The next revolution will be a streaming download.
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
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
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
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
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