Where Has All The Talent Gone?

The next revolution will be a streaming download.

Revolution

This revolution was televised too.

This will be a bit of an off-topic post, but my interest in the topic was awakened by my entry into the Chuck fandom, so I’m going to proceed.  In the summer of 2009 I noticed something about how removed I’d become from both TV and movies.  I never watched TV live, except for sports, news, and perhaps something in the background like History Channel while I was doing other chores.  I rarely went to movies either.  I believe outside The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars prequels I haven’t been to the movie theater this century.  But that doesn’t mean I stopped watching TV shows or movies.  What changed was the way I watched them.  And that change was the direct result of a revolution in TV.  A lot of this is on my mind because I’ve been reading Alan Sepinwall’s book “The Revolution Was Televised”.  The story of his book and how it came about also feeds into some of the changes technology has brought to our lives.  When a brief discussion flared on TV versus movies on another thread I decided this topic warranted its own post, if only to keep the off topic topic on an off topic post.  Join me as I revisit and flesh out my thoughts on the state of the entertainment industry, after the jump.

In a way some of this is all subjective and based on personal tastes and opinion, but I do firmly believe there are objective standards of what constitutes quality entertainment.  There is an entire industry devoted to just that endeavor.  People like the aforementioned Alan Sepinwall and Maureen Ryan make their livings doing just that, watching and judging entertainment and giving us their opinions on what is worth our time and what is not.  In addition, this is something that the entire entertainment industry has been talking about for some time.  From last summer here is Hollywood’s hometown newspaper discussing just that, what the people who make the products and look for the talent are saying amongst themselves.  This is at least tangentially related to some thoughts I’ve had about the changing entertainment business here and here, but I want to come at this from another angle and get into how the changes in the way we get our entertainment has changed and is changing the very industry that produces it.

The start of the TV revolution was a change in thinking at HBO.  HBO or Home Box Office used to be about events and movies, you know, stuff with a box office.  They would run a boxing match one night, a filmed stand up comedy festival or routine the next, and maybe a concert the next.  Whatever could fill in and draw an audience.  Eventually they started to think of themselves as a network, and started running and producing original series.  That changed everything, because HBO’s business model was not built on advertising revenue and Nielsen ratings.

Freed from the necessity of mass-appeal programming HBO unleashed a wave of creative destruction in the entertainment industry.  What has come about because of this is some of the best television I’ve ever seen.   The niche drama, like The Wire and the big budget TV mini-series, like Band of Brothers were to both come out of this revolution.  In a way it seems unfair to compare shows such as The Wire or The Sopranos with network TV.  But it is with these shows that the networks compete for viewers eyes, and thus advertisers dollars.  And TV has upped it’s game across the board because of it.

In his book and elsewhere Alan Sepinwall gives us another reason for the creative explosion in TV.  The influx of talent from the movie industry.  The movie industry’s model has evolved to where there are no real mid-budget movies.  It is built on big-budget mass appeal blockbusters.  Look at the top 10 films from 1999:

1    Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
2    The Sixth Sense
3    Toy Story 2
4    Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
5    The Matrix
6    Tarzan
7    Big Daddy
8    The Mummy
9    Runaway Bride
10    The Blair Witch Project

Now from 2007:

1    Spider-Man 3
2    Shrek the Third
3    Transformers
4    Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
5    Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
6    I Am Legend
7    The Bourne Ultimatum
8    National Treasure: Book of Secrets
9    Alvin and the Chipmunks
10    300

And finally from 2011:

1    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
2    Transformers: Dark of the Moon
3    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
4    The Hangover Part II
5    Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
6    Fast Five
7    Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
8    Cars 2
9    Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
10    Thor

Notice anything?  The blockbuster franchise is the new movie business model.  Fans of dramas and well drawn characters are going elsewhere and the mid-budget movie has all but disappeared as smaller studios have merged so as to be able to afford to make those $200 million dollar blockbusters, leading to a more limited market for movies.  Cable TV has had an influx of talented actors, writers and producers who used to make those mid-budget movies.

In addition, with so many choices and a fracturing viewership TV shows no longer aim for an audience of 20 million viewers and hence mass appeal.  Those days are over.  Instead what they aim for is a devoted audience.  Critical hits such as Breaking Bad and Dexter go for 6 to 8 seasons on cable with only a few million viewers.  The broadcast networks, without the benefit of cable TV subscriptions or fees can’t quite match that, but as Chuck showed us, a devoted audience of 5-ish million viewers is sometimes all it takes.  More and more both cable and broadcast TV are looking for those audiences by presenting genre-crossing deeply character-driven TV with quirky premises that bends storytelling conventions in interesting ways.  Sometimes they catch on for a few seasons, sometimes not, but the new economics means that it is usually worth the studio’s investment to take the product to DVD or iTunes to recoup some of the cost, so Firefly and Wonderfalls live on in DVD format, and the fact that they never found a viable TV audience doesn’t make them any less great entertainment.  Some shows that do catch on, like Heroes or Battlestar Galactica may fade in subsequent seasons, but to me, that first season of Heroes isn’t diminished as great TV.

It doesn’t hurt that TV has also morphed in certain ways into a social event, albeit an online social event.  Even a small fanbase can have a big impact in promoting or supporting a show through social media and blogs like this one (or the much more visible ChuckTV.net).  Maybe nobody else at your workplace is watching Fringe, but you still have the virtual water-cooler of the internet to discuss your favorite characters and developments.

At the start of this post I mentioned that how Sepinwall’s book came about is part of the story here.  His book was self-published and promoted through his friends and his blog, and it got enough response that he got a book deal from a publishing house.  The publishing houses are no longer gatekeepers to what can be published, and this leads to the next big change I see in the entertainment industry.  Netflix is at the forefront of online streaming as the next distribution method, and how it is changing the way entertainment will be produced.

Once again we can look to Alan Sepinwall.  In an interview with David Fincher, the producer of Netflix’s House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, we see some of what attracts top talent to cable TV, and now to Netflix, and how it is further showing that the network TV model needs to change and adapt.  There is an upfront commitment to a full season of fully written episodes that are produced as a self-contained story.  A 10 to 13 hour movie if you will.  Where network TV has to find an audience quickly and write and produce as they go, never knowing of their next episode will be their last, or if they’ll need to draw it out for 7 more seasons.  It is a process one insider likened to driving down the highway at 80 miles an hour while building the highway in front of you.  As we saw with Chuck, and have seen on other shows, it does take its toll on the quality of the plot and the continuity.  The cable/Netflix production model eliminates that, at least on a seasonal basis.   The way Netflix will release its original programming is also going to change things.

Even cable TV draws the season out over weeks.  Netflix will release its seasons en masse.  I’ve talked to Chuck viewers who came to the series late and watched the first 3 seasons in a very short time as opposed to in a painful weekly (or longer) wait between episodes, and while their opinions still vary, they are as a group distinctly more positive about the dark or angsty parts and the show in general.  With some viewers, me included, the internet now becomes like a giant entertainment library.  Find what you like, watch it in a short time, move to the niche show that catches your fancy.  The online providers will now have incentive to produce quality programming to attract subscribers just as HBO did, and more and more they will see themselves as producers as well as distributors of entertainment.  Suddenly network TV isn’t the gatekeeper to what constitutes entertainment they were 20 years ago.  And with the gates left open and the advent of cheap and easily usable video and editing software, suddenly who can produce a “pilot” includes a lot more people and there are ways to distribute what you produce, even without the backing of a Hulu or Netflix.

It appears to me that we are in the early stages of an entertainment revolution from the center.  Both movies and network TV are likely to lose viewership to better produced entertainment targeted to smaller and niche audiences that relies on a devoted fanbase to publicize it and build an audience online or on cable.  We’ll get better entertainment available when and how we want to consume it and the producers will get the freedom to tell the story they want in the way and at the pace they want.

Viva la Revolution

~ Ernie

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About Ernie Davis

I was born in 1998, the illegitimate brain child and pen name of a surly and reclusive misanthrope with a penchant for anonymity. My offline alter ego is a convicted bibliophile and causes rampant pognophobia whenever he goes out in public. He wants to be James Lileks when he grows up or Dave Barry if he doesn’t.  His hobbies are mopery, curling and watching and writing about Chuck.  Obsessively.  Really, the dude needs serious help.
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38 Responses to Where Has All The Talent Gone?

  1. JoeBuckley says:

    Great stuff, Ernie. This:

    I’ve talked to Chuck viewers who came to the series late and watched the first 3 seasons in a very short time as opposed to in a painful weekly (or longer) wait between episodes, and while their opinions still vary, they are as a group distinctly more positive about the dark or angsty parts and the show in general.

    … struck me. I really got involved with the fandom in the latter half of Chuck’s second season, when I discovered that the S2 episodes were available from the NBC site and from HULU. That was a new and different experience for me, and watching episodes in rapid succession was a big part of that.

    I’m not surprised at all that the timing affects the experience. I didn’t watch Castle for the first four seasons, but the twice a week marathons and a DVR make it possible to get the gist almost instantly, and to catch up much more rapidly than I ever could with “summer re-runs.”

    Did I just date myself? Summer re-runs – now that’s an old fashioned concept!

  2. mr2686 says:

    I agree. Being able to watch many episodes/seasons all at once makes a big difference in your perception of the show. Chuck was even beter the second time around while watching marathon style. Seemed to flow much beter. Anyway, I came to Castle in the 4th season and did the same thing to catch up. For the record, I too remember summer re-runs, but to tell you the truth I’m not sure what I like least, the summer re-runs or the 3 episodes in a row and two weeks off or multiple weeks between halves of seasons that they’re doing now.

  3. atcDave says:

    Some very good stuff here. I do agree about the huge difference in viewing experience when things are watched more quickly, that might have made some difference in my impression of some of the darker episodes of Chuck (although probably not S3, THAT was drawn out too long!). But my wife and I started watching Person of Interest this fall, first with the S1 discs, then starting S2 after about 8 episodes had already run, so we were watching about three episodes a week for quite a while there. It’s a fun and satisfying way to watch, and I think cliffhangers are more likely to make think “oh boy, what will they do now..” As opposed to the more common television reaction of mine to a cliffie before a break: “oh brother, let’s just delete this…” I continue to think that serialized television story telling is often manipulative and cliched. I think I’ve quit more shows in disgust than I’ve actually watched through to the end. But I will admit for those few shows that satisfy to the end; there is great potential for telling more involved stories and developing deep characters.

    I would question some of the data and conclusions about top ten movies. In a given week, three to five movies are typically released. And normally no more than one is a big budget film. That the top ten movies of the year most often come from those 20 or so big budget movies is hardly surprising. In the last three months I have watched small, medium and big budget movies at the theater. All types of movies and genres are alive and well. The big block busters may get the lion’s share of attention, but again, I hardly find that surprising. And for now, it’s those big block busters with big stunt and effect budgets that can do things that take full advantage of the big screen and theater setting. Maybe if we all upgrade our 50 inch TVs to 300 inch that will change. But I think a whole wall television system will be another generation away for MOST households. So big, effects driven extravaganzas will remain something uniquely special about the theater for a while.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Dave, the trend towards big budget franchises at the expense of the mid-budget comedies and dramas isn’t something I came up with. It is the well documented shift in the business strategies of the 6 biggest Hollywood studios (Paramount, Warner Brothers, Sony, Disney, Universal and 20th Century Fox) that dominate movie making. Yes, smaller budget pictures continue to be made, but not in the numbers they used to be. As the budgets of the big films have grown they have put more pressure on the mid-budget films to find a “sure thing”. That is one reason why there are so many re-makes and adaptations. You can read about it here, here, or here in addition to my other links and Sepinwall’s book

      • atcDave says:

        I’ve read about it Ernie, but I think the data is very misleading. A big thing is that they look mostly at major studios, which have indeed focused on a smaller number of bigger budget films, and they are recycling a lot of franchises (basically taking fewer chances with those big budgets). But there has been an explosion in independent and new smaller studios that have filled much of the gap (three new studios have started here in Michigan in the last three years). The total number of new releases, at every budget point, is not significantly different from 30 years ago (maybe a 10% drop in total number of new films per year coming to a theater near you…). And I actually find myself going to the theater far more often than I was ten years ago, although not as often as 30 years ago.
        I think the professional critics, like people in every walk of life, are longing for a “good old days” that never really quite existed. And I know, based on previews and advertised coming attractions, my wife and I are looking forward to more movies this year than we have in a long time. In many ways, I would call this a golden age, with creative fantasy subjects and serious historical pieces being done with amazing technical competence and sophistication. And yes, that includes areas like screenplay and acting. I do wish comedies were less vulgar, but sadly that reflects contemporary society and I’m very pleased with the state of most other genres.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Dave, what you say is true, there are opportunities for small studios, but the big six control 85% of the market, and their shift away from the medium budget movies is bound to affect the opportunities available for most film makers.

        Imagine if Detroit’s big three plus Toyota, Honda and Volkswagen all decided to stop producing compact cars. There would still be compact cars, but your ability to get one would suffer.

        Yes, there are still mid-budget movies made, and yes, their quality has likely increased due to the increased competition among scripts, but from the creative community’s standpoint the competition to get one of those $20-50 million production deals from any studio has increased to the point where TV, especially cable, is a much more attractive option. From your standpoint as a consumer it’s a pure win since only the best stuff gets made, but from the standpoint of the writer, there are a lot less opportunities out there to get your movie made.

      • atcDave says:

        Okay it’s possible those “missing movies” are things I never would have missed anyway. But as you said, for me it’s all win, I’m not going to get too concerned at a decrease in movies I wouldn’t watch anyway!

        Oh and also, I’m not sure about the impact on Hollywood, but in Michigan we briefly saw several thousand new jobs in the movie industry a couple years back, it has shrunk back some due to changes in state tax law, but the movie industry in Michigan is still absolutely bigger than it was a decade ago. And that means there still clearly are opportunities for new people learning the trade.

      • There was an interesting article where someone said Kramer vs Kramer and Terms of Endearment could not get made today. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs. This has driven so many talented writers and actors to cable television in recent years.

        I’d argue it’s actually much harder to get an Emmy nomination (for drama) than to get an Oscar nod these days. Jonah Hill got an Oscar nomination last year. But would a performance of that level get an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor in a drama series? Doubt it.

      • atcDave says:

        Keep in mind any comments about what could or could not get made today are pure speculation, likely from some screen writer who just got rejected by a studio or some critic who disliked the last movie he paid for…

        And Jenny you’re criticizing someone nominated in comedy?! Who got the Emmys for comedy last year? Television is no better off.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Jonah Hill was nominated for best supporting actor for Moneyball. I saw it. It was a good performance, but didn’t seem particularly Oscarworthy. I also think the Emmy’s are a bigger deal nowadays that they were 20 years ago.

        I like the fact that the Emmy’s has categories for actors in both comedy and drama whereas as Dave alludes to, comedy is the red headed step child at the Oscars.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah no doubt the Emmys are bigger now than they used to be. Ernie we grew up with three networks! Times have changed, I’ll agree television has improved a lot in some ways, and certainly the pure volume of quality programming is a lot greater than it was 40+ years ago!

      • Ernie Davis says:

        We had 5 TV stations growing up. The big three, a local independent UHF and a PBS station.

        When we switched to cable I couldn’t imagine having nearly 30 stations to watch.

        Now I have several hundred I think, and I pretty much only watch about 4 or 5 of them.

  4. FSL says:

    It is interesting you mention Heroes. On a rapid rewatch, Chuck holds up my attention so much better. It is focused, and the painful season 3 goes by much better because instead of months, it’s over in a few days. And you really see the build up of the plot. But with Heroes, it is as if there were so many characters involved that there is no connection. The faster it goes, the more messy it gets.

    Chuck’s special =)

    • Ernie Davis says:

      I eventually opted out late in season 2 or between 2 and 3 because of that messiness, but I remember loving that first season. Who knows, if season 2 had been better I might have checked out Chuck sooner.

  5. resaw says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ernie. The truth is, I get by on the most basic of basic cable available here in southwestern Ontario, and that does not include channels like HBO and equivalent. Although the internet does provide alternative sources, for the most part I get by on network TV.

    Speaking of Heroes, I really enjoyed the first season, but basically hung on for the remainder because I wanted to see where it would go. I’ve never felt a need to go back and re-watch any of it, however, which is very unlike my experience with Chuck.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      I keep thinking that I should go back and finish it up, but I prefer to re-watch an episode of Chuck rather than slog through what I understand became an oppressively dark season 3.

  6. mr2686 says:

    I’m right in the middle of a rapid 1st watch of Heroes first season and find it very good, and actually feel it’s probably easier to keep up with all of the characters with a rapid watch than a once a week trek through the story. I’ll be interested to see my opinion of seasons 2-4 since many people feel it went down hill.
    As for the whole wall TV’s, I agree that they’re a generation away for the average household, but the 70-80in are here now (I just upgraded from 50 to 70 and it makes a BIG difference) and the 90’s will be very affordable within a couple of years.

    • atcDave says:

      They do keep getting bigger! And of course, its possible with a projector to cover a whole wall now. But quality HD projectors cost serious money, and we’re probably waiting for 4x technology (or better…) at a price point below 2 grand before a home theater experience can really compete with a commercial DLP system. THAT will be a while…

    • Wilf says:

      Cor, makes me feel inadequate with my 15 inch portable 😉

  7. mr2686 says:

    Before purchasing my TV, I spent a lot on the AVS forum for reviews etc, and it sure seems like people not only love a LARGE tv but they like to sit as close as possible. My eyes can’t quite handle that and prefer to sit back a bit.

    • atcDave says:

      I like pretty close, I like the theatrical experience of filling periphery for a more immersive experience. But the big limitation is resolution. 1080i and even 1080p start to break down before you can really dive right in to the picture. I saw a demo of 4x a little while ago (4 times the resolution of 1080p) and it looks very promising, razor sharp picture that fills your field of view. But right now there’s no consumer source material for it. And I think there are huge economic obstacles, like everyone has bought new HD flat screens in the last five years and it will be a while before people are ready for the next thing. But I expect in a decade or so very exciting things will be happening with display technology.

  8. Ernie Davis says:

    One of the reasons this has been on my mind lately is that Netflix is releasing their high profile original drama House of Cards in its entirety today. Interestingly, while Netflix obviously will have the ability to see how often it is watched, there are no plans to release the numbers, leading critics to ask, how will we know if it’s a hit?

    I think this could be a very good thing for entertainment. Go for quality and long term success as opposed to having to find an audience big enough to sustain you right out of the gate.

    • atcDave says:

      Although it might lead to some frustrations if it makes decision making more opaque. But basically I’d call it a good thing if shows can be judged on more direct market forces (like sales and pay per view) as opposed to being filtered through ratings and advertisers.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        For fans I could see that as being the case. We all seem to “get” that TV networks need to cancel low rated series because of the limited prime-time available. Cable is a little nicer since they have more space and fewer shows in general. Netflix committed to two “seasons” up front. So I could see this go both good and bad. The good is it’s more predictable. The bad fans are going to feel pretty entitled to get the show they pay for, making creative decisions likely to cause a lot of turmoil when unpopular.

        One downside, if you burn through one of Netflix’s “seasons” really fast it will take forever for new episodes to come out. At least with Chuck we only had to wait weeks or months.

      • atcDave says:

        It could make it more like waiting for a movie (as in a year or more break). Makes me laugh how grumpy my wife is getting over the wait for the next chapter of Hobbit. I mean, we’ve both read the book and can guess generally what the movie will be, it’s not even going to be a big unknown like something original! It would be nice if they could skip that whole messy production phase and get right to delivery…

      • Ernie Davis says:

        The Hobbit is one that could tempt me back into the theater, but the fact that they’re breaking it into 3 parts has me thinking I’ll wait for the special extended directors cut blu-ray.

      • atcDave says:

        Well you know I love the theater experience, the huge screen, well rendered 3-D, and floor shaking sound (okay, I can do that part at home…)

        But I’m really eager for extended cuts too. Great thing about being sick last month was watching the whole long version of The Lord of the Rings. It’s like a single 11 hour long movie. What a blast! I really do look forward to a longer Hobbit too; I love the source material and its obvious Peter Jackson does too. And it’s an excellent case study for the thesis “critics are idiots”. Just an awesome movie.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Well tell her to take heart, all three are scheduled to release by 2014. It’s not like the 80’s where we had to wait 3 years to get Han out of the carbonite.

      • atcDave says:

        That’s what I keep saying!

      • JoeBuckley says:

        Um, let me second what you guys are saying about LOTR. I really could make a Frodo marathon into a Christmas time habit. Uh, hobbit. No, habit.

        But I’m not sure that even The Hobbit is going to be enough to drag me to a theater these days. My home-theater system isn’t quite up to your standards, I’m sure, but it’s enough to keep me home (so long as I have a cup of cocoa in my hands. Make that vodka). 😉

      • ChuckFanForever says:

        Reminds me of a former colleague who avoided the 3 LOTR movies individually and waited until the theaters had a LOTR night, watching all 3 consecutively like Dave just did. Now I’m wondering if he didn’t wait long enough because The Hobbit should be watched first. 😉

  9. Very insightful article,Ernie.This is why you are a writer and I am an advocate.I would never try to compete with you!!!

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Thanks Graham. I haven’t done much more than comment here for quite some time. It felt good to get back into it.

  10. Ernie Davis says:

    Update! I realized I’d forgotten to link to the previous two pieces I’ve done on this topic. Links were added in the main body, or you can see me declare network TV dead here or go here to read why Netflix will save Chuck.

  11. Pingback: Keep The Dream Alive | Chuck This

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