Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Event Television" is the Death Knell of Network TV

Certain shows have been good for television as a medium in the last few years. Complex storytelling, compelling antiheroes, and gray morality have turned water cooler talk from Desperate Housewives to "I can't believe Walt fucking [SPOILERED] [CHARACTER]." It’s essentially the same conversation when you remove the verbs, but suffice it to say that a high-maintenance cosmetic surgery addict is fairly distinct from a meth-cooking recovering cancer patient with a Napoleon complex. Certainly, the meth cook is more readily likable.

"Event Television" is being touted a lot right now. It's not a new idea, but it's the first time an old format has spurred so many producers to attempt to make money by creating grand, intricate shows that–frankly–cost a hell of a lot of money to produce. Let us be clear: it is wonderful that networks are shilling out crazy gobs of cash to put together smart scripts, talented actors, and vision-filled producers and directors, and effectively giving them creative license to do what they think works best for the show. All of those things foster creativity and a generally better story. This is good.

Let us also be clear: this is a complete fad.

Networks are always looking for their keystone programming, they're just more willing to take risks with their investments right now that other networks have proven the format. That format: early film reel serials. Self-contained stories with a designated beginning, middle, and end, fluffed up in the middle of each installment with some odd complication that extends the plot and requires a steady viewing of the complete material for total understanding, but could otherwise be shown to a complete stranger at any point and give a reasonable account of the series' tone at large, preferably drawing them in to start from the beginning. Really, there's two target demographics working together who would normally compete here: networks are now considering Netflix-abilty when they create a show.

Admittedly, that's something of a gross generalization. A more nuanced explanation might be that Networks have discovered a way to draw readers into live-airing programs (more developed storytelling), while simultaneously drawing back former viewers who have "cut the chord"[1] with cable in favor of online streaming services for only a select few shows (format your show in easy-to-binge plot chunks for the Netflix addicts). Ideally, they seek to draw the latter group back into the former, and return a few precious commercial ad dollars. At worst, by increasing their shows’ view count on streaming services, they can increase their licensing fees and still earn back a greater amount from the non-cable service.

The plan is a good one. Certainly serial dramas have not dominated primetime throughout television history the way sitcoms and episodic dramas have, even in syndication as a single episode will be unlikely to contain much character or plot development for the overall series. Even fans of cult classic shows like Twin Peaks or The X-Files which skewed early towards long-form plots are hard-pressed to argue that the one-off episodes didn't tend toward being far better than later "wrap-it-all-up" episodes.

Much of this can be blamed on a lack of funding, or Network meddling ruining a great, masterfully arranged concept.[2] And, to be honest, a serial format wasn't really a proven concept. Miniseries traditionally wouldn't do well. For every Roots their were Doctor Who made-for-TV movies that had been downgraded from series orders. And for every Who there were about 17 single-cam "I Love Lucy" and Honeymooners knock-offs which could be made for far less money.

Maybe we can call this period the Age of the Serials. Franchises are more powerful than ever in the entertainment world. I've long enjoyed photographing the movie posters at my local theater and commenting with "Sequel … sequel … remake … sequel of a remake … based off a TV show …" etc., but these aren’t the mere "Halloween: Part 5" franchises anymore. Now we're dealing with two-to-three movies a year coming out of Marvel studios, each its own franchise or potential franchise, crossing over every three years with a massive, billion-dollar event film; new Amazing Spider-Man and associated spin-offs from SONY every couple years; DC Comics and Warner Bros. trying to replicate those successes with a new Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman/Justice League shared universe; FOX adopting comic book time travel to link their old and rebooted X-Men universes into a massive conglomerate; and freaking STAR WARS getting produced into an even bigger Death Star of a warship under the Disney/Marvel masthead and helmed by LOST creator and lens flare aficionado J.J. Abrams.[3] All of these movies I will pay upwards of $18 to see in theaters, possibly with popcorn, possibly in 3D, by the end of next year.

Now, nerds have always been more amiable to serialized stories; it’s where we come from, generally speaking. The trick Networks have played is to convince normal people, well-rounded people, to become as fanatical about one particular show as rabid nerds can be about Star Wars. I've seen people reading Game of Thrones who I previously seriously doubted had the capacity to read.[4] So what was the trick, if not simply making a better product? It's this: these Networks are still dying.

HBO GO was crashed by the sheer number of people attempting to stream the Game of Thrones premier through the network's app. The majority of these people do not pay any money to HBO, but rather know someone who was willing or foolish enough to fork over their password. These people, actual HBO subscribers, could watch the premier live on their TVs. This means that nearly all of the people watching through the app one hour after broadcast were not actually paying HBO anything. They were stealing. So many of them that it outstripped the service's ability to function. Or perhaps let us pick a different delivery method: FX network bills American Horror Story as an "anthology series," each season being a self-contained story akin to a long-format Twilight Zone. Each season is 12-13 episodes, amassing equal airtime, about 75% of that actual story. These shows are watched once, and then nothing. Perhaps some DVD sales. But they are talked about seemingly forever, mostly in anticipation of the next episode or iteration.

There are always a few viewers who will subscribe to a Network or service just to watch their one new favorite series, but these are not life-time consumers. They are month-to-month and you can't maintain a vast corporation around that when 99% of your other programming is turned on in the background of a Kraft Dinner. Networks are going to hemorrhage ad revenue from their cheap shows while 1% of their lineup makes a majority of the profits, but those shows continue to cost drastically more to produce in the first place. The logical solution seems to be to produce fewer shows with higher quality, and allow for more reruns and syndication in their 24-hour broadcast cycles.

But there's the kick: not one viewer cares. They want to see their show, and they want to be able to gorge on it. So for the time being, Networks make their best shows drawn-out and riddled with suspense, so much so that  we end up watching flawed characters make flawed decisions on ever more increasingly grand scales, becoming cartoonish villains and caricatures of their initial selves. Jack Bauer has had the worst accumulated 192 hours a human being can endure. Walter White became Lex Luthor, and then Bryan Cranston narrowly lost that exact role to the kid from "The Social Network." Don Draper is in desperate need of a psychologist and a liver transplant, Rick Grimes and his son Carl have pretty obviously turned into sociopaths out of necessity, and I honestly don't know if the apparently endless Stark lineage can survive a planned seven-book run. The stakes keep getting higher, every commercial or credits run comes with bated breath, and viewers wait interminably for another episode to air, as if it were the only thing worth discussing since Tony Soprano (maybe) died.

Meanwhile, I'm done. Many, many, people, nerds and hipsters and Pre-K teachers among them, are bailing on watching live programming. A lot of people I know are using DVR to at least watch a show on their own work schedule or skip through the commercials, while many others simply stream online. Googling “Watch [SHOW NAME] online” has become an art form. Lamenting that Netflix can't upload a season until the home release is also available has made casual piracy of televised shows more popular now than ever. Legality issues aside, everything you've ever wanted to watch even the slightest is available to view on the Internet for free. It's not hard, and in most cases once the file has been uploaded, there's nothing actually illegal in watching it.[5] Nickelodeon has even begun premiering certain shows online instead of live, because the Internet views vastly outstrip the cable ad dollars.[6]

Instantaneous gratification culture is killing Network Television, and I couldn't care less. I'm more excited to see what existing and new companies do when they realize it'll be more profitable to create one exceptional franchise with a reasonable pace and release it in complete installments all together (hint hint: Arrested Development) than to cling desperately to failing media and schedules, begging Seth McFarlane to drop one more morsel on their plate. Even George Lucas and Spielberg discussed the future of the movie industry in similar terms in 2013, telling us to expect fewer, bigger-budget movies and lots of small indie films, with ticket prices correlated directly to that cost and playing in theaters for up to years at a time.

Personally, I would love to see 17 television stations and a TV that's mostly à la carte streaming apps. In preparation, I plan on gifting pretty much everyone I know six-month trials to various streaming services (which they will then have to continue paying for themselves.) Theoretically, I may never run out of passwords.

[1] Possibly the most researched and then abandoned idea next to New Years fitness plans.
[2] Firefly being the quintessence to many viewers, but similar arguments can be made for many shows, say … Dollhouse. Look, before Avengers, Joss Whedon fans were pretty pretty much resigned to watching our favorite characters die on-screen, then by cancelation. Just give us this one.
[3] If you noticed I’ve yet to mention LOST amongst the modern serial-hits, it’s because despite huge success, LOST decisively suffered from its own ‘bigness’ the way X-Files did, having a wrap-up season rather than an ending after becoming too messy, too sprawling. At some point, it got away from its creators and whatever original vision they may have had and became unwieldy.
[4] Those are 700 pages tomes, filled to bursting with obscure, Old English spellings and fanciful, fictitious languages. Characters fight with swords and dragons, but spend 90% of their time engaging in courtly intrigue and sharp wit. And dudebros, sorority sisters, and menopausal moms are all buying these books because they “really liked the first three seasons."
[5] Downloading and uploading, mind you, are still outlandishly punishable copyright offenses.
[6] Avatar: The Legend of Korra was moved to this digital-only lineup during its third season, its creators vehemently explaining at that years San Diego Comic Con that this was a ‘move’ rather than a ‘demotion’ from broadcast.

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