DAFOTV, part VII: By Your Command

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Last time we looked at the changes in technology related to television in the 90’s and early 2000’s.  The sum total of these changes gave us much more control over what we watched.  This in turn had effects on the content itself.  How did this happen, exactly?  Read on.

The first increases in control were cable TV (more different channels serving more niche interests) and home video (VHS).  With the first, the content was still provider-driven–you had more channels, but each one decided what it was going to air.  The second gave more control–you could watch a video anywhere, anytime–but the content was even more limited.  This followed from the mechanism itself.

A VHS tape is relatively large and clunky.  It can record up to six hours of material, but at the speed that gives optimal picture quality and resolution, it can store only two hours.  This is the perfect length for most movies, but it is not good for TV series.  A VHS tape could hold two hour-long episodes (typical for dramas) or four half-hour episodes (as with sitcoms) at optimal resolution.  This means that a typical 22 episode season would require eleven tapes for an hour-long drama, or six for a half-hour sitcom.  A single season, therefore, would fill up nearly one entire row of a media center stand.  For long-running series, one’s available space would fill up rapidly.  Sufficiently avid videophiles could tape episodes themselves, but for most of us it’s not worth the effort.

DVD’s changed all that.  A box set of disks taking up no more space than a single VHS tape could hold an entire season of episodes.  There was thus born a incentive to start releasing not just movies but television series, both classic and contemporary, on the home video market.  Meanwhile, as streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon became established, entire series were  made available for streaming.  This completely obviated storage concerns altogether.  You didn’t even need disks now–as long as you had an Internet connection, a TV, and a streamer such as a Roku, a Wii, or some such, you could watch any episode of any season of any available series any time you wanted without having to figure out where to store the new box set.

This instant availability had profound effects on how we watched TV.  First, it freed us from the networks’ schedule.  If I could use TiVo or a DVR to record a show to watch for later, or wait a few days and watch it at my convenience on Hulu, or (for the more patient) just buy or stream the season either piecemeal or all at once via DVD or streaming, why should I worry about clearing my schedule for an actual time slot?  Instead of a nation all sitting in front of the tube at eight o’clock in anticipation of a beloved show, everyone began to watch their favorites whenever they felt like it.

Second, watching TV became, in a subtle way, more like reading a book.  In the old days, once the episode had aired, that was it.  You might see it again in the summer as a rerun; and when the show went into syndication, you might see it again (in some cases, again and again and again) in the afternoons or late at night or on weekends on local stations.  Even then, you could see it only when it aired, and could not rewind it or study it in detail (unless you taped it–but this wasn’t possible until the 80’s).  In short, each episode (as well as the series itself) was ephemeral, viewed and then gone.  Unlike a book, in which one can flip back a page to clarify a strange passage, go back to earlier chapters, or even cheat by flipping ahead, a TV series aired as is and then vanished into the ether.

With DVD’s and streaming, though, one can “flip” back and forth.  One can run a scene back a dozen times.  One can go back to the beginning of the season to get a handle on a reference in the last episode.  One can even cheat by watching the season finale first.  There is full control–the series is as much at your command as a book (or a Cylon!).  Further, this control allows one to catch and to ponder minute details that would otherwise be missed.  Most importantly, one can see the development of the plot, writing, and acting over the course of time in a way not possible previously.  In the old days, I might not remember how Alan Alda interpreted Hawkeye Pierce in season one of M*A*S*H* if I’m watching a fifth-season episode and thus have no standard for comparison.  With DVD’s or streaming, I can go right to Season One and have a look for myself.

In short, instead of the basic viewing unit of TV being the individual episode, as had previously been the case, the unit had now become the entire series.  The logic of this was that there was now pressure for TV to become less–well, episodic.  In short, if a series is just a series of more or less disconnected episodes which, aside from having the same premise and same characters, have no real relationship with each other, now that I control my time (I can watch anything whenever I want), why should I spend my effort and money to buy or stream series over time instead of just watching an interesting episode here and there when I feel like it, or doing something else altogether?

This had profound implications for producers as they struggled to develop series that could hold viewers’ interests and thereby make money.  We’ll look at these implications next time.

Posted on 19/12/2013, in Entertainment, society, television and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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