How online streaming is changing TV storytelling

Binge-watching and no ad-breaks aren't just making TV more convenient, they're changing the ways television's stories are told...

If the TV set were to be laid out in its own visual March of Progress, the set which first crawled out of the primordial ooze would be the chunky box in the corner, rabbit ears jutting out from its top. As various knobs and dials fall off, the box continues to gain mass, growing bigger, deeper, and more rectangular. Next come the sleek high-definition TVs proudly bolted to the space place on living room walls once reserved for framed artwork. Taking the place of Homo Sapiens, at the front of the evolutionary queue, emerges the laptop/tablet combo. Today, the internet is ever increasingly becoming the default manner in which TV is consumed, and Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, has boldly proclaimed that all television will be on the internet in ten to twenty years.

Netflix, online streaming giant, destroyer of productivity, and every student’s best friend, has come a long way since its humble origins as a DVD lending service. The company, reputedly born out of Hastings’ personal frustration with late fees, has led the charge of online television ever since it added streaming capability back in 2007. A particularly impressive last quarter saw the addition of 3.3 million subscribers, and along with Amazon Prime Instant Video cultivating more and more interest, the internet seems now, more than ever, to be truly on the verge of taking over all broadcast TV, as well as at the forefront of a revolution that’s changing how TV is both made and delivered.  

The subscription-based nature of Netflix removes the frustration of ad-breaks. Not only does this prevent shattering a viewer’s suspension of disbelief by abruptly throwing them out of meticulously crafted story-worlds in order to be peddled goods, it also changes ways stories are told. There’s no longer a need to force in manipulative act-break cliff-hangers, which often sit uncomfortably within the narrative, to prevent channel hopping. This is especially prevalent in shows like 24. (Even for a guy in his position, Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer really does face an inordinate amount of strife.) This allows Netflix’s original stories to be written in such a way that they unfold more gradually, rather than rushing from plot-point to plot-point.

 

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Hastings wholeheartedly attributes the company’s success to its intensely detailed data analysis. “We are just a learning machine”, he argues. “Every time we put out a new show, we are analyzing it, figuring out what worked and what didn’t so we get better next time,” The result is that Netflix Originals routinely deliver immersive, multi-layered drama. However, they’re strikingly offered up in an extraordinarily inclusive manner. Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) political machinations in House Of Cards aren’t used by creators to pull the wool over viewers’ eyes and routinely trick them; instead his direct address treats you like a close friend. And so he should, you’ve not paid £5.99 a month to have your intelligence questioned and your favourite characters routinely bumped off. 

Whilst Spacey’s character is only pretending to know you, the same is not true of anyone working with the Netflix databases. Watching TV over the internet means that the entirety of your viewing experience can be stored and scrutinised. Once you get over the classic 1984 implications of being watched by your TV, the capabilities offered to creators by the internet allows for a different slant on the development process. Netflix knows how often you watch its stuff, how much time you spent comatose in front of it (painfully embarrassed every time it checks in to make sure you’re still alive), and all of your guilty TV pleasures. The original shows it churns out aren’t being tailored to a demographic, as in the antiquated way network TV operates,  they’re totally based around what you supposedly want. So if you’re not happy with the most recent series of Orange Is The New Black, then arguably, you’ve only got yourself to blame really.

In fact, recently, Netflix’s devotion to data-analysis has seen them produce a study detailing how long it take specific shows to get you hooked. Whilst Breaking Bad saw 70% of its viewers see the series through to its end after they had consumed episode two, Arrow needed eight episodes to achieve similar results. Interestingly, and a crushing blow for the manner in which Network Television packages its product, not a single show’s hook point was its pilot. This essentially offers a massive slice of justification pie for the way Netflix and Amazon roll out their shows all at once; allowing viewers to spend the weekend binging through a few episodes, letting fans ensnare themselves faster.

Offering a distribution method which actively encourages binge-watching also allows for greater memory retention and therefore the ability to add deeper layers of complexity to serialised storytelling. Thankfully, this should render “Previously On…” sequences dead in the water. Goodbye to montages of seemingly disconnected imagery designed to jog your memory and goodbye to noting that a character is obviously going to be important this episode because they appear in the recap. This means labyrinthine shows like The Killing or House Of Cards can demand more from their viewers. The average viewer isn’t going to have to remember a suspect they haven’t seen for eight weeks; instead it’s only been a few hours because, even though their pyjamas are starting to smell a bit because they haven’t moved from the sofa all Sunday. 

However, the manner Netflix is ripping up the rule book for serialisation isn’t just benefitting intensive crime dramas; it’s also starting to work to the advantage of the modern sitcom too. No longer does the genre have to rely on temporally disconnected closed narratives. Instead, one potential direction the modern sitcom might be heading is evident in the sprawling, albeit challenging, narrative of the fourth series of Arrested Development which played exceptionally hard and loose with time, space, and location. The heightened ability to retain information brought about through fewer sittings is not only important for suggesting who a murderer is, but also allows for a myriad of call-backs and references to be exploited for laughs (something Arrested Development made a speciality of even back in its days on FOX).

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Streaming’s challenge to the established order also removes the frustration of having to wait to talk about shows. Releasing them all at once, alongside the autonomy granted to its viewers, allows for a heightened degree of interactivity. Viewers are free to press pause and take a break from their show whenever they want. They can use this time to look up references, or previous plot-points if they’re lost, but they can also use it to Tweet, message friends about how good shows are, and even post gifs straight away on Tumblr. Transmitting TV over the internet only further serves to embed this instantaneous interactivity.

The internet has engineered a television landscape in its own image. Born out of one frustration, Netflix has created a genuine challenge to the set in the corner through its systematic dismantling of the everyday frustrations with network TV. Whilst 10 years might be too soon for TV to wither away completely, if streaming services continue on in this way, it’s only a matter of time.