly say, don’t attribute to malicious intent that which could be incompetence.

NB: I don’t normally post reviews of books I haven’t enjoyed (3 stars or more out of 5). It is my intention that this particular review will be one of few exceptions.

View all my reviews

Average Movie Superhero

the-rock-vin-diesel-wrestlemania-33
With the recent spate of superhero movies, it is easy to forget that not every movie has a superhero in it. Even the superhero films aren’t always about someone on steroids (Captain America) or weather presenters (Thor) but are instead about your everyday billionaire playboy (Batman, Ironman, Arrow). So it is easy to forget that feats of superhuman strength are not meant to be the norm in films.

Think about the scenes where the everyday hero is clutching the edge of a building by his fingertips – and I’m sure someday I’ll be able to write their instead of his. Valiantly they hold on to the ledge with one hand whilst the love interest or bad guy is dangling from their other hand. Of course, the hero never loses his grip on the ledge, but the bad guy may slip from his grasp.

We accept that scene as plausible because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the average person can hold their own bodyweight with a single hand for extended periods. Double their bodyweight? They can hold that for the length of a dramatic moment – a period of time that is impossible to measure in real time since dramatic speeches and slow motion really mess with reality.

The problem is that outside of gymnasts, rock climbers, or people who crush rocks with their bare hands for a living, the Average Joe wouldn’t even be able to hold their own weight with a single hand for more than a few seconds. Good luck having any unbroken fingers if they caught themselves from a fall.

Elite grip strength can be measured a few ways, but the Captains of Crush grippers are one easy way to distinguish strong hands. The #1 requires 64kg (140lbs) of force to close, while the #3 gripper takes 127kg (280lbs) and is regarded as world class grip strength. Just for shits and giggles they made a #4 gripper that requires 166kg (365lb) of force to close and has been officially closed by 5 people. Ever.

So let’s just assume that our generic action movie has an everyday hero who weighs a buff 80kg and his falling love interest is a sexy 55kg – because stereotypes. That’s 135kg hanging from the hero’s fingertips, a weight that even a really strong person wouldn’t have the grip strength to support. Two normal sized adults are not going to be hanging onto that ledge for any length of time.

Which brings us to the next amazing feat of strength in this scenario: lifting that falling love interest back to safety. For a strong person, lifting their 55kg love interest should be easy. Patrick Swayze managed it in Road House. A buff 80kg hero could probably clean and jerk a dumbbell weighing that much…. assuming they work out, have some chalk on their hands, were able to get some leg drive happening, had decent technique, and that the dumbbell wasn’t particularly unwieldy. But most falling love interests are a tad unwieldy, not designed for easy lifting – no obvious knurled handles – and there isn’t a lot of leg drive happening when you’re dangling from the side of a building by your fingertips. Yet without fail, the hero manages to get them both to safety. Well, unless it is one of those tragic character defining moments, in which case the hero will be in the same situation later and will find the determination to succeed the second time. Sucks to be the first love interest in that scenario.

Interesting to think about just how many amazing feats of strength are passed off as normal in movies.

One of the annoying things about movies

With the recent spate of superhero movies, it is easy to forget that not every movie has a superhero in it. Even the superhero films aren’t always about someone on steroids (Captain America) or weather presenters (Thor) but are instead about your everyday billionaire playboy (Batman, Ironman, Arrow). So it is easy to forget that feats of superhuman strength are not meant to be the norm in films.

Think about the scenes where the everyday hero is clutching the edge of a building by his fingertips whilst the love interest or bad guy is dangling from their other hand. Of course, the hero never loses his grip on the ledge, but the bad guy may slip from his grasp.

We accept that scene as plausible because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the average person can hold their own bodyweight with a single hand for extended periods. Double their bodyweight? They can hold that for the length of a dramatic moment – a period of time that is impossible to measure in real time since dramatic speeches and slow motion really mess with reality.

The problem is that outside of gymnasts, rock climbers, or people who crush rocks with their bare hands for a living, the Average Joe wouldn’t even be able to hold their own weight for more than a few seconds, especially not if they caught themselves from a fall. Elite grip strength can be measured a few ways, but the Captains of Crush grippers are one easy way to distinguish strong hands. The #1 requires 64kg (140lbs) of force to close, while the #3 gripper takes 127kg (280lbs) and is regarded as world class grip strength. Just for shits and giggles, they made a #4 gripper that requires 166kg (365lb) of force to close and has been officially closed by 5 people. Ever.

Watch this world-class rock climber hold just over double his bodyweight with two hands, not one hand, for time as another example:

So let’s just assume that our generic action movie conforms to long-held stereotypes of protagonists. This movie stars an everyday hero who weighs a buff 80kg and his falling love interest is a lithe 55kg, and they totally get naked in the second act for purely artistic reasons. That’s 135kg hanging from the hero’s fingertips, a weight that even a really strong person wouldn’t have the grip strength to support. Two normal sized adults are not going to be hanging onto that ledge for any length of time.

Which brings us to the next amazing feat of strength in this scenario: lifting that falling love interest back to safety. For a strong person, the 55kg gravity lover isn’t exactly heavy. A buff 80kg hero could probably clean and jerk a dumbbell weighing that much…. assuming they work out, have some chalk on their hands, were able to get some leg drive happening, had decent technique, and that the dumbbell wasn’t particularly unwieldy. But most falling love interests are a tad unwieldy, not designed for easy lifting – no obvious knurled handles – and there isn’t a lot of leg drive happening when you’re dangling from the side of a building by your fingertips. Yet without fail, the hero manages to get them both to safety. Well, unless it is one of those tragic character defining moments, in which case the hero will be in the same situation later and will find the determination to succeed the second time. Sucks to be the first love interest in that scenario.

Interesting to think about just how many amazing feats of strength are passed off as normal in movies.

More guilty pleasures

Sometime during 1994 I bought one of my favourite albums of all time: Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins. Even today (boom-tish) that album sits proudly in my music collection and doesn’t sound dated. I can’t say the same for many other albums I own from the same time period. Superunknown from Soundgarden stands as a classic album, but I find it hard to listen to without having had the death of a pet weighing on my mind. I can only listen to Metallica’s Load if I promise myself I’ll put on one of their better albums straight after. Essentially, for me, the Pumpkins hit on music gold with that album.

I’ve commented before how I’ve essentially stopped being a fan of the Pumpkins, finding their offerings since Adore (which promised so much with the first single, and delivered so little with the remainder of the album) to be more filler than awesome. What I liked about the Pumpkins was not what the Pumpkins have been delivering since.

The 5 Worst Kinds of Album Every Music Fan Has Bought: Cracked.com

Your experiences may vary.

Which brings me to a discussion I was having recently on the Pumpkins album Zeitgeist. Despite buying the album, I’ve never bothered adding it to my digital library, because it only has one or two songs on it that hint at what I liked about the Smashing Pumpkins of old. A lot of fans and reviewers agree with me, with Corgan taking a potshot at fans for not even listening to the album (class act), further claiming the fans only wanted to hear the old music (probably). Anyway, the discussion had started because a couple of people were insisting the reason people didn’t like Zeitgeist was because it was too political or had political overtones.

Um, no.

While I’m not trying to imply that no-one was turned off of Zeitgeist due to the political overtones, it is clearly a long bow to draw to suggest that it was a factor, let alone a big factor, in listeners/fans disliking the album. So why would someone make this claim?

Well, simply, this is another example of people trying to justify their taste. Another guilty pleasure moment. I seem to be raising this point a lot (here on literature, here on genre vs literature, here on good vs popular, and here on guilty pleasures). It is perfectly okay for you to like what you like, there is absolutely no need to try and explain away someone else’s dislike for something you enjoy. Does it really matter if you like something everyone else hates? No. So why bother trying to put it down to political ideology or how terrorists did something…. 9/11….

Worthiness, guilty pleasures, justification: all of these things are actually stopping us from just enjoying stuff. I know I’m guilty of it, but I’m trying to get over myself. The great thing about the internet is that it is full of support groups for people who like stuff. So you don’t have to agree with everyone else on what music, books, movies, art, etc, you like. You can find your niche and create memes, gifs and video clips to bombard all your other friends with on Facebook.

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