TV-as-novel: In defense of long-form video storytelling

Oh. Right. I have a blog here. :)

Been neglecting this because I was so burned out on media/journalism stuff that I needed to not think about it in a meta way for a while. However, there are several topics along those lines percolating in my head these days, so expect a few new posts this week. Aren’t you lucky?

Topic #1 comes from a post at the AV Club (whose TV editor is a friend) about how The Sopranos supposedly harmed TV because it pioneered the idea of long-form storytelling, instead of self-contained episodes.


OK, so there’s a point to be had there, but one of the things I think he’s missing is that TV entertainment doesn’t have to be a single format. There have always been shows that are little more than a string of boilerplate bottle episodes, and always things like mini-series, that are intended to be video novels/novellas. That we’ve had considerably more of the former than the latter in the last 20 years is mostly a matter of changing American viewing habits, and not the relative validity of the latter form. And I think that the author of that piece may be assuming that because the former has been so common that anything that tends toward the latter is somehow violating some hardcore rule of what TV is supposed to be.

I completely disagree.

First off, I will say that there are some shows that don’t seem to understand what format they really are, and in trying to be something else, end up falling over. In the wake of the long-form storytelling of Lost (which was quite successful as a decompressed narrative) a lot of shows thought they could be successful with the same format. Only … they missed what Lost was really so good at: character development. True that some people got hooked on the mystery aspect and thought that’s what they were watching (and ended up dropping out midway through season 3, when their questions weren’t sufficiently answered) but most everyone else who stuck with it was watching to see what happened to the characters on a personal level.

With something like Flash Forward, the problem wasn’t that it was a decompressed narrative. The problem was that it didn’t have compelling central characters. By the time it got someone interesting–Simon–it was too late. (Side note: here I reiterate my desire for someone to write something co-starring Sonya Walger and James Callis. Their scenes together late in Flash Forward’s run were the highlight of that show.)

Unfortunately, what people seem to be taking away from that show’s failure (and the failure of many other shows in this format) is that decompressed storytelling is incompatible with TV. And that, in my opinion, simply isn’t the case.

Before I get too far into that, though, let me back up and talk about how storytelling is structured across different media–and why.

Sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale …  

Most entertainment consumers are familiar with several different storytelling formats and methods. From a simple story told in a pop song to a massive opera like the Ring Cycle, music, for instance, can span an incredible range of format types and lengths. Text can tell us stories in the few lines of a poem or an epic series that’s going on about 6,000 pages (see: A Song of Ice and Fire.)  And there are, of course, works of varying lengths in between those extremes as well, most of which generally have a good-sized audience that appreciates them.

Video entertainment, however, has had a hard time really selling varying format lengths, and most of that has to do with how restricted their distribution channels have been. Pop music has some of the same restrictions, of course–it wasn’t that long ago that songs were supposed to be around three minutes in order to get radio play–but in a broader sense, music has had far more avenues for distribution, and thus musicians generally have a lot more flexibility in exactly how they’re going to tell their stories. Video, up until very recently, simply hasn’t had that, because distribution methods for filmed entertainment had such high barriers to entry that only a rare few distributors were able to do so. The high cost of doing video distribution also meant that experimentation wasn’t an option, so those few distributors who were doing it quickly narrowed down the exact format that was making them the most money, and stuck with it. That virtual monopoly then completely restricted exactly what video entertainment was getting produced in the first place.

Movies, for instance, generally come in two lengths: short films of less than 15-20 minutes, or the standard 2-3 hour movie. On rare occasions, you’ll see a single story told in more than one movie (as opposed to sequels/prequels that have self-contained stories told in the same universe), but each part of that story still tends to be within that length.

The biggest reason for this is that most movies are aired in theaters, and theater owners need consistent runtimes in order to sell tickets. Short films aren’t aired by themselves, but as part of festivals or collections, and standard-length films need to run a certain number of times each day in order for ticket sales to add up. This is part of why very long films like the extended versions of each film in the LOTR triliogy just never make it into theaters. When you can only have, say, six showings per day instead of eight, you end up losing money, even if you’re filling the theater each time. So the director has to get back into the editing room, and hack it down to less than three hours to get the studio to accept it.

The same problem plagues TV. Because the standard model for short-form video entertainment distribution is through live-airing TV channels, anything that doesn’t fit the standard half-hour or hour* format just isn’t going to get aired. The networks wouldn’t know how to schedule or promote anything that was different. Occasionally, you’ll get made-for-TV movies, and, even rarer, miniseries, but even then the format tends to fit the formula: each act broken into the standard lengths, with scene breaks where ads will go. Plus, each act is usually aired in quick succession, with a maxiumum of maybe four nights in a row to tell the story. A multi-episode self-contained story told in, say, 10 weekly installments? Virtually unheard of.

And yet … this is pretty much exactly what HBO has done with Game of Thrones. They do, of course, have the advantage of being subscription-based, and therefore they don’t have to cater to the rhythms of commercials. They also tend to be a little bit fast and loose with how they define a TV season. But yes, their 10-episode construction of the first installment of this series is definitely an unusual format.

For US audiences, that is.

UK audiences, on the other hand, are perfectly used to short series. Downton Abbey? Six episodes plus the Christmas special. Sherlock? Three 90-minute episodes. Each episode tells a bit of a self-contained story, but the real meat of the story arc in each series of these shows is played out over the entirety of the series, which are only a fraction of the length of an average US show’s season.

Some of this can be credited to the BBC, with its fee-based production-funding model. Ratings still matter in terms of what they produce, but as a publicly owned network aimed at arts, educational and information programming, they can be a lot more flexible with the formats of what they air. But it’s not just the BBC. ITV, for instance, produces Downton, and it’s a commercial-supported channel, just like US networks.

So what is it that’s really standing in the way of more US works being daring, like HBO, and going for shows that are intended for self-contained, multi-episode story arcs?

My guess? American viewers, and the habits we’ve created around how we consume TV.


There’s a reason it’s called the boob tube

Going to a movie is an event for most people. It involves finding the time and energy to go out, fight crowds, get a seat, etc. And with so much more-or-less free entertainment at home these days, that means a movie has to be a big deal for people to want to see it in a theater. Thus, the two types of films that usually do well there: big blockbusters that are much more fun on a huge screen with a crowd, and high-quality artsy dramas that make one feel smarter or more sophisticated for having seen them.

TV, on the other hand? That’s what people plop down in front of after a hard day’s work. It requires virtually no effort and pre-planning, save perhaps programming a DVR or otherwise knowing when the show you like will be on. Thinking requires effort, and when all you want is generally pleasurable Id stimulation, you don’t want to think. So simple stories, told in a simple way, with easily relatable characters tend to win the day on TV. That kind of frankly mindless entertainment is what most TV audiences want, so it’s what most get.

This isn’t a value judgment. There’s nothing wrong with consuming junk food in moderation, and that goes for entertainment, too. Not every moment of entertainment has to be a life-changing experience, and there is, actually, quite a lot of value in the sheer stress relief of turning off one’s higher brain functions and giving in to what the lizard wants. Given modern life, it makes sense that most people would consume most TV this way.

But, just because this is how the majority of TV is consumed doesn’t mean that’s how all TV can or should be consumed. Even viewers who veg out during the week in front of cookie-cutter reality shows or procedurals can, when they have the bandwidth, appreciate something meatier. And with 500 channels to choose from, clearly there must be some option for finding these meatier shows.

And–cue fanfare–there is: premium channels. HBO, Showtime and their younger cousins deliberately make something different than what you’d see on commercial networks, because audiences know that’s where they can, and should, go to get that different stuff. Implying that they should change how they do things, and take fewer risks in terms of content, format, series length or anything else just because that’s not how the networks do it is entirely missing the point. One may as well argue that opera companies should be running pop concerts just because that’s what the majority of music consumers want for their day-to-day musical experiences.

Now, it may be true that some of the networks have decided to ape what the premiums are doing and go with formats or content that are actually unsuitable for them. But that’s not the fault of the premiums any more than it’s the fault of opera singers that some nitwit is pushing her 11-year-old to sing arias her voice isn’t ready for.

Truly, given how much sameness there is on our 500 channels, and how bound short-form video entertainment is to a ratings/funding model that was outdated in the Carboniferous era, we should be encouraging more experimentation, not less. Will some of these experiments flop? Oh, most certainly. But sometimes we’ll get some truly magical stuff out of it, too. It would be a pity if something as awesome as Game of Thrones never happened because HBO felt bound to do a 24-episode September-May model for every single series they ran. It would definitely be a damned shame if a show like Battlestar Galactica, which managed to pull off the high-level architecture of an umbrella plot that truly spanned its entirety, were never made because all TV is supposed to be purely episodic.

Fortunately, I think very few people on the creative side of TV these days feel entirely bound to such notions. The rise of time-, location- and device-shifted viewing is shaking things up considerably in the distribution world, and I think that’s going to translate into a lot more experimentation across all production. And as a TV consumer who likes both brain candy and some truly sublime gourmet video, I couldn’t be happier.


*Technically, usually 20/40 minutes, to account for ad breaks.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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