The frustration of overly descriptive TV listings

How much is too much information for a TV episode synopsis to give? Den Of Geek investigates...

Wow, television got good, didn’t it?

As Den of Geek readers you probably noticed this already, so fear not: this isn’t yet another eulogy for the quality of small screen offerings (although if you get the chance, check out a series called Breaking Bad on Netflix – it really is rather good).

No, I wish to bring your attention to something that has more often than not stifled my enjoyment of the televisual treats that are now so abundant. Something seemingly benign – arguably even useful – that nonetheless has rendered episodes of much-loved shows as fulfilling and emotionally nourishing as reading a synopsis on Wikipedia. In fact, that isn’t a bad comparison…

I refer, friends, to the humble TV listing.

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When I was a wee boy and the very idea of a fifth terrestrial TV channel was more than my tiny brain could fathom, I had the quaint notion that the descriptions of all the TV shows written in the newspaper, the Radio Times or the TV Times were a result of some poor fellow having sat and assimilated the entire TV schedule ahead of time, making notes regarding what each programme was about. I mean, how else could these publications know about their content in advance? It never occurred to me that the broadcasters would provide said descriptions, and that they would have received such information from the shows’ distributors.

But in many ways, my infantile notion would have made more sense given the level of information about each episode that the distributors provide.

Why do they do this? Once a simple overview has been communicated to help distinguish one episode from another, for whose benefit is the extra plot-spoiling detail? Certainly not the viewers. Most shows have episodes that only last 50-odd minutes – even the simplest of plot descriptions can ruin any element of surprise that a show might otherwise hold. Why provide what is essentially a précis of each episode to a listings-provider, the less discerning of which may publish without a second thought?

Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about:

22:00 – Cop Squad

“A seemingly routine house call escalates into a tense standoff when Miller is taken hostage, and Foster is forced to make an agonising choice that has tragic consequences.”

So, for the first 10 minutes of the show, when the crack team of law-enforcers that I’ve been following for the best part of 3 years get word of a potential lead on their case, I already know exactly where the episode is heading. The scenario is played and edited as if it’s a routine part the show’s main plot – I assume in order to lull me into a false sense of security that nothing major is going to happen – but I already know it is because I read the listings. The fact that it’s Miller and Hogan at the front door would have no significance had I not given the Sky+ description more than a fleeting glance; but because I inadvertently did, I know pretty much exactly how the next act is going to unfold.

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Oh look: they’ve split up to look around. I guess Hogan ends up in the garden or stuck outside unable to help his partner. Yup, that’s what’s happening. Oh, Miller has come across the bad guy. He seems to have the upper hand, but we know that’s not going to last. The show is trying to ratchet up a bit of tension as to whether Miller is going to surrender and relinquish his weapon or shoot the mentally disturbed perp threatening his own daughter. We know how that’s going to pan out too. He’ll probably exchange himself for the little girl, thus becoming the hostage. And he does. I’m going to make a cup of tea…

Oh, Foster’s arrived. Local police have set up a perimeter and the obnoxious man in charge wants to storm the house. Foster doesn’t want to because he’s got a man in there, Godammit! The obnoxious man in charge gives Foster some bad intel that may force his hand. Wow, I hope this doesn’t lead him to make an agonising choice 5 minutes before the end – one that could have tragic consequences. Let’s see, the only people in the house are a bad guy who we’ve never seen before, and Miller: a second tier character that has featured in several episodes. What could those tragic consequences be, I wonder?

We are 40 minutes into the episode and I have anticipated, beat for beat, pretty much everything that has happened so far. Not because I am clever (I once ate a teaspoon of baking powder to see what would happen) but because of the short written paragraph I accidentally assimilated when browsing the TV listings.

Miller records a tearful message to his wife on his phone seconds before the inevitably botched storming of the house. Miller is accidentally shot and killed – which would have hit me hard had I not been spending the last three quarters of an hour anticipating it – and despite getting to watch our stoic hero Foster go on a furious and tearful rant, I’m watching the credits roll feeling mightily underwhelmed.

Then I watch, paralysed, trying to fathom the thinking on display, as next week’s preview starts to roll. In less than 10 seconds I see Foster being suspended, and getting drunk at a bar, and his colleagues saying they’re worried about him, and then a dramatic shot of him standing tearfully on top of a building (fairly sure that’ll be in the last 10 minutes). So great, thanks for sapping any revelatory joy I would have gleaned from the next episode too! In fact, these previews are invariably greeted in my household by fingers in ears, speaking in tongues and blindly trying to find the remote control to end the uninvited promo – doubly so if the episode we’ve just watched has ended on a cliffhanger.

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How did it come to this?

Well, while acknowledging the myriad exceptions in both media, traditionally the pattern has always been that we went to the cinema to be surprised whereas we liked to know what we were getting in our living rooms. Take that staple of weekday viewing: the soap opera. Despite the ever-evolving plotlines and a propensity towards startling revelations, such programming rarely delivers genuine shocks because the details of anything approaching a ‘big event’ are trailed, talked up and even the subject of magazine articles months ahead of schedule. With the exception of the odd-deliberately secretive narrative (e.g. ‘Who shot JR?’) people tuned in to see how events unfolded, rather than to be surprised by what the events were.

That’s changing, of course. As television becomes more sophisticated, so do the attempts to keep plot developments under wraps, and the joy of collectively discovering a secret or having a cliffhanger pleasingly resolved – and the post-viewing chatter it generates – is evidence that such an approach is far preferable.

Yet TV listings, for the most part, remain stuck in the past: a relic of when broadcasters assumed their audience wanted to know exactly what was in store so that they could decide between watching one show and possibly taping another.

Audience figures remain important for many channels, of course, and it’s understandable that some may want to make a forthcoming episode sound as enticing as possible to potential viewers – in much the same way that movie distributors stuff film trailers with all the best bits as a way of securing bums on seats whilst sacrificing revelatory pleasure.

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But even those channels unaffected by such concerns can fall into the same listings trap; Netflix doesn’t distribute viewing figures and isn’t beholden to advertisers, yet its episode descriptions often cross the line from descriptive to spoiler-y.

(At this point, let us tip our hat to Friends, because although those ‘The one where/with…’ episode titles were more a cute gag about the way punters talk about their favourite shows, they did a great job of distinguishing them – teasing them, even – without actually spoiling anything. I’d much rather the aforementioned episode of Cop Squad was simply described as ‘The one where Miller records a message for his wife’.)

So what’s the solution? Well, as with my approach to the modern movie trailer, I would be mindful of a simple two-word phrase: assume ineptitude. Assume that a listing will tell you more than you want to know; assume that the ‘next week’ sizzle will rob you of any anticipatory joy; and assume that the ‘i’ button on your remote control will bring you only pain and regret.

Because pleasures in life are few and far between, and the joy of surprise and discovery when invested in a deliberately secretive show – be it a Westworld, or a Sherlock or even a Doctor Who – can be applied to almost any form of televisual entertainment if you simply try and avoid foreknowledge.

And that begins with those bloody TV listings…