Telly changed the landscape 100 years ago. The internet and streaming changed how we humans tick.
Metamorphosis of the film/TV industry – part 2 in a series of 4 articles by Marta Eleniak
The biggest revolution has been for the TV industry, from a handful of channels exploding into enough to make your head spin, with analogue switching to digital, with on-demand and streaming services becoming the new norm. The latter meaning advertisers, while still key, are no longer an essential part of the funding in every modality of home entertainment.
Today is tomorrow’s past
Once upon a time there was the big silver screen for movies and you might make do with watching them on the TV at home with the whole family in one room enjoying this spectacle. TV showed some great new shows, in a dose of 42 minutes per week, but a whole lot of reruns too.
It’s no longer a case of the television being the sole screen – under one roof several people may be watching a form of television on a tablet, laptop/computer, smartphone, e-reader, game console come media consumption device, fridge door and more. Not to mention the ability to watch TV when outside of the home. Two people might be watching a series or film together but in separate places and sharing their reactions over Whatsapp. It’s still bringing people together thank heavens.
The business models have diversified too. Subscription only or alongside commercials has become the norm while the United Kingdom cling to the TV licence fee that pays for the BBC, but if you only watch an online service such as Amazon Prime, where you get free next day shipping with free entertainment thrown in, you don’t have to pay the TV licence fee.
William Rabkin had to completely rewrite his 2011 book ‘Writing the Pilot: Creating the Series‘ in 2017 because literally everything has changed, as he explains in it:
“The way series are bought.
The way series are conceived.
The way stories are told.
The way series are consumed.
The kind of stories that can be told.
The limitations on content at every level.
The limitations on form at every level.
And maybe most important of all the restriction of who is allowed to sell a series.”
Content is King. And also Queen.
While creating content aimed at cinema and TV can be relatively easy, finding a market for it is another matter. There are still many TV production and film production companies out there but the giants that have the on-demand market sewn up – Netflix and Amazon Prime – are making their own exclusive content and it is bloody good. I’d argue that the brilliant limited run series Queens Gambit is reason alone to subscribe to Netflix and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel reason enough to succumb to Amazon Prime. I am reliably told to get the 7 day free trial of Now TV in order to binge watch The Undoing TV series featuring Hugh Grant, Nicole Kidman and Noma Dumezwini. It’s also on Sky in the UK. Another friend has implored me to get Apple TV to watch Ted Lasso. I am led to believe my life is really far from complete without these experiences.
Binge watching – the new age addiction
I am convinced that an addictive personality is not something reserved for just some humans, but most of us. We are easily triggered into an addiction with the right stimuli and the TV giants keep giving us the hit. Before you can extoll the virtues of an episode you see the next episode loading right behind it. Exhilarated and gagging for more from the cliff-hanger ending, more is delivered. If lucky somewhere in the midst of an evening the cat will get fed, the bladder will be relieved and there may be a short romantic walk to the fridge. Bedtime might be in the early hours. All night partying and binge drinking has been replaced in 2020 by a night watching show after show with optional binge drinking. Some parents now want the kids to sleep in late, because they cannot regulate their own bedtime!
“portion control is for suckers” – says Netflix:
Dawn Shepherd, offering her user review on imdb.com shares this:
” I know, Season 2 was released on Prime only yesterday. And I told myself, I’d pace it, make the ten episodes last…. no more than one episode a week. Wait, no more than one episode per day. Darn, I’ve devoured all ten in just 24 hours. And I want MORE! 10 stars for rating are not enough. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel deserves 1000.”
Bingewatching is one of the critical elements behind the changes in TV these days. Some people used to wait until their favourite show was out on DVD to be able to watch episodes back to back. Once this pleasure was discovered there was no return. Oh and the joy of not having adverts or having to scroll through them. When the TiVo box and similar came on the scene, allowing you to pause and rewind live TV and record programmes to watch exactly when you wanted to, viewers would save certain shows to watch them all at once. This is all fine and good but it means you cannot make a show week by week. Today a whole seasons worth needs to be loaded up to facilitate the binge watching.
Long run is the new business model
Amit Hiremath, Assistant to Steven Bratter who produced the box office smash Demolition Man and now working on several new TV projects, explained to me
“If you pitch a TV series these days. They don’t just want to know what will happen in your first ten episodes. The studios are asking for three to five seasons ahead to be mapped out in the series bible – as in where will the characters be.”
William Rabkin describes networks as wanting to hear “a set of conflicts they can believe are sufficiently complex that they can be explored over and over through the course of a hundred episodes.”
You don’t need the script for all the seasons but you do need a storyline with legs unless it is something perfect in its whole like The Queen’s Gambit or Russian Doll.
For writers the change in pace of consumption means the pilot absolutely has to offer avenues of possibility. It cannot carry lines that close down future possibilities because future seasons will be wanted once successful. I am not just talking about the network but the audience will simply be gagging for more and to keep them happy the network will want the next season.
One drawback of delivering an entire season to be binge watched is that by not making it week to week, you don’t have the benefit of audience feedback and seeing what works in practice. Showrunners have kept or let go characters based on how warmly that plotline/character was received.
The sole writer or team of two or three has been replaced by rooms crammed full of writers to get the very best script. Argubly the British sitcom Fawlty Towers that was just six episodes in length was utterly brilliant because that was the best material the witty writers could conjure and a second run could have ended up being frightfully dull. However get fresh brains in and you get a whole bunch of new ideas and past experiences to get the pot stirred again. This can also be why one season you love the series and by the third you hate it – either a new writing team who didn’t really get it right or the old writers simply ran out of steam. Take The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – a huge error to turn the evil bitchy character into a nice character. Totally lost part of its charm and ended up going from brilliant to bleh.
Shock – the main ingredient
It’s not just charm and great dialogue we need as an audience. Special effects are getting ever bigger and more elaborate. Film is having to compete with big budget TV here too.
The audience needs to be shocked. This is what Merve Ince told me as a budding scriptwriter seeking advice after her short Gassal showed in Cannes and won the Federico Fellini Award at Tiburon and numerous other festivals.
As for the gore that is already off the scale. I have noticed the way to start a thriller these days is with as much nausea inducing blood and violence as possible. The first episode of the excellent and intriguing Preacher TV series left me quite shaken and certainly shocked. You had to wonder if there was anywhere else to go with the violence.
How much do we have to do to get the viewer’s attention these days? Fear, shock, horror ASAP after lights, camera, action. That seems to be the recipe.
If there is one thing to get spot on today, that’s the cliff hanger ending.
Part 1. From silver screen to touch screen
» Coming up: Part 3. The ‘You’ in YouTube